FRIDAY WAS as freaky as it could get for Praveen Kumar. The wiry Uttar Pradesh pacer took as many as eight Delhi wickets in the first innings to give his team a crucial 52-run lead, and yet at stumps, instead of putting his feet up and basking in the glory, Praveen was padded up, slated to come in next.
This Ranji Trophy final is fast turning out to be one of those matches that have the proverbial 'everything' - incredible innings, brilliant bowling and feisty fightbacks.
At stumps on Day II, the game was very evenly poised, Delhi, with Aakash Chopra and Rajat Bhatia still there, could get very close to the UP total, while UP knew they were a wicket away from a quite long Delhi tail.
In a strange way, a little bit of both happened in the first session of Day III. Centuries from Chopra (102) and Bhatia (139*) pushed Delhi very close to the UP total, while Praveen's two-in-two off his first over with the new ball gave UP the edge, or so it seemed.
At stumps, a day in which the momentum swung either way a number of times, the game was almost as evenly poised, although Delhi might just have a slim edge. UP finished on a precarious 154/6, a lead of 206.
Chopra and Bhatia, on 85 and 81 overnight, began quite like the way they ended the previous day. Both reached their centuries without any trouble, Chopra getting there with an off-drive off Rohit Prakash, and Bhatia with a single off Praveen.
Having reached the three-figure mark, both were expected to launch into an attack, and try and overhaul the target.
Praveen, however, had other ideas. Sensing the game slipping from his team's hands, UP skipper Mohammad Kaif wasted no time in taking the new ball as soon as it was available. It was a move that paid off almost immediately.
It took Praveen five balls to remove Chopra, and just one for Puneet Bisht. Chopra was trapped in front to a fuller, faster delivery and Bisht inexplicably shouldered arms to a straight one.
Praveen was on a hattrick, and his team on a high. Bisht was Praveen's fifth victim of the innings, while Sumit Narwal, Pradeep Sangwan and Amit Bhandari became his sixth, seventh and eighth.
This sudden capitulation did not seem to affect Bhatia, though. Realising he would be stranded at one end, Bhatia decided to hit out and try and get as close to the UP total. He plundered 20 runs off a Bhuvanesh Kumar over to get Delhi just about 50 off the target. He finished unbeaten on 139, while Praveen finished with superlative figures of 8/68.
A lead of 52 already in the bag, and a lot of time to set a target, the UP batsmen didn't need anything fancy in their second innings. But the slide started in the third over itself, first innings centurion Tanmay Srivastava running himself out for 1. His partner Rohit Prakash too didn't last long, departing for 18 off Bhatia and UP were looking uncomfortable at 63/2.
A lot depended on how Kaif and Suresh Raina would bat, and they were beginning to really good and ominous with a 60-run stand, when the impressive Pradeep Sangwan had Kaif caught behind for 21.
More than Kaif, it was Raina who was batting in full flow. The southpaw was caressing the ball through the offside almost effortlessly, finding the gaps with precision. But a lapse of concentration saw him edge Sangwan for 85.
The Delhi pacers then hit back hard at UP, reducing them from 123/2 to 130/6 in the final session of the day.
The first session on Saturday, in all likelihood, will decide the fate of this season's Ranji Trophy. If Delhi can remove the UP tail early, they would undoubtedly back themselves to get the runs. However, if UP can add another 70-odd to this lead, it could be their game. And then, they have that man Praveen Kumar, too.