Madhya Pradesh is six wickets away from its first Ranji Trophy final since 1998-99 after Kumar Kartikeya's 3 for 35 reduced Bengal to 96 for 4 in its 350-run chase during a pulsating fourth day at the KSCA Ground in Alur on Friday.


After Shahbaz Ahmed's 5 for 79 skittled MP for 281 in its second essay, Bengal suffered an early setback when opener Abhishek Raman nicked to first slip off Kartikeya for a first-ball duck. But Abhimanyu Easwaran (52, 104b, 6x4) started well by picking three fours off pacer Anubhav Agarwal — an elegant off-drive stood out.

Taking a leaf out of Manoj Tiwary's playbook, Easwaran did not let the spinners settle into an even rhythm. The foundation of his game against spin was the ability to stretch fully when the ball was full and go deep inside the crease when the spinners pitched short. He added 49 off 68 for the second wicket with Sudip Gharami, who swept and reverse swept well before falling to a howler. He tried to reverse sweep Saransh Jain but was struck on the glove, and the impact was outside the line of the stumps. However, umpire Ravikant Reddy had no hesitation in giving him out. Then Kartikeya clean bowled Abishek Porel, promoted to No. 4, with one that dipped and spun back sharply.

With Bengal 60 for 3, Tiwary joined Easwaran. Tiwary, batting with an injured right cartilage, was inhibited in running between the wickets but tried to hang around before holing out to an uncharacteristic aerial shot off Kartikeya. Easwaran and Anustup Majumdar fought on till stumps, but there is an air of inevitability to the result save a miraculous day five fightback from Bengal.

Shahbaz, Pramanik to the rescue

Earlier, Bengal's bowling attack nearly let MP off the hook before Ahmed, the left-arm metronome, came to its rescue. The first hour though went to MP. Both Ahmed and Pradipta Pramanik (4 for 65) have similar bowling styles. When they fired a sequence of tossed up deliveries wide of off stump, inviting the drive away from the body, Rajat Patidar (79, 149, 11x4) and Aditya Shrivastava (82, 225b, 6x4) were happy to leave the ball alone. When they bowled within the stumps and full, the right-handers lunged forward in defence or played the on-drive.

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In between, Mukesh Kumar and Akash Deep couldn’t settle on a line or a length and were taken off after short bursts. Bengal tried the short-ball ploy too, putting two men behind square as Akash peppered Patidar with bouncers. However, Akash's wayward line meant Patidar had no trouble ducking. Unsurprisingly, Bengal shelved the plan after just one over.

But just as Patidar was starting to look impregnable, Ahmed, during an unbroken 16-over spell in the first session, trapped his RCB team-mate in front with an arm ball and snapped a productive 111-run third-wicket stand. Four overs later, he also had the dangerous Akshat Raghuwanshi chopping on.

Bounce and turn

Shubham Sharma, who retired hurt last afternoon, joined his captain as Bengal took the new ball after 83.2 overs and switched to attacking fields. There was bounce along with the turn straightaway, enough to beat the outside edge and keep the two slips and silly point in play. Sure enough, Shubham fell to a bat-pad catch at silly point off Pramanik.

By now, Bengal was starting to make things happen. And that harbinger of chaos was even more in evidence in MP's sketchy hour after lunch when it lost five wickets for 46 runs. While Ahmed had Saransh Jain caught at cover off a full toss, Pramanik clean bowled Shrivastava for a well-crafted 82. Shortly after, Ahmed spilled a simple caught-and-bowled chance of Puneet Datey only to cling on to the sharpest of caught-and-bowled chances with his right hand as Kumar Kartikeya drove the ball back at him. In between, Ahmed had Puneet Datey out lbw.

Anubhav Agarwal and Gaurav Yadav added 24 off 17 balls for the last wicket before the former became Pramanik's fourth wicket of the innings.