Out of the 13 sessions that were played in the Duleep Trophy final here in New Delhi, South Zone had utterly dominated 11 of them. But the two that were won by Piyush Chawla’s Central Zone had an effect colossal enough to turn the entire match on its head and hand them the trophy. Even they, Central Zone, perhaps wouldn’t have imagined winning as convincingly on Sunday, especially having begun the day with their opponents sitting pretty at 184/1, needing a further 117 runs with nine wickets in hand.
At this point, both Lokesh Rahul, centurion in both innings, and Baba Aparajith, closing in on his fifty, were at the crease. Somehow, Chawla’s men won by 9 runs — giving Central their first Duleep Trophy in 10 years — with South losing their last seven wickets for just 39 runs.
South looked poised for the title as Rahul exuded confidence and negated the initial hour till the first break for drinks. Pankaj Singh and Ishwar Pandey, Central’s big-named pacers, had enjoyed reverse swinging the ball on a fifth day wicket and the odd one had kept low as well. Still, Rahul and Aparajith were on top of it, although their scoring rate had dropped drastically. This, in the end, would lead to their downfall.
Over cautious with victory well in sight, Rahul’s focus dipped for a moment and he paid for it instantly. Pankaj’s sharp in-cutter trapped him in front of the stumps. The most prized South wicket had fallen on 203, just 98 runs from the target. But that seemed rather far away when Dinesh Karthik, just four balls later, was caught in two minds of whether to leave or play the ball and was promptly played on. Pankaj had made the necessary inroads.
With two wickets falling in quick succession, Aparajith went into snooze mode. Until Saturday evening, he was happy to jump out to spinners, tonking them all round the park. But now he was dealing with the responsibility of being the batting mainstay.
But Chawla had other plans. He kept an attacking field to both Aparajith and new man Ramaswamy Prasanna, who had put on display just two gears of batting — first and fifth. He either blocked or hit boundaries. This forced Chawla to get his spinners — Ali Murtaza, Jalaj Saxena and himself — to bowl stump to stump and wait for an error. They came in a flurry.
Prasanna was on 29 when Saxena had him LBW. The left-hander played for the turn but the ball zipped in and trapped him right in front. This made Chawla introduce himself in the next over, what with Aparajith under severe pressure to save the day. A flighted leg-spinner foxed him first ball. Aparajith had danced down the track to find the gap between midwicket and long-on. Only, he missed the turning ball completely and was stumped by Naman Ojha. 252/5.
South, however, would still have backed their chances. In next was Hanuma Vihari, who in the first innings had scored 75 down the order to give his side the first innings lead. But Vihari lasted just 14 balls before he returned a catch to Saxena. At 260, 41 runs adrift, the tail was in.
Slowing things down further, skipper Chawla recalled Murtaza when the balance once again appeared to have swung in favour of South Zone as Shreyas Gopal and Vinay Kumar added 20 runs together. But with just 21 runs to win, Vinay suffered a rush of blood, and danced down the track against Murtaza. His attempt to play across the line met with nothing but air while the ball clattered into the stumps.
Central now had control as their spinners kept things tight. Shreyas Gopal managed to find a pressure-releasing boundary but at the other end Pragyan Ojha was in all sorts of trouble. His struggle finally ended when Chawla caught him plumb in front of his stumps with a sharply turning leg spinner. Chawla’s third wicket had left South Zone 289/8 and only one run later they would be nine down. Abhimanyu Mithun tried a typical tailender slog against Murataza but instead found his timber splattered.
With 11 runs to get, and only HS Sharath left, Gopal decided he would have to finish things off himself. Murtaza though kept it quick and straight and the ball slipped past Gopal’s swing and crashed into middle stump. Game over.
Brief Scores: South Zone 379 and 291 all out in 88.3 overs (Lokesh Rahul 130, Baba Aparajith 56, Ramaswamy Prasanna 29; Ali Murtaza 3/59, Piyush Chawla 3/83, Jalaj Saxena 2/44) lost Central Zone 276 & 403 by 9 runs