The Shami-Gambhir contest was always expected to be the headline act of Delhi’s innings.
In the end, off the last ball of the day to be precise, Mohammed Shami got Gautam Gambhir. He did so with a bouncer, for good measure too. It, however, didn’t warrant the proverbial last laugh for the fast bowler. It was more like a grin at the most, one laced with relief. Shami had toiled away manfully, after all, trying to dislodge Gambhir. He had bowled more overs than any other Bengal bowler, even the spinners, for no reward. And he’d targeted the region between Gambhir’s armpit and head tirelessly from over and around the wicket in multiple bursts.
More than one-third of the 62 balls he’d bowled at the left-hander before commencing the final over of the day had been of bouncer-length. So was the 63rd, which Gambhir avoided without fuss. Shami though didn’t agree with the umpire signalling it as a “bouncer” and even argued his point in vain. So his next bouncer, the very next delivery from around the wicket, had a bit more venom in it, and finally served its purpose, cramping Gambhir completely near his ribs and getting him to glove the ball down the leg-side to an elated Shreevats Goswami behind the stumps. By then, Gambhir had, of course, scored his third century of the season, an exquisite 127, 41 of which came off Shami. He had also put on 232 with fellow centurion Kunal Chandela for the first wicket to put Delhi well en route to the final. They finished the day at a commanding 271/3, despite Bengal’s late comeback with three wickets in the final hour.
The Shami-Gambhir contest was always expected to be the headline act of Delhi’s innings. It pitted a fast bowler in his prime against a grizzled run-machine perhaps past his, but still as combative as ever. And it started on an even keel as within the first six balls Shami bowled to him, there was a loud appeal for caught behind, a bouncer that caught him unawares and a fearsome cut for four. Then two overs later came what was perhaps the defining moment of the day, and this battle within a battle. It came not surprisingly off a short ball from around the wicket that Gambhir slapped with absolute contempt to the deep square-leg fence. Some boundaries hurt a bowler more than others. And this one had a mixture of disdain and a crackling sound off the bat, clearly stamping its authority on the ball. Not to forget the speed at which it reached the boundary. India’s premier fast bowler had just been treated like a club cricket trundler on a weekend afternoon.
Shami animatedly asked the square-leg fielder to push back to the fence and followed up with a rather predictable yorker, which Gambhir patted away comfortably. This was just the eighth over of Delhi’s innings, Shami’s third. But from that point on, it was Gambhir’s day. It was Delhi’s day. In the very next over, the left-hander unleashed a fearsome cut for four before squeezing another boundary past the right of point. It also came during a dramatic period of play when everyone at the Stadium, including the sparse crowd that had turned up, was into the match with great fervour. The Bengal team was in full voice cheering its poster boy and also taking digs at the Delhi openers. The words of encouragement and the jibes interestingly were always in Bengali whenever it was Gambhir on strike and soon even the spectators joined in screaming “bhalo ache” every time Shami got it right in the middle. The language of choice would immediately shift to Hindi whenever Chandela crossed over, especially so in Shami’s second spell when he began bowling fuller and troubling the right-hander. When a ball whizzed past Chandela’s outside edge, the slip cordon shouted, “Pehle se soch ke khel raha hai. Isko chodenge, isko khelenge. Andar bahar andar bahar kuch nahi samajh aa raha isse”, which loosely was designed to describe Chandela’s apparent cluelessness. But the youngster, playing only his third match, was more than up to the task, and if anything, took equal toll of Shami as his experienced partner. While Gambhir ducked, prodded, pulled and flicked, Chandela kept driving the ball to the boundary with poise. Thirty-six off his first 39 runs came in fours, most of which were drives straight out of a throwdown session. Gambhir, never the most fluent of drivers, produced a couple of his own.
At the other end, Ashoke Dinda was doing what he does best, run in fast and bowl his heart out. He even had one section of the crowd on his side as they screamed, “Dinda uda de danda”. It’s a fascinating sight watching Shami and Dinda bowl in tandem. It’s like at one end you have a well-oiled, sleek machine gliding through at cruise control while at the other is a more robust and rough wagon tumbling down a rickety road before jumping off a bump just before the bowling crease. And Dinda did produce an outside edge off Gambhir’s bat which flew through Sudip Chatterjee’s hands at slip, cutting short a yelp of delight from the Bengal pacer and inciting “Thank you Sudip” chants from the stands. That was the only chance the Delhi openers provided the bowlers. Round II of the Shami-Gambhir battle also centred around the short ball, this time with the pacer employing a semi-Bodyline field with leg-gully and short square-leg in addition to a very straight fine-leg.
But Gambhir held his own except being hit on the elbow on one occasion. He either rode the bounce and tucked the ball away or left it alone. And when Shami erred, he put him away. He, like Chandela, was more punishing on Dinda, hitting him for three boundaries in one over before bringing his century with two on the go off Amir Gani. Chandela brought his maiden century soon after with a pull shot of his own against B Amit before falling to the same bowler for 113, but not before he had played a delightful flick off a Shami delivery that was snaking into him sharply. Shami, to his credit, kept running in at full steam throughout the day despite the fact that he’ll be on a flight to South Africa within 10 days of this match. And he stuck to his plan against Gambhir even in his final spell. It was also perhaps his best as Gambhir almost played a ball on to his stumps on one occasion and also got an edge off an attempted pull that nearly went to leg gully. He did produce one more boundary off his nemesis with a controlled pull that beat fine-leg before Shami brought their duel to a rather appropriate end even if Gambhir had easily had the better of it.
Brief Scores: Bengal 286 (S Chatterjee 83, N Saini 3/55) lead Delhi 271/3 (Gambhir 127*, Kunal Chandela 113) by 15 runs.