Like they have done all season, Railways summoned every ounce of collective responsibility and fought back when the game was drifting away to regain their dominant position at the end of the second day's play at Mohali. After adding only 68 to their overnight total, Railways were soon made to look inadequate by the Punjab openers, but four crucial strikes in the post-tea session shifted the balance comprehensively in their favour.
For the second day running, the tea break proved to be the fulcrum that tilted the game. Reetinder Singh Sodhi and Ravneet Ricky had waltzed through the second session with some merry drives and cuts and the Railways bowling, despite their variety, appeared to lack the penetrative quality. The pitch had gradually turned into a benign pancake and Sodhi began in a turbo-charged vein. Ricky joined soon and the two eased the score to 94 for 0 by tea.
But Madan Yadav, a left-arm spinner whose action resembles Sunil Joshi, produced a four-over spell in which he varied his length, pace and angle, and undid both batsmen to even the contest. Harvinder Singh then produced a fizzer of a bouncer and Kulamani Parida ripped out a sharp offspiner. Punjab had lost four wickets for 34, their last recognised pair were at the crease, and thoughts of the first-innings lead were rapidly evaporating.
If Sodhi was culpable of going too far back in his crease and cutting straight onto his stumps, after an innings where powerful punches were interspersed with uncharacteristic restraint, then Ricky was simply reckless. He had frozen his scoring shots initially in his innings and grafted hard to get into his stride. Soon he drove and flicked confidently and attacked the spinners with some lofted drives, one of which soared for a massive straight six. But adventurous forays turned into mindless risks and a needless swipe off Madan across the line cost him his wicket. It was symbolic of both their careers so far - promising much initially but not managing to kick on.
Ankur Kakkar had no clue when confronted with a mean, straight, screaming bouncer from Harvinder and the prod ballooned up to the left of the slip cordon. Jai Prakash Yadav had the time to charge to the ball and pull off an acrobatic catch diving forward (109 for 3). Gaurav Gupta offered no shot to Parida's good-length ball that turned appreciably and Pankaj Dharmani was left with the massive task of reproducing a defiant classic, like the one he managed in the semi-final against Mumbai.
The highlight of the morning was Raja Ali continuing his tenacious innings and adding some valuable runs with the tail. A journeyman cricketer who has nine years of domestic cricket behind him, Ali survived several lucky moments on his way to 80. For the second day in a row, VRV Singh charged in and caught the splice on several occasions but groaned and cussed as catches went to ground. Ricky and Dharmani fluffed chances and a few more edges flew wide of the slips. Sudheer Wankhede, the wicketkeeper, chipped in with a cheeky 35 as Railways harboured hopes of reaching the 400-mark. The tail, though, disappeared in no time with Vineet Sharma wrapping up the last man to finish with a five-wicket haul.
The Punjab tail, though, may need to do much more if they have to have any chance of defying a Railways bunch whose combined effort appears to be exponentially greater than the sum of the parts.
Khaonolkar lbw b Gagandeep 9 (292 for 6) Missed one that came in after pitching.
Wankhede c Sawal b Rajesh 35 (345 for 7) Pushed at one that kicked up from a good length. The edge was easily snapped up at first slip.
Ali c Dharmani b Vineet 80 (355 for 8) Hesitantly pushed at one that seamed away and edged straight to the wicketkeeper.
Harvinder b Rajesh 1 (355 for 9) Tried to cut a straight one but the ball kept low and crashed into his stumps.
Parida b Vineet 0 (355 all out) Comprehensively beaten by an indipper that cut him in half and hit idle stump.
Sodhi hit wicket b Madan 51 (102 for 1) Attempted to cut off the back foot but went too far back and struck the stumps with his bat.
Ricky b Madan 47 (109 for 2) Couldn't connect while trying a swipe across the line.
Kakkar c JP Yadav b Harvinder 2 (109 for 3) Received a well-directed bouncer and fended it to the left of third slip where Jai Prakash Yadav completed an acrobatic catch.
Gupta lbw b Parida 13 (136 for 4) Didn't offer a shot to a good-length ball on off stump.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is on the staff of Cricinfo.