Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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Fifty-four for five.
Manoj Tiwary is batting with an injured right cartilage. He is struggling to sprint but is willing himself to survive. Bengal's Ranji Trophy campaign is on the line. They are trying to enter their second straight final, but the top order has been blown away after Madhya Pradesh's 341. A huge first-innings lead could mean curtains.
A delayed start, a moisture-laden surface, overcast conditions and stiff breeze - everything points to the fast bowlers having a massive role to play early on. MP medium-pacer Puneet Datey certainly thinks that way as he sends down a few deliveries on the side pitch during changeover. To the surprise of many, Bengal most certainly, let-arm spinner Kumar Kartikeya is handed the ball.
You saw him bowl the carrom ball, the slider, his wristspin, googly and quicker one - left-arm everything - in his maiden IPL season for Mumbai Indians. In red-ball cricket, he sticks to his left-arm orthodox, and boy, he bowls them with immaculate control. In his very first over, he nips out two big wickets.
Left-hand batter Abhishek Raman is beaten by sharp turn. He shapes to cut but sees it wickedly spinning in and tries to bail out. That split-second indecision costs him because that's all it takes for the ball to roll back onto the stumps off the inside edge. Sudip Kumar Gharami, fresh off a career-best 186 in the quarter-final against Jharkhand, is squared up as the ball rips across the surface and whizzes past the edge to knock his stumps.
After 105.3 overs on the field, Tiwary may have hoped for some time to rest his aching knees, but even before he could imagine, he is in the heat of the battle. There are five fielders around him - slip, short leg, silly point, short cover and short midwicket. It's game on.
Tiwary takes guard at 11 for 3 in the fourth over, surveys the field carefully and quickly gets down on one knee to paddle his first ball for four past short fine leg. In the same over, he reverses Saransh Jain for two more boundaries - wrists nicely rolled over the ball to keep it down and send it scurrying behind point. This is a calculated tactic of throwing the offspinner off gear.
The idea was perhaps to have Tiwary stretching. In reverse sweeping him, Tiwary has immediately given the bowlers something to think about. It helps that there is Abhimanyu Easwaran at the other end, but he falls soon after to become the fourth wicket when Datey, introduced in the ninth over, nicks him off for 22. When Abishek Porel, the young teenaged wicketkeeper, flicks a length ball to the deep square leg fielder, the Bengal dressing room appears resigned to fate.
Yet again, it was down to Tiwary to do the dirty job. Or so you thought. Except, there was Shahbaz Ahmed coming in. An orthodox left-hand middle order batter who goes to any length to remind people he is first a batter and then a left-arm spinner. While bowling isn't an afterthought, he admits to being work in progress, never mind the three wickets he picked up in the first innings. Never mind the 35 wickets he picked in the 2019-20 Ranji Trophy.
Four years ago, Tiwary watched Shahbaz bat in a league game at the Kalighat Club grounds and asked for his stats. At the selection meeting the next day, to pick the squad for 2018-19 season, Tiwary carried a printout that had Shahbaz's numbers in club cricket. Tiwary wouldn't have even an inkling of the opposition he was to face from certain quarters, because the boy was an "outsider."
"Then I'm an outsider, too," he is believed to have said, pointing to his Uttar Pradesh roots. Tiwary eventually had his way. A senior player fighting for a talented rookie and shielding him from the scrutiny - which he was getting for no fault of his - told you how much he was valued.
It's this early promise that Shahbaz carried with him then that he is slowly repaying now. The Shahbaz of today is a more confident individual who understands his game better. He has already graduated to become an important member of the set-up within three years of his debut, and the confidence of three IPL stints with Royal Challengers Bangalore only shining bright.
Here, Tiwary and Shahbaz had a job to do. They were the last recognised pair. They couldn't have gone hard because of the inherent risk of losing a wicket and exposing the lower order with a massive deficit. They couldn't have just blocked out the bowling, because of the time left in the game. They chose the in-between route and along the way, kept reeling off runs every time the bowlers erred.
As tea approached, MP went flat, and Tiwary brought out a neat shuffle from middle to off and reached out to meet half-volleys that he caressed through covers and down the ground. It didn't occur to him until after he played the shot that this is the very position he wasn't entirely comfortable getting into because of his injury. He was batting on instinct.
Tiwary got to his half-century off 121 balls; Shahbaz got there a tad faster, off 108. By the time they got to their individual landmarks, the century stand had been raised and the deficit had been whittled down to 144. Tiwary was unbeaten on 84; Shahbaz on 72. As they walked off, tired, and very satisfied, overcast skies had given way to bright sunshine and Bengal's hopes had brightened significantly. There was still a glimmer of hope. The Ranji Trophy dream was alive.