Karnataka 301 and 111 for 7 (Nair 30, Gurbani 4-35, Neral 2-37) need another 87 runs to beat Vidarbha 185 and 313 (Satish 81, Sarwate 55, Vinay 3-71, Binny 3-74)
Vidarbha's extraordinary resolve and single-mindedness put them within inches of their maiden Ranji Trophy final, as their classic against Karnataka headed towards a stunning conclusion. With unshakeable confidence, supreme skill and tremendous discipline, Vidarbha's pacers brought Karnataka's bullish batting order to its knees to all but knock out the eight-time champions on the fourth day at Eden Gardens. At stumps, Karnataka were seven down in pursuit of 198, still requiring an improbable 87 runs.
And it was Rajneesh Gurbani, Vidarbha's find of the season, who once again ripped through Karnataka. Siddhesh Neral's double-strike had given Vidarbha an opening, but Gurbani pushed the door wide open. He ran through the heart of Karnataka's middle order with 4 for 35 that included the game-changing scalps of Karun Nair and CM Gautam.
Not once did Karnataka look in control of the chase: an unprecedented instance for a team that has racked up totals of over 400 six times in eight matches this season. Perhaps critically, Karnataka made that one mistake that Vidarbha were wise to avoid when they batted, by going into extreme caution after the loss of early wickets, at one point scoring a solitary run in 27 balls.
Throughout, Karnataka's batsmen were found wanting on several fronts, not covering the line of the delivery, failing to get entirely forward and not getting to the pitch. Such lapses made an appearance early, when Mayank Agarwal, the season's highest run-scorer, fell to Umesh Yadav's electric reflexes in the third over. Having closed the face of his bat to one that had straightened, Agarwal popped a leading edge to Umesh's right, who got down in an instant and stuck out his right hand.
Dega Nischal, Karnataka's promising No. 3, lived a charmed life. First, Akshay Wadkar reprieved him by fluffing a simple catch down the leg side. Nischal survived a second time when Paschim Pathak turned down a huge appeal for leg before when Gurbani cut one back into the batsman and seemed to have him plumb in front of middle and leg.
Even R Samarth, whose front-foot game is characterised by assuredness, pushed and prodded tentatively on numerous occasions. It cost him when a skiddy inswinger from Neral hit him dead in front of middle stump. Five balls later, Nischal played a shot he will rue for a long time: pushing at a sixth-stump delivery and edging to the keeper.
With Karnataka three down for 40, Faiz Fazal brought back his premier paceman, Umesh. The one trick Fazal missed was in hesitating to place a third slip, perhaps guarding himself against the low target to defend. The flaw was exposed when Umesh found Karun Nair's outside edge that went past second slip and gully. Fazal immediately closed the gap, but Umesh made a fuller offering on the pads next ball. He continued to be erratic and was easily the least impressive of Vidarbha's pacers.
Usually firm-footed, Nair continued to live on outside edges and streaky boundaries. Ill-judged singles and edges became routine as Karnataka showed signs of cracking under pressure. But one way or the other, Nair and Gautam, like they did in the first innings, began to steady Karnataka and took them to 69 for 3 at the tea break.
The post-tea passage began in an all-too-familiar manner, Gautam finding an edged four through third man, before Nair crunched an imperious cover-drive off Neral. And then, Gurbani took centrestage.
In his first over after tea, Gurbani had Nair poking at one that jagged off the seam and took the edge. Stuart Binny was trapped on his second ball in front of middle with one that shaped into him. Pathak adjudged Gautam to have tickled one to the keeper too, much to the disappointment of the batsman. Having managed bounce, swing in the air and movement off the deck, Gurbani then found reverse swing that had K Gowtham playing all over a delivery that was angled into him, being adjudged lbw for 1. With each wicket that he took, Gurbani's celebrations grew increasingly ecstatic, and Karnataka's shoulders sagged as they slipped from 81 for 3 to 104 for 7.
Despite Gurbani's heroics, the contributions of Aditya Sarwate weren't forgotten. Karnataka soared early in the day, taking out Vidarbha's overnight batsmen Ganesh Satish and Akshay Wadkar in the morning.
Wadkar and Satish had begun well, smartly extending Vidarbha's lead through singles. But an incisive spell from Binny, who kept probing batsmen and inviting errors, turned the heat on Vidarbha. He struck first ball after his introduction, and it was to a poor shot from Wadkar, who followed the line loosely of an away-going delivery.
Satish, Vidarbha's biggest hope, was bounced out by a fiery Abhimanyu Mithun, and when Akshay Wakhare played at a Binny outswinger, Vidarbha had lost three wickets for six runs.
Karnataka did just about everything right on the field, with Mithun's pace, Binny's swing, Vinay's accuracy, some outstanding slip catching, and tidy ground fielding. But Sarwate stalled their charge with a fighting half-century and added 68 runs for the last two wickets. With the field spread out - at one point, Karnataka had as many as six fielders at the boundary - he capitalised by pinching singles.
Though he farmed the strike for the most part, the big shots ensued when he turned it over. Umesh played the biggest of them all when he shoveled Binny over wide long-on. A crunching late cut behind square gave Sarwate his fifty as every run, every four, even a tidy forward defence drew rousing cheers from the Vidarbha dressing room as they continued to believe. By the end of it all, it had stood them in good stead.