Tamil Nadu skipper S Badrinath, the moment he won the toss in the season's opening Ranji Trophy match against Delhi, must have thanked his stars for this golden opportunity to bat first on the placid Ferozeshah Kotla wicket. He had all the more reason to do that, for it was only a few hours ago that India had put up a flop show in Durban.
Badrinath's only worry was how to see off the new ball attack of another India hopeful, Ashish Nehra. This is the one final chance the two have to impress the two national selectors present --- Dilip Vengsarkar and Bhupinder Singh Senior --- before the selection of the Indian team for the Tests against South Africa.
The battle began, and there was attack, counter-attack and solid defence on display over the next three sessions. Badrinath walked back unbeaten on 100 --- his second consecutive century against Delhi after a double in the final game last season. Tamil Nadu finished the day at 184 for three in 85.3 overs of play. Coming in at 11 for two, with Nehra and Ishant Sharma bowling with great control, Badrinath took control of the situation with debutant M. Vijay (59).
Badrinath's seventh Ranji century came off 223 balls with the help of 10 boundaries and a beautiful straight six off left-arm spinner Rahul Sanghvi.
Nehra, too, looked a satisfied man at the end of play, for it was only because of his and debutant Ishant's efforts that the visitors were reduced to a crawl: A run rate of 2.15 on such a slow batting track would otherwise have been unthinkable.
After Ishant struck first in only his second over, trapping S. Vidhyut for two, Nehra delivered a magic ball to remove the experienced Hemang Badani, who could only edge the away-going delivery to the wicketkeeper.
Ishant and Nehra made life difficult for the Tamil Nadu batsmen with their probing first spells. Nehra persistently troubled the batsmen at one end, and Ishant kept them guessing with his fine variation at the other. "He's a really good prospect… I'm particularly impressed with his deceptive bowling," Badrinath's praise of Ishant says it all.
The first 20 overs the two Delhi speedsters bowled must have encouraged the Delhi management no end. Ishant even left his senior partner behind in pace, clocking a best of 131.7 kmph compared to Nehra's top speed of 124.7. Nehra bowled well below his wonted speed, but his four spells, including a 12-over opening spell, ended the debate over his fitness at least.
"We told Ishant to go into the game with free mind. I knew he has the class and ability to do well at this level and he has proved me right," Delhi skipper Mithun Manhas later said.
With the second new ball only three overs old when stumps were withdrawn, the Delhi pacemen would like their chances early on Friday. The two captains have predicted that going beyond the 400-run mark in time to force a result would be very difficult on this slow track. Manhas wants to restrict Tamil Nadu to below 400, while Badrinath says that even 350 can be enough to earn points.