Rest of India 266 for 4 (Saha 123*, Pujara 83*) and 226 need a further 113 to beat Gujarat 358 and 246 (Panchal 73, Gandhi 70, Nadeem 4-64)
Wriddhiman Saha's mind has had a lot to process lately. This is his first first-class match in two months - one that has been billed as a high-profile audition between him and Gujarat captain Parthiv Patel, who has filled the breach admirably during Saha's absence from international cricket, for the Test wicket-keeper's slot. Saha scored a duck in the first innings and dropped Chirag Gandhi in the second over on the fourth morning. Saha needed redemption and he needed it now.
Set a target of 379, Rest of India were 63 for 4 when Saha, the batsman, took centrestage with his 11th first-class hundred. Over four hours, Saha, along with captain Cheteshwar Pujara, put on an unbroken 203-run stand to bring Rest of India within 113 runs of acing a tricky chase. During the course of his 214-ball effort, Saha battled cramps, a disciplined Gujarat attack and incessant on-field chatter. Should Saha and Pujara remain unbeaten for a reasonable length of time on the final day, Rest of India would have little difficulty in sewing up another Irani Cup win.
Saha's arrival was marked by a surge of positivity. He stood well outside his crease to negate Gujarat's seamers, who move the ball at speeds of 120-130 kph, and lofted the ball consciously. Saha launched seamer Mohit Thadani, who was in the middle of a tight spell, for a four over midwicket to get off the mark. He then tonked him uppishly between mid-on and midwicket for another boundary in the same over.
The timing may not have been impeccable initially, but the longer Saha stayed the more frustrated were Gujarat.
Left-arm spinner Hardik Patel bowled a long, unchanged spell (18-7-39-2), and his mode of operation involved landing the ball on the rough outside leg stump, while also threatening the batsman's middle and leg stumps from time to time. Saha and Pujara were happy to kick away the deliveries that didn't bother them.
Saha also danced down the track and smacked him between covers and midwicket, while taking a liking to the sweep shot towards the end of the day. Saha swept Hardik behind square for two fours in successive overs in the last session. He was relentless in his hitting as he brought up his century with a thump over Chintan Gaja's head, off 156 balls. Gujarat appeared to persist with attacking fields to seamers - they had mid-off and mid-on inside the circle for long periods - and Saha cashed in on the unmanned boundaries. Saha's forearms, though, were cramping and he was attended to by the team physio on at least a couple of occasions.
Meanwhile, Pujara continued to look Rest of India's most accomplished batsman in the match. The strokes that had brought him most of his runs in the first innings - the cut, late cut, slice and steer - served him well again. During the last hour, Gujarat's seamers bowled outside off with a slip, gully and point and tried to goad him into slashing one towards the vacant third-man region. Pujara accepted the invite and waited for Thadani's delivery to go past him before tapping it between slip and gully. Parthiv handed the gloves to Dhruv Rawal and went off the field after the final drinks break, and Manprit Juneja led the team in his stead.
Gujarat's fielders, who were initially chatty, became increasingly despondent and quiet as the afternoon wore on. At one stage, Parthiv was engaged in an animated conversation with the on-field umpires after they complied with Pujara's request to extend the sightscreen with a white curtain. But, Parthiv put his foot down and the curtains were removed.
In the 51st over, seamer Ishwar Chaudhary threw the ball back at Saha in his follow-through despite no chance of a run-out. Saha was visibly upset, but Parthiv swiftly doused the fire by apologising to him before having a word with his bowler.
Before Saha and Pujara took over, Rest of India's batting had looked saggy and vulnerable. The openers, Abhinav Mukund (19) and Akhil Herwadkar (20), got squared up on a few occasions against the seamers before briefly settling down. Abhinav hit a couple of good-looking drives down the ground for boundaries off seamer Ishwar Chaudhury and Hardik, while Herwadkar played a neat back-foot punch after moving across to cover the line of the ball.
Herwadkar decided to stamp his dominance over offspinner Karan Patel, bowling his second over, by skipping out of the crease and carting him over long-on for six. Two balls later, Karan floated one well outside off, and Herwadkar chased it to top edge an expansive drive to Priyank Panchal at point. Abhinav was out with less than two overs to go for lunch after Hardik got him to inside edge one on to his pad and the resultant deflection was snapped up at short leg.
Karun Nair, who has had a wretched game with the bat and on the field, had no respite. Nair hit the second ball after lunch for four by allowing Hardik's delivery to spin away before punching it with a vertical bat off the backfoot. The next delivery, though, was fuller and outside leg stump. With his shoulders facing midwicket, Nair shaped to whip it against the spin, but the ball dipped on him and spun to take the leg stump down. Mohit Thadani was introduced in the next over, and he bowled three maidens on the trot, the last one accounting for Manoj Tiwary. Working the channel around off stump, Thadani got one to seam away from Tiwary, who was worried about the incoming delivery and poked tentatively to Parthiv.
This was to be the only phase of play where Gujarat had the bragging rights, after their last two wickets added only 19 runs in 11.3 overs in the morning. Gandhi's attempt to farm the strike didn't materialise as he and Hardik couldn't reprise their partnership from the first innings.
Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. @scarletrun