As the North Zone players dumped their bags in the taxi and left for the airport, the Central players did not seem to be in a hurry to fly back home. Despite wrapping up the match almost an hour earlier, the Central dressing room was still buzzing with activity. With the Central team through to the final on the basis of their first innings lead against North, the players seemed to be enjoying the moment.
The team had another reason to cheer because they were also celebrating second innings centurion Mahesh Rawat’s 29th birthday. It was Rawat’s gritty century on the dramatic and gripping final day that ensured Central progressed. The North bowlers made a stunning comeback after conceding a 81-run first innings lead to Central.
The lead provided Central with a cushion and with just three sessions to go they would have believed that they had one foot in the final. But overcast conditions at the PCA Stadium in Mohali on the fourth morning were bowler friendly and soon the North Zone team would have seen a ray of hope.
Rishi Dhawan and Parvinder Awana were right on the money from the start. The medium pace combination moved the ball in the air to leave the top three Central Zone batsmen in all sorts of trouble. It was Dhawan who pulled North back into the match.
Off the fourth ball of his opening over, he trapped opener Faiz Fazal in front as the ball moved in sharply and kept low. First innings centurion Jalaj Saxena also returned to the pavilion soon as he was clean bowled by Awana for two. Robin Bisht was next to go, lbw to Awana’s moving delivery. Central were reduced to six for the loss of three wickets.
But the sight of first innings double centurion Naman Ojha walking out would have been reassuring for the Central Zone players. Along with Ashok Mineria, Naman attempted to revive the innings. However, the Northern bowlers tightened the noose around the Central batsmen. Mineria was playing cautiously and had not got off the mark off the first eight deliveries he faced. Off the ninth off-spinner Parvez Rasool trapped him in front. At 29/4, the match was now well and truly anyone’s game.
Thankfully for Central Zone, Mahesh Rawat, the new batsman, instantly made an impact.
The 29-year-old has been the mainstay of Railways batting over the last two seasons and was the highest scorer for his team in the last Ranji season. With 820 runs in 13 innings at 68.33, Rawat was instrumental in Railways entry into the quarterfinals, where they lost to Bengal.
Central needed Rawat to be in the kind of form he was during the previous season and bat the team out of trouble. Rawat did not disappoint as he displayed grit and determination under pressure. Even after Ojha’s dismissal — brilliantly caught at square leg by an acrobatic Mandeep Singh after a quick-fire 50-ball 40 — and later the fall of the wicket of skipper Chawla for 10, Rawat did not let his guard down. Now with the reputed batsmen back in the pavilion and the tail exposed, he did not let the pressure get the better of him.
Just when Northern bowlers sensed they had triggered Central’s downfall, Rawat staged a remarkable fight back with the tailenders and rescued the team from a batting collapse.
Tail, no pushovers
By this time, the pitch had also eased out which only added to the woes of North Zone’s bowlers. Post-lunch, Karn Sharma and Rawat added 98 runs for the seventh wicket, a partnership that well and truly ended North’s hopes of staging a comeback.
By the time Karn was dismissed in the 44th over, Central were 274 runs ahead. Karn reached his half-century with a boundary off Yuzvendra Chahal. During the partnership both batsmen ensured that the run rate was at four per over and soon the shoulders of the North Zone players started to droop. Rasool was guilty of dropping Karn at cover on 60 but Jiwanjot made no mistake and caught him at mid on after Awana’s over-pitched delivery had taken a leading edge off Karn’s bat.
Rawat tried to bring up his century in style but his attempted boundary landed safely between two fielders at the cover. However, Rawat soon reached his 10th first class century when he swept to the square-leg fence off Chahal.
The lead touched 350 but Chawla did not declare the innings, perhaps looking to provide batting practice to the lower order ahead of their final clash against South Zone. Even though Chahal struck after tea, trapping Rawat in front for 116 and ending his four-hour vigil by that time he had added a century partnership with Kuldeep Yadav.
Kuldeep, who picked up three wickets, made his debut first class memorable by hitting Mandeep Singh for a boundary to reach his maiden half-century that also helped the team cross the 300 mark. By the time Mandeep held on to a return catch to dismiss Kuldeep for 56, Central had taken a lead of 393 runs. In their second innings, North were 24 for 1 when both the teams settled for a draw. Apart from skipper Gautam Gambhir’s century, the Northern stars failed to shine.
Brief scores: Central: 1st innings: 538, second innings: 312 (Mahesh Rawat 116, Karn Sharma 69, Kuldeep Yadab 56; Parvinder Awana 3 for 30, Rishi Dhawan 2 for 52); North: 1st innings: 457 & 24 for 1