Uttar Pradesh stayed focussed. The players put aside their differences and played as a well-knit unit to lift the Ranji Trophy, writes RAKESH RAO.

Uttar Pradesh is a state with a great past but finds very little mention in Indian cricket history. It has given more Prime Ministers to the country than Test cricketers. With politicians having a big say in the team selection at all levels, UP cricket was like a house divided. However, for once, the UP cricketers kept aside their differences in the dressing room and went out to achieve their goal of winning the Ranji Trophy for the first time in the 72-year history of the National Championship.

This historic triumph, based on the 14-run first innings lead, over Bengal in the final before the vociferous home fans in Lucknow was a fitting finale to UP's dream comeback this season. Much of the credit for UP's success should go to skipper Mohammad Kaif. After failing to find a place in the Test team against Pakistan, the Allahabad-based cricketer took charge of the state's campaign midway through the Elite Group league and guided the team to the Ranji Trophy victory.

UP's towers of strength. Skipper Mohammad Kaif, Piyush Chawla and Suresh Raina. -- Pics. R.V. MOORTHY-

UP, which stunned Mumbai by five wickets in the semifinal, had reasons to be upbeat on the eve of the final. Players, young and old, had contributed immensely to the team's cause. Six batsmen had scored over 250 runs each, with young left-hander Suresh Raina topping the list with 478 runs. Old warhorse Ashish Winston Zaidi, with 29 wickets in the season, was five short of breaking Madan Lal's record of 351 — the highest by a medium pacer in Ranji Trophy. Praveen Kumar and Piyush Chawla, besides contributing significantly with the bat, had taken 34 and 30 wickets respectively.

Bengal, on the other hand, was aware of UP's capabilities. It nevertheless had the resources to match UP. Six of its batsmen had scored centuries this season, while off-spinner Sourasish Lahiri and medium pacer Shib Sankar Paul had taken more than 30 wickets each before the final.'

Once the action commenced, with UP electing to bat on a pitch that offered very little to the bowlers, an outright result looked improbable. So, it was only natural that the teams realised the importance of taking the first innings lead. UP, aided by some sloppy catching by Bengal, threatened to post a mammoth first innings total after being 303 for three at one stage. The dropped catches of Praveen Kumar, Kaif and Raina proved costly for Bengal as the trio contributed most to the total. But thereafter, Bengal bounced back by taking seven wickets for just 84 runs, thanks to the second new ball. Suddenly, in the given batting conditions, UP's score of 387 looked inadequate.

Bengal, with at least nine players with known batting credentials, set out to gain the crucial first innings lead. As it turned out, these players got their eyes in but failed to capitalise on the good starts they got. The partnerships in the Bengal innings were not substantial enough to mount pressure on the rivals. Though the UP medium pacers, Shalabh Srivastav and Zaidi, did not make much of an impression, Praveen Kumar and Piyush Chawla did most of the damage. Chawla, who was asked to rush to Lucknow for the match from Chennai where the Indian team for the World Youth Cup was undergoing a preparatory camp, took four wickets by the end of the third day with Bengal on 349 for eight and still needing 39 runs for the lead.

The decisive phase of the match came on the fourth morning. Laxmi Ratan Shukla, overnight on 50 with Ranadev Bose for company, looked like taking Bengal past UP. However, Bose fell, caught behind by Mohammad Amir Khan off Srivastav, with his team adrift by 25 runs.

At the other end, Shukla smashed a six off Chawla, and then added four runs by capitalising on the defensive field employed by Kaif. Paul, the last batsman, did not appear to be in any discomfort during the seven deliveries that he faced and Bengal seemed to be inching safely towards the lead. It was then that disaster struck the visitors. Shukla, aware of the fielders in the deep, chose to play a high-risk shot. He tried to find the gap between square-leg and midwicket with a lofted sweep. Substitute Ali Hamid Zaidi, who came in for veteran Gyanendra Pandey, ran about 15 yards in front and dived forward to bring off a splendid catch. And there ended Bengal's hopes of winning the title. Chawla finished with five wickets.

With five and a half sessions still remaining, it was important for UP to bat well in the second innings to deny Bengal any chance of making a match of it. Once again, Shivakant Shukla, Kaif and Raina came good with the bat. Kaif, even before he had opened his account, enjoyed a reprieve. Abhishek Jhunjhunwala dropped a straightforward catch of the UP skipper. Thereafter, Kaif rubbed it in by scoring 109 on the fifth morning, before he threw his wicket away much in the same fashion as Raina had done a little earlier following his second half-century of the match. Later, the fifth-wicket pair of Rizwan Shamshad and Mohammad Amir Khan added 65 runs in 24 overs that effectively sealed Bengal's fate.

Though Bengal managed to polish off the last five wickets for 27 runs, a target of 357 in 43 overs was clearly beyond it. Still, the visitors set out on a `suicide mission' of chasing an improbable victory before realising the futility of such efforts.

Praveen Kumar struck twice in the second over and dismissed Rohan Gavaskar in the fourth to reduce Bengal to 19 for three. He added the scalps of Manoj Tiwari and Arindam Das to finish with a five-wicket haul as Bengal finally gave up the futile chase at 109 for five in 33 overs.

It was doubly disappointing for Bengal skipper Deep Dasgupta, who was also reported by the umpires, A. V. Jayaprakash and Ravi Subramanium, for suggesting in the media that certain umpiring decisions had gone against his team. As a result, he was fined his entire match-fee besides being reprimanded by the Match Referee Manu Nayyar. Lahiri and Rizwan were charged with Level I offence for showing dissent after being given out by the umpires. For UP, it was a reward for good work. With this, UP, runner-up to Maharashtra in 1939-40 and to Karnakata in 1977-78 and 1997-98, joined the Ranji Trophy Roll of Honour that includes Mumbai (winners 36 times), Delhi, Karnataka (six times each), Baroda (five), Holkar (four), Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Hyderabad, Maharashtra (two times each), Haryana, Nawanagar, Punjab and Western India.