Fortune does not always favour the brave. Central Zone’s decision to bat on a grassy surface with moisture and under a cloud-cover on day one was a gutsy move and the plan back-fired.
At stumps on day three, South had all but moved into the Duleep Trophy final by finishing at 467 for nine, a lead of 258. On a surface offering more purchase to the spinners, Central might have a tough time surviving an outright semifinal defeat on day four.
Riding on the centuries by South skipper Abhinav Mukund (111, 318b, 11x4) and B. Aparajith (109, 231b, 9x4, 3x6), who made a double century in the quarterfinals here, South moved into a dominant position on Saturday.
This was an important innings for Abhinav as he needed to regain confidence. Crucially, the southpaw was organised in defence. Once his citadel was secure, Abhinav could play the drives and the whips.
A batsman’s weakness can also be his strength and, in an interesting pre-lunch duel, Piyush Chawla, from round the wicket, had a short mid-wicket for Abhinav and no one deeper.
Abhinav accepted the challenge but survived narrowly as his uppish flick was almost picked up. Abhinav, for most part though, looked assured.
His 18th first-class century, he is only 23, arrived when he hooked paceman Imtiaz Ahmed.
The 19-year-old Aparajith has composure and a sound technique. He went deep into the crease for the back-footed punch and the cut and employed the pull and the hook to counter the pacemen.
The right-hander danced down to strike Chawla, bowling round the wicket, against the spin over mid-wicket for the maximum — a stunning blow.
Aparajith displayed another aspect of his batsmanship by skipping down and executing an inside-out cover-drive off Chawla.
The third-wicket pair added 190 in 74.1 to take the match away from Central before Aparajith miscued a hook off Imtiaz after lunch; the paceman gets the ball to skid off the surface and when such bowlers pitch short, judging bounce can be a trifle hard. Abhinav fell soon, playing too early to be caught and bowled by left-arm seamer Shrikant Wagh.
The in-form Manish Pandey (81, 133b, 10x4), a batsman with fast hands and light feet, found the gaps with panache. Pandey and C.M. Gautam (69, 100b, 7x4), who swept and reverse swept to disrupt the line of the spinners, put on 147 for the fifth wicket in 35 overs as South took a big lead.
Then wickets fell in a heap in the final session with Chawla and off-spinner Jalaj Saxena being in the thick of things.
The pitch was providing more assistance for the spinners, but Malolan Rangarajan (30 batting) struck a few lusty blows.
There was a worrying moment when Mukul Dagar, fielding at short-leg, was struck on the helmet when Gautam pulled Chawla. Dagar was taken to a local hospital for a precautionary x-ray.
Central Zone — 1st innings: 209.
South Zone — 1st innings: Abhinav c & b Wagh 111, Akshath c Srivastava b Chawla 16, K.L. Rahul b Umesh 11, B. Aparajith c Dagar b Imtiaz 109, M. Pandey c Srivastava b Jalaj Saxena 81, C.M. Gautam c Vineet Saxena b Chawla 69, Rohan Prem lbw b Chawla 0, Malolan (batting) 30, A. Mithun c Vineet Saxena b Chawla 9, P. Ojha st. N. Ojha b Jalaj Saxena 10, S. Warrier (batting) 0; Extras (b-1, lb-6, w-4, nb-10): 21; Total (for nine wkts. in 161 overs): 467.
Fall of wickets: 1-44, 2-73, 3-263, 4-263, 5-410, 6-410, 7-427, 8-448, 9-459.
Central Zone bowling: Umesh Yadav 25-6-65-1, Shrikant Wagh 14-5-36-1, Imtiaz Ahmed 26-5-63-1, Piyush Chawla 43-7-159-4, Jalaj Saxena 45-15-121-2, Shalabh Srivastava 8-1-16-0.