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Resilient Vidarbha continue to dream

Ganesh Satish works one to fine leg PTI

You don't often win matches when you are three down and trailing significantly in the second innings. On Tuesday in the 2017-18 Ranji Trophy, both semifinals had reached similar junctures. In Pune, Bengal had conceded a first-innings lead of 112 and lost their top three while still trailing by 77. In Kolkata, Vidarbha were 54 behind when they lost their top three.

But from there, both teams took entirely different routes.

Bengal crumbled to 86 all out, as Delhi stormed into the final with victory by an innings and 26 runs. Vidarbha, on the other hand, lost just one more wicket, and scrapped hard to remain in contention for their maiden Ranji final. By the time play had wound down at Eden Gardens, Vidarbha had moved into a 79-run lead - marginal but enough to keep their dream alive.

This kind of mettle from Vidarbha has defined this semifinal. Throughout, Karnataka, overwhelming favourites, have tried to assert their might. But at every stage, Vidarbha have thwarted them.

Karnataka made use of a fresh, green track to bundle Vidarbha out for 185 on the first day. Vidarbha fought back immediately, snuffing out three wickets for 21 runs. Then, on the second morning, CM Gautam and Karun Nair put on a 139-run fourth-wicket stand, and it seemed as though Karnataka would take full control. But Vidarbha hit back with four wickets for 38. It took a tenacious century from Nair to give Karnataka the upper hand.

Now, with their openers gone early and Wasim Jaffer having wasted a start, Vidarbha are left with six wickets in hand to try and challenge Karnataka again. Critical to that pursuit is Ganesh Satish, unbeaten on 71. Ironically, Satish struck a century in the 2013-14 final to set up Karnataka's title win. Now, he is leading the fight to knock out his former team.

There aren't too many recognised batsmen to follow. But if you are a Vidarbha supporter, there is a small sense of assurance to be found from what their lower middle and lower order has done this season. Between Nos. 5 and 7, Vidarbha's batsmen have averaged 46.34 this season. Only Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh have done better.

Each time Vidarbha have been in trouble, they have found someone to rescue them. In the quarter-final against Kerala, Vidarbha recovered from 95 for 6 batting first to put up 246. Against Chhattisgarh in Nagpur, Vidarbha were 309 for 6 after conceding 489. Apoorv Wankhade, Karn Sharma and Akshay Karnewar then rallied to bring them close, but Vidarbha folded for 435.

Karn and Karnewar aren't playing this match, but in their place are Akshay Wakhare and Aditya Sarwate. Wakhare made handy contributions of 27 not out and 30 in Vidarbha's quarterfinals. Sarwate averages close to 30 in first-class cricket and has a century and three fifties. Reasonable or not, Vidarbha will want a contribution from both of them on Wednesday.

They also have the wicketkeeper Akshay Wadkar, who made twin fifties against Kerala in only his third first-class game. He is at the crease now with Satish, Vidarbha's third-highest run-getter this season. Satish averages nearly 49 in the second innings in his first-class career, as against 42.68 in the first.

On this Eden Gardens surface with spongy and occasionally variable bounce, movement and pace, a target above 150 could open up the game. Over 200 would probably shift the pressure back on Karnataka. Vidarbha might still have to bowl brilliantly, though: in the last 12 years of the tournament, the lowest successfully defended target at Eden Gardens is 214 - Bengal collapsed to 112 all out while chasing this against Andhra in 2007.

None of this may happen. Vidarbha may fold inside the first session of day four. They could score in excess of 300 and still get walloped. But through sheer resolve, Vidarbha have added intrigue to what could have been a one-sided semifinal. At the very least, when they walk out on the fourth day, they will still dare to dream.