Mongia leads from the front

PALAKKAD NOV. 10. There was a steely resolve in Punjab captain Dinesh Mongia's eyes last evening as he said, "we'll push hard for the lead tomorrow.''

Well, the World Cupper led from the front on Monday as Punjab gained the two first innings points it was looking for in the Ranji Trophy Elite Group `A' cricket league match against Kerala at the Kota Maidan here. Clearly, with his first innings' 151 and a surprise four-wicket haul today, Mongia was the hero of the match. "They were my best bowling figures in the Ranji Trophy,'' said Mongia, a part-time left-arm spinner.

Mongia won the battle in a 45-minute period just before lunch during which Kerala lost five wickets, four of them to the Punjab captain. This, in effect, changed the fate of the match.

Kerala captain Sunil Oasis had spoken about the virtues of patience and caution yesterday but less than two hours into the morning, one could very little of them in the home team.

Sunil Oasis (82 off 249 balls, 7x4, 1x6) and his deputy Sreekumar Nair (37 off 107 balls, 5x4), the two overnight unbeaten batsmen, saw off danger for nearly 100 minutes today, with an 83-run stand after which Kerala's problems began, with Mongia striking it rich.

Just before lunch, Mongia had bowled six overs, gained four wickets and four maidens, conceding just eight runs.

"When Sunil and Sreekumar appeared to settle down this morning, there was a stage when I thought we would go home without any points,'' said the Punjab captain.

At that stage (the day's 27th over), Kerala's score read a decent 276 for four, but after the next 11 overs, the side was in tatters at 299 for nine with a couple of batsmen, including Sreekumar Nair and the normally reliable M. Suresh Kumar, attempting rash shots when the situation demanded a much quieter and safer approach. Sunil Oasis was bowled by Mongia, while Sreekumar was caught by Vineeth Sharma at mid-off off the Punjab captain.

"Well, we tried to dominate a bit at that stage. But now, looking back, I think we should have applied ourselves better,'' said the Kerala skipper. "Still, we finished with a few positives too. The last wicket partnership was excellent. And despite Punjab's big score which put us under a lot of pressure, we put up a good fight, especially yesterday,'' added Sunil Oasis.

The last pair, the stylish Ajay Kudua (53 off 88 balls, 8x4) and John Grandbell, put on 45 runs and Kerala was bowled out for 344 runs an hour after lunch, 197 runs behind Punjab's first innings total of 541. Medium-pacer Vineeth Sharma and off-spinner Rajesh Sharma finished with three wickets each.

Forced to follow on, the host made 131 for two in its second innings when play was called off after the eighth mandatory over with the mutual consent of the two captains.

The scores: Punjab 541 for seven decl. vs Kerala 344 (Sujith Somasunder 27, Vipin Lal 26, C. Hemanth Kumar 61, Sunil Oasis 82, Sreekumar Nair 37, Ajay Kudua 53, Vineeth Sharma three for 70, Rajesh Sharma three for 106, Dinesh Mongia four for 34) and 131 for two (C.M. Deepak 37, Sujith Somasunder 39, Vipin Lal 36). Punjab 2 points for first innings lead, Kerala 0.

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