Lower order helps depleted Mumbai hold edge
Punjab 203 for 4 (Kaul 63*, Sidhana 57) and 226 trail Mumbai 430 (Jaffer 82, Powar 81, Rahul 3-129) by one run
Ramesh Powar and Ankeet Chavan nearly ended Punjab's Ranji Trophy season with feisty lower-order batting and almost ensured that nine-man Mumbai would top Group A, with current leaders Karnataka having conceded the first-innings lead to Uttar Pradesh in Shimoga. Facing a 204-run deficit, Punjab lost four wickets, and with only a day to go, an outright win - their only chance of making the quarter-finals - looks improbable.
Not only was the 125-run partnership between Powar and Chavan the highest of the match so far, it also came quickly enough to leave Mumbai with time to push for a win. The duo began from where they had left off on day two, with Powar clobbering anything remotely hittable, and Chavan defending solidly while hitting out often against the spinners, Rahul and Bipul Sharma. The Sharmas were unable to get anything out of the pitch that showed little signs of breaking up, with the grass cover holding it together.
Powar hammered the spinners straight down the ground at will, and cut the medium-pacers when they gave him width. Chavan was content to let Powar take the bowling apart as the latter raced towards his century before giving it away. Dealing mostly in lofted boundaries, Powar was caught at long-on in another attempt to hit Rahul over the ropes. Powar's dismissal and the unavailability of Sushant Marathe and Aavishkar Salvi made Chavan take on the aggressor's role.
The debutant Balwinder Sandhu showed no problems in surviving the flat Punjab bowling as Chavan slog-swept the spinners for sixes over midwicket. Another such attempt ultimately led to him holing out to mid-on, and Rahul ended the innings on 430 in the next over by dismissing Sandhu. Rahul's return of 30.3-3-129-3 showed that the pitch was not kind to slow bowlers, and also that the legspinner, who debuted for India recently, would have to rely on more than tight lines to be effective in first-class cricket.
Punjab lost Ravi Inder Singh in the half hour they had to negotiate before lunch when he flicked Kshemal Waingankar straight to square leg. The way the other Punjab opener Sarul Kanwar batted, he would not have looked out of place in his Mumbai Indians jersey. No Mumbai bowler made even the slightest impression on him as he plundered them for 10 boundaries, but got out before he had reached 50. He was severe on Waingankar, lofting him straight for a one-bounce four and then driving him over cover for six. He looked to work Sandhu across the line on the leg side but was fooled by a superb slower one that straightened to strike the pad in front of off.
Punjab were now 56 for 2 after only 49 deliveries but Mayank Sidhana, their best batsman of the tournament, and Uday Kaul, the captain, brought stability to the innings and also brought the scoring-rate back to first-class standards in a solid partnership. With Punjab in no position to win the game, the duo batted safely, choosing to preserve their wickets over needless aggression. Runs were still scored, with both batsmen cruising to half-centuries.
Just when it looked like they would see Punjab through till stumps, Sidhana departed, flicking Powar to midwicket. Waingankar then produced the ball of the match, ripping a reverse-swinging full delivery through the gate to rattle Amitoze Singh's stumps as the batsman drove at the original line.
Punjab will start the final day tomorrow one run short of being effectively 0 for 4, and depleted Mumbai will be eyeing the outright win to end the league phase on a deserved high.
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo