A fluent hundred by Sridharan Sriram and able supporting roles by Yuvraj Singh and Mohd.Kaif lifted National Cricket Academy to a position of strength at the end of the first day of the MRF-Buchi Babu tournament final in Chennai today. Squaring off against Oil and Natural Gas Corporation on a good batting track at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, NCA closed at 360/6 in 95 overs. Sriram was the main protagonist in this run glut on a familiar hunting ground for him, making full amends for some indifferent form in earlier games.
In the morning, NCA won the toss and chose to take first strike, sporting the same XI that outplayed Indian Airlines in the semifinals. ONGC made one change replacing the disappointing Feroze Ghyas with fellow seamer Sandeep Sharma and also installed Gagan Khoda as skipper in place of Gautam Vadehra. Shiv Sunder Das, who'd made 94 and 184 in his first two innings in this tournament, missed out this time. In the tenth over of the day, he shouldered arms to a Bhandari breakback and was adjudged leg before for 14. Yuvraj Singh, fresh from a rollicking century in his last game, looked to be carrying off in the same vein. In typical fashion, he stroked his first delivery wide of mid off for four.
Meeting the ball off the middle straightaway, Yuvraj picked Sharma for two more fours, each timed to a nicety, in the next over. Khoda decided to bring on offspinner Virender Shewag in the 14th over of the innings and Yuvraj's retort was swift as he smote the bowler straight down the ground, into the first tier of the stands, for the biggest hit of the day. Rahul Sanghvi, who took seven wickets in the semifinal win over New Zealand Academy, now appeared in the attack. Sriram had a letoff at this point when wicketkeeper Dogra failed to collect a sharp chance as the batsman reached tentatively outside off stump.
Sriram never looked back from this point, making his intentions singularly clear by striking three consecutive boundaries off the hapless Shewag. Yuvraj had perceptibly dropped anchor, content to loaf around at the wicket and concede the centre stage to Sriram. The Tamil Nadu opener reached his 50 off 79 balls, and Yuvraj followed suit off 58 balls shortly before lunch. NCA went into lunch at 149/1 off 37 overs, looking good to reach 450 before the day was out at the rate they were going.
At 175, Yuvraj playing well away from his body to the persistent Bhandari, got an inside edge to Dogra. His 71 had consumed 87 balls and the partnership with Sriram had terminated on 149. Mohd. Kaif looked as polished and dapper as ever in his strokemaking. Although generally a very correct batsman, he was impudent enough to hoist Shewag into the stands at midwicket, the ball clearing the barbed wire fence and causing a slight stoppage in play. A Kaif straight drive brought up the 200 and shortly after, Sriram posted his individual 100 off the 147th ball he faced - Shewag bowling a full toss on leg which the batsman just helped on its way to the fineleg boundary. The fielding went ragged under the sweltering midday heat, several misfields abounding.
At tea, NCA were 253/2 from 63 overs, and while the run rate had dropped, it was still a magnificent springboard for the middle order. Shortly after the break, Sriram (130, 189 balls, 20 fours) tried to sweep a ball fine but it lobbed up and the keeper held it on his second attempt. Delhi lefthander Gautam Gambhir square drove his first delivery through the covers for four and he was looking good for many more, showing fine touch and always looking to get a move on. Having made 27, he stepped out to Shewag but didn't get fully to the pitch of the ball and drove it straight back to the bowler.
Reetinder Sodhi wended his way to the crease at 305/4 and although the Punjab allrounder had made 71 in the semifinal, suggesting he'd turned the corner after three previous scores of 0, 0 and 1 for NCA, it was a false dawn. A lofted drive off Sanghvi failed to clear Rizwan Shamshad at midoff and it was curtains for the NCA skipper. Keeper Rohit Jhalani rode his luck, being dropped by Sanghvi at fineleg off Shewag after topedging an intended sweep. Next ball, with first slip standing a shade too wide, Jhalani streaked the ball through the gap for a boundary.
With five balls left in the day, the new ball was belatedly summoned for by skipper Khoda, 15 overs behind schedule, and Bhandari knocked out Jhalani's off stump as the batsman went for an airy drive. Kaif, who'd been warned earlier for running onto the wicket, was still unconquered on 81 (151 balls, 8 fours, 1 six) and on him rest NCA's hopes of putting this contest beyond the reach of their opponents tomorrow.