New Delhi: After two days of shoddy performance, Central Zone finally lifted their game on Friday to grab a crucial lead and ensure that the Duleep Trophy final against South Zone heads for an exciting finish with a couple of days still left.
After Ali Murtaza and Piyush Chawla rattled the lower middle-order of South getting them all out for 379, Central openers Faiz Fazal (72) and Jalaj Saxena (71) created a window of opportunity with a 128-run opening stand.
At stumps, Central were 214 for four taking a lead of 111 runs with six wickets in hand.
With cracks appearing on the 22 yard strip and the odd ball turning, Central will fancy their chances if they get a lead of 225-240 on this track. On a fifth day Kotla track, survival might be difficult and South batsmen will have to go for the jugular.
At stumps, Robin Bist (26 batting) was in the company of Mahesh Rawat (11 batting).
But credit should be given to both Fazal and Jalaj for their positive intent after bowlers kept the first innings lead down to 103 runs.
While Jalaj's innings was a plucky one that had some good drives along with 'lemon cuts', Fazal pulled pretty well before the same shot brought about his downfall. Fazal's 72 had 11 boundaries in 139 balls while Jalaj had 14 fours in 119 balls as they kept a steady run-rate.
The 128 runs for the opening stand came in 37.5 overs before Jalaj padded an arm ball from Pragyan Ojha to be adjudged LBW.
Fazal was looking to make amends for getting out on 49 in the first innings and he pulled anything short on offer.
However, South skipper Ranganath Vinay Kumar kept a single fielder at deep square leg and Fazal was forced into the trap.
After playing a successful pull shot for boundary, Vinay dug another one but Fazal mistimed it and Baba Aparajith at deep square leg did exactly what he was positioned for.
Naman Ojha (19) started off by digging out a yorker and then played some flowing drives as he got five fours in his 27. Just when he was getting into the groove, leggie Shreyash Gopal bowled a leg break and Naman went for a cut that Robin Uthappa gobbled at second slip.
Ashok Menaria (0) was adjudged leg before, a decision that looked dubious before Bist and Rawat played for stumps.
Credit should be given to Central Zone bowlers for opening the doors just when KL Rahul (185) and Hanuma Vihari (75) was threatening to take the game away with some crisp shots before skipper Piyush Chawla produced his stock ball in the 81st over.
In fact, the last six wickets fell for only 20 runs from a relatively comfortable 359 for four.
He finally spotted his googly right and Rahul's defence was breached knocking the off-stump back. Rahul's 185 came off 233 balls with 19 boundaries and two sixes. The Rahul-Vihari partnership yielded 126 runs.
Once Rahul was gone, it triggered a collapse as Vihari missed out on a deserving hundred after left-arm spinner Ali Murtaza bowled him. Vihari got 75 off 97 balls with 10 fours and two sixes.
Murtaza, then quickly ran through the lower order, to finish with 4/59 as Chawla also got two for 95.