With each addition to the runs column of the scoreboard, with each walk back to his mark by a Baroda bowler, with each passing minute, Baroda's players must have been aware that, on the third day of their Ranji Trophy final against Railways, the title was slipping ever so surely out of their grasp.

Railways needed one significant batting effort on Friday; they got two. Raja Ali, playing, as the commentators strove to point out more times than needed, after the recent tragic death of a brother, made 66 valuable runs and stitched the Railways innings together. Lower down the order, Murali Kartik, perhaps wishing to make doubly sure of that Man of the Match award, hit 69 , taking his side to an impregnable position.

Amit Pagnis, making 39 at the top of the order, was the first casualty for the home side, a delivery from Rakesh Patel doing just enough to catch the edge and plop into Nayan Mongia's gloves inches off the ground. Tejinder Pal Singh took 93 deliveries to score 27 before he was run out needlessly, Valmik Buch rocketing the throw in for Mongia to whip off the bails.

Yere Goud and Raja Ali then put together a 56-run partnership for the fourth wicket, both playing the ball on its merit and rotating the strike well. Goud struck three fours in his 81-ball 24, a sedate knock that did its job of settling the innings rather than being remarkable for any fancy stroke-play.

Goud fell on 155, and Abhay Sharma and Shreyas Khanolkar, the next two batsmen, could not contribute much. When Raja Ali finally fell for a well-compiled 66 off 116 balls (10x4, 1x4), Baroda must have fancied their chances of wrapping up the innings and attempting the challenging target.

At 229/9, however, Kartik and Harvinder Singh came together and posted the biggest partnership of the innings. Seventy-seven runs flowed for the 10th wicket as Baroda's bowlers, toiling under punishing conditions, proved ineffective against some well-judged batting.

Almost 25 overs after the pair came together, Atul Bedade finally had Kartik stumped to get his first wicket of the innings. Both batsmen had become less aggressive towards the close of play, no doubt aiming to bat more on the fourth day. With Mongia effecting a fine stumping, Railways' second innings finally came to an end on 306.

Kartik top-scored in the innings, making 69 off 125 balls with seven fours. Harvinder Singh scored an accomplished 34 off 77 balls with four fours, belying his status of a number 11 batsman. For Baroda, Shekhar Joshi and Tushar Arothe picked three wickets each, but they brought little cheer on a dismal day.

Play for the day ended with the fall of Kartik's wicket, Baroda thus being set a mammoth target of 391 to win this Ranji Trophy. Technically, this match is not over yet, and the fat lady may yet dust off her vocal cords and sing a different tune.

But with the first-innings lead in the bag in case Baroda manage to draw the match, and a massive run-buffer behind them to bowl their opponents out over two days on a turning pitch, few will blame the Railways players for popping some champagne corks tonight.