Wednesday at the Karnail Singh Stadium, Delhi proved why Indian cricket might be sinking further into the mire. With two of the country's finest teams - Indian Railways and Baroda - battling it out for the prestigious Ranji Trophy, the curator served what could best be described an enormous dud - a pitch where the ball started to keep low as early as in the first session of the first day itself. The end result was there for all to see; Railways after a brisk start struggled to 253 all out in their first innings. Baroda, who had to play five overs on the day, were 17 for no loss in reply.

The nature of the pitch meant that the toss could prove vital. Railways, then, had every reason to celebrate when their captain Abhay Sharma won it in the morning and elected to bat. An impressive opening stand between Amit Pagnis and Jai P Yadav followed.

Yadav, who replaced prolific opener and India all-rounder Sanjay Bangar at the top of the order, was the steadying influence in the partnership. Pagnis, for his part, went after the bowling, stroking as many as seven fours on his way to 35 off 42 balls before Baroda off-spinner Ajit Bhoite claimed him with a ball that kept low.

Tejinder Pal Singh, who followed, helped Railways consolidate, adding 31 runs for the second wicket with Yadav. His brief but eventful stay saw him score 18 off 19 balls with three fours before the visitors' other spinner, left-armer Valmik Buch, snared him.

Railways No. 4 Yere Goud might never have received the India call-up but he has remained the home team's most prolific batsman over the years. The Railways, who are looking to avenge their defeat in last year's Ranji final to the same opponents, must have pinned a lot of their hopes on him.

Goud's start was promising, and he slowly but surely settled to do business, milking runs whenever the opportunity presented itself. Yadav, at the other end, had also begun to gain in confidence and soon the most promising partnership in the Railway innings began to flower. The run-rate might not have been anything to write home about, it being only a tad over two, but 64 runs were scored in the 31.5 overs that the duo were together. Goud's dismissal, when he dragged an in-cutter from medium-pacer Rakesh Patel onto his stumps, however, was to induce a turnaround in the fortunes of the two sides.

Next man Raja Ali (0) and skipper Abhay Sharma (9) both failed as Railways were reduced from a healthy 146 for two to 170 for five. Fourteen runs later, Yadav, who had played with commendable application and skill while compiling 85 off 171 balls, brought about his own downfall by tamely guiding Buch into the waiting hands of Baroda captain Jacob Martin at first slip.

Two more late-order wickets, those of Murali Kartik and Kulamani Parida, for the addition of just twelve runs put Baroda firmly on top. But at that stage, Shreyas Khanolkar, who had come in after the fall of Abhay Shrma, found a dependable partner in No. 10 Zakir Hussain.

With Hussain using the long handle to good effect and Khanolkar also among the runs, the duo put on a useful 53 runs for the ninth wicket. Hussain's luck though ran out with the Railways score on 249, Patel trapping him lbw after he had scored 23 off just 34 balls. Last man Harvinder Singh added four more runs to his team's score before Khanolkar was dismissed for a patient and useful 44 off 72 balls.

For Baroda, Patel and off-spinner Bhoite claimed three wickets each while their other medium-pacer Shekar Joshi and left-arm spinner Buch had to be satisfied with two each.

When the visitors replied, openers Connor Williams (12*) and Satyajit Parab (5*) stroked four boundaries between them as Baroda began their reply on the right note.

With the ball already keeping dangerously low, the second day's play will now prove crucial. Baroda would be hoping to achieve a healthy first innings lead as batting last on an already wearing wicket would prove a most difficult task. Railways, on the other hand, would be hoping to restrict Baroda as this would put them well and truly on course to snatch the Ranji Trophy from the defending champions.