Three plucky half-centuries helped India Red seal a spot in the final of the Challenger Series, wrapping up the final league game by a comfortable 39-run margin. For the second time in as many days, the India Green batsmen struggled while chasing a big total under lights and went out of the tournament without making too much of an impact.
Sourav Ganguly, the focus of all the attention, failed yet again but it was the lesser names that stole the bulk of the attention. While Gautam Gambhir continued his fine run and Robin Uthappa showed how adept he is at building an innings, it was the audacious Dinesh Karthik who dazzled for most of the first innings. Parthiv Patel battled briefly, and the tailenders swung their bats in the dying moments but, with the pitch helping spin and bounce, VRV Singh and Ramesh Powar sealed the issue.
The India Red openers might have set the pace but it was Karthik, brimming with cheek, who stood out. Coming in at No.3, he consolidated a solid start, nudging singles and twos, before launching a thrilling assault. First came the lap shots - reminiscent of Douglas Marillier's trademark scoop - then the sweeps - both conventional and reverse - and finally, when all one expected was improvisation, he went back the traditional route and punched down the ground. It was in the same venue, his home turf, that he shot into the national limelight two years ago and this innings would surely provide a fillip for his comeback bid. He was also instrumental in making a hash of Lakshmipathy Balaji's figures, who'd begun accurately but soon had no answers to the unorthodox methods.
While it was a sight to see Karthik hurrying between the wickets, despite the sweltering weather, another batsman, not for the first time, struggled with cramps. Uthappa continued his penchant for doing well in the Challenger Series - he shot into the limelight after a blistering hundred in last year's edition - and, barring the dehydration factor, looked in control. He picked his shots cleverly and chipped away with singles in between meaty boundaries. He launched into Chawla in the 25th over, biffing two massive sixes, allowing India Red to reach an exact 150 at the halfway stage.
The other half-centurion wouldn't have managed much without large dollops of fortune. Coming off the back of a fine hundred in the tournament opener, Gambhir capitalised on a dropped chance from Patel, the wicketkeeper, and was lucky to survive a perilous appeal for lbw against Piyush Chawla. Yet, he rode his luck, slapping crisp drives when offered width, and occasionally unfurled some emphatic strokeplay.
India Green were jolted early. The bowler who caused most problems for them was Sreesanth, who, ironically, has been left out of India's Champions Trophy squad. He generated disconcerting pace and didn't hesitate to slip in the odd bouncer, running in with characteristic aggression and hustling the batsmen. He struck a big blow in his second over, nailing Ganguly with an incisive straighter one that kissed the inside edge and rocked leg stump. Unlike Zaheer Khan, who bowled impressively but was unlucky to be taken for runs, Sreesanth kept his economy-rate down and accounted for Wasim Jaffer when he tried to break the shackles.
Praveen Kumar, sent in as a pinch-hitter, neither pinched nor hit and it was only because of Patel that India Green stayed on with a faint chance. He was let off on 21, when Sreesanth grassed a simple chance at fine leg, but battled on with an attractive mix of slashes and drives. The spinners, though, have come into their own in this tournament, especially when teams bowl second. Powar, not wearing his snazzy goggles but still looping it deliciously, generated grip and dip while Murali Kartik, not tossing it up that much but wearing his set of shades, frustrated with his control.
Chawla and Mithun Manhas blasted 71 for the eighth wicket but by then India Red had decided to try out a few part-timers, allowing their main bowlers to take a rest ahead of tomorrow's final. Chawla's half century, with five fours and two blistering sixes, gave them the faintest of hopes but VRV Singh returned, generated pace and bounce, and was rewarded with four wickets at the end of the day.
How they were out
Robin Uthappa retired hurt 81
Went off the field after cramping up
Gautam Gambhir c Kaif b Chawla 75 (177 for 1)
Down the track and whipped to short midwicket
Rohit Sharma c Manhas b Kumar 26 (254 for 2)
Tries to pull, leading edge flies to third man
Robin Uthappa c Kaif b Balaji 92 (303 for 3)
Inside out loft taken smartly at deep extra cover
Dinesh Karthik c Patel b Balaji 85 (306 for 4)
Tries to angle it to third man, edges to the keeper
Sourav Ganguly b Sreesanth 3 (10 for 1)
Rooted to the crease and jabs at a straight one; plays on
Wasim Jaffer c Karthik b Sreesanth 23 (53 for 2)
Down the track but edges to the keeper
Praveen Kumar c Kartik b VRV Singh 9 (69 for 3)
Backed away and edged a bouncer to first slip
Mohammad Kaif b Powar 34 (138 for 4)
Beaten in the flight trying to pull a shorter one
Suresh Raina c Sharma b Kartik 1 (139 for 5)
Pulled a long hop straight to short fine leg
Parthiv Patel c Sharma b Powar 69 (169 for 6)
Slaps a lofted drive straight to long-off
Hemang Badani c Sharma b Powar 18 (178 for 7)
Misses the dip of the ball and holes out to long-on
Mithun Manhas c Kartik b VRV Singh 34 (249 for 8)
Walked across the stumps and lobs an easy catch to short midwicket
Lakshmipathy Balaji c Sreesanth b Zaheer 9 (278 for 9)
Shuffles across the stumps and swivels a full toss straight to fine leg
Ashish Nehra b VRV Singh 0 (278 all out)
Yorked. Middle stump out of the ground