The charged-up Eden Gardens crowd creates a buzz in the background as Ishan Porel steams in for his fourth over. Porel delivers one patient blow after another. K. L. Rahul is adamant. He will not be undone. Yet the mental demands are challenging.
Bengal, reduced to five for 66, make a comeback to finish on 312. Rahul has come here on the back of an enviable purple patch in limited-overs cricket. And for all the intent and purpose, he has the temperament to exhibit his skills in Test whites. Perhaps, he has a point to prove.
First ball, K.V. Sidharth tucks one behind square for a single. Porel goes full next, the ball grazes the outside half of Rahul's bat and races away for four. He is drawn forward into a defensive push and beaten on the third ball. Rahul defends the next delivery, just outside off before Porel opens him up with the angle and the ball brushes the back-thigh on its way to the keeper. The Karnataka opener survives an innocuous DRS review. He bowls two more overs before being taken off. His first spell reads: 6-1-16-2.
But Porel has the measure of Rahul. Now Porel doesn't have the intimidating look of a fast bowler but that doesn't stop him from giving an icy stare after each delivery. In the meantime, Rahul leaves, leaves, leaves. Defends the ones that nip back in. And stays put till lunch. Karnataka's score reads 45 for 3.
Porel's intent intact
Porel returns after the break and starts with a bouncer, Rahul ducks under it. He takes a single next ball and gets off the strike. Two balls later, Porel lands one on a good length and gets the ball to move away from off stump, Padikkal — Karnataka's highest run-scorer this season — gets a thick edge to second slip. Porel is breathing fire. Rahul, standing at the other end, watches on as Porel's teammates converge on him. Next over, Mukesh Kumar goes short and wide, Rahul fails to keep the cut down and hits it to Abhishek Raman, who takes a fine catch diving forward. Rahul departs for a 67-ball 26.
Sometimes it's hard to make inferences from scorecards. The scorecard of Karnataka's first innings will tell you Kumar accounted for Rahul. And it would be easy to miss Porel, who piled on the pressure in that probing opening spell.
"He's a strokeplayer and scores quickly, so when he managed just 26 off 67 balls we knew a bad shot was just around the corner," Porel said after the day's play.
"Rahul is a quality batsman. He has that little bit more time to play his shots and as someone who regularly faces bowlers bowling in excess of 140, we knew he was going to be a big threat on a wicket like this."
Rahul was scoring all the runs in New Zealand with two things present: movement and pace in the pitch. The build-up to this match was as much about the two big teams in the fray as about Rahul's return to the Karnataka squad. Rahul is indeed a much-improved batsman and Porel, two years wiser since his under-19 World Cup days.
"The biggest difference (since last year) has been my fitness and mindset. Playing with India A has helped better my skills, and I've become more aggressive.
"That said, it's the hard yards I put in the gym that have held me in good stead. (Arun) Lal sir has stressed on the importance of pre-season training and we can see it's working. We run a lot... in a week, four to five sessions of running and two to three sessions of strength conditioning," he said.
Porel's family had come to see him play, despite "me telling them not to," he smirks. "I get conscious when I see them in the crowd. I didn't know they were here today ... maybe that's why I bowled so well or who knows if I had known, would have bowled better!", he said in jest.
After the second day's play against Punjab in Patiala, following an impressive showing from his pacers, Arun Lal had said, "We are going to get Ishan back for the quarters and semis should we qualify." There was a glint in his eye and a childish excitement to his voice. On Sunday, Ishan Porel showed just why.
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