Mahendra Singh Dhoni top-scored with an entertaining 84 and Zaheer Khan took two wickets to give Rest of India the upperhand against Delhi at the end of Day 3 in the Irani Trophy match, at the Reliance Stadium in Vadodara, on Friday.
Chasing 378 runs for victory, Delhi finished the third day on 113 for 3, with Gautam Gambhir unbeaten on a fine 51.
Zaheer made early inroads, claiming the big wicket of Virender Sehwag in the third over of the innings for 3. The Delhi opener was beaten by a straight delivery from the left-armer that caught him right in front of the stumps.
Virat Kohli was Zaheer's second victim; he fell in the same manner as his captain. The youngster walked across his stumps in a bid to play on the leg side, but was trapped leg before wicket for 16.
Gambhir adopted a positive approach and did not let the pacers dominate. He knew that with so much time left in the match there was no question of survival. Quite often he walked down the wicket and tried to disturb the pacers' length.
He was also quite confident against the spinners and tried to be aggressive at every possible opportunity. The left-hander brought up his half-century in some style when he danced down the wicket and lofted Harbhajan straight down the ground for a boundary. His 34th fifty in first class cricket came off 77 deliveries and included eight cracking boundaries> It also took Delhi past the 100-run mark in the 27th over.
Rajat Bhatia also flourished after a quiet start. He took a cue from Gambhir's book and looked to use his feet against both Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh.
In the 31st over, he used his feet and got to the pitch of the delivery and drove Harbhajan through covers for a delightful boundary. Just when it looked Delhi would end the day on a bright note, disaster struck as Bhatia fell to the last delivery of the day.
Harbhajan bowled it a bit wide down the leg side and Bhatia tried to play in the fine leg region, but edged it behind to Dhoni, who did well to hold on. Bhatia fell for 31, having added 76 runs for the third wicket with Gambhir.
Gambhir was unbeaten on 51 as Delhi ended the day on 113 for three in 31 overs, needing another 265 runs on the final two days with seven wickets remaining.
Earlier, leg spinner Chetanya Nanda was Delhi's star performer, claiming five wickets for 48 runs in 26.5 overs. Ishant Sharma dished out another good showing, taking three wickets for 52 runs in 21 overs.
Nanda finished off Rest of India's lower order, claiming the wickets of Anil Kumble (9), Harbhajan Singh (0) and R P Singh (24), to give his team semblance of a chance in the match.
Ishant showed why he is regarded as one the top fast bowlers in India with a double strike early in the day. First he bowled Subramaniam Badrinath for 36. The batsman failed to control a short delivery that hit his elbow before hitting the stumps.
Two deliveries later, Ishant produced another wonderful delivery that took the edge of Mohammad Kaif's bat to reduce Rest of India to 111 for 3.
Once again the two contenders for India's Test squad for the series against Australia left the selectors disappointed. Badrinath showed good patience and spent considerable time on the pitch, but could only muster 52 runs in two innings. Kaif will also be ruing the inability to make the most of his chances, having scored just 29 runs in the two innings.
Ishant bowled seven overs in his first spell, of which five were maidens, and took two crucial wickets to keep his team in the hunt.
Dravid was unfazed by the happenings at the other end. He coasted to his 100th half-century in first-class cricket when he drove Pradeep Sangwan for a straight boundary. The former India captain needed 173 deliveries to reach his fifty, hitting four boundaries in the process, but, more importantly, looked better with every passing over.
V V S Laxman, who was down with food poisoning on Thursday, got off to a good start but failed to carry on and fell for 18. He tried his characteristic flick on the leg side against the spin off leggie Chetanya Nanda, but got a leading edge, which was caught by the point fielder.
Dhoni arrived at the crease desperate to make a point. After his pull-out of the Test series in Sri Lanka and failure in the first innings here, he was keen to prove to everyone that he could also make an impact in the longer version of the game.
He took a particular liking to part-timer Virender Sehwag, whom he time and again smashed through midwicket and straight down the ground. He once used the reverse sweep for a boundary through the point region off Sehwag.
Dravid fell for 69 when he tried to cut Nanda, but found the edge, which went to Akash Chopra at first slip. The veteran batsman spent nearly five hours at the crease for a subdued knock of 69 runs from 211 deliveries.
Dhoni took charge after the lunch break and continued going for his shots at every possible opportunity. He once danced down the wicket to Nanda and launched him for a huge six straight down the ground that landed in the Press box. The boundaries were also coming at a regular rate from Dhoni's bat despite him losing wickets at regular intervals.
Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh fell in the space of three deliveries to leg spinner Nanda as Rest of India were reduced to 241 for 7. Zaheer Khan scored four runs before he was beaten all ends up by a fast yorker from Ashish Nehra.
Dhoni then tried to score a few quick runs, but fell attempting a cut shot off Ishant. He scored 84 from 113 deliveries, including 12 boundaries and a six, before hitting a short delivery straight to Virat Kohli at point.
R P Singh hit a few boundaries at the end to score a vital 24 and take his team past the 300-run mark. He was dismissed leg before wicket by Nanda, who completed a well deserved five-wicket haul.
Rest of India (1st innings): 252 all out
Delhi (1st innings): 177 all out
Rest of India (2nd innings):
Wasim Jaffer c Chopra b Sangwan 21 (36b, 3x4)
Rahul Dravid c Chopra b Nanda 69 (211b, 6x4)
S Badrinath b Ishant 36 (92b, 5x4)
Mohammad Kaif c Bisht b Ishant 0 (2b)
VVS Laxman c sub (Tehlan) b Nanda 18 (35b, 1x4)
MS Dhoni c Kohli b Ishant 84 (113b, 12x4, 1x6)
Anil Kumble lbw b Nanda 9 (31b, 2x4)
Harbhajan Singh c Manhas b Nanda 0 (2b)
Zaheer Khan b Nehra 4 (20b, 1x4)
RP Singh lbw b Nanda 24 (22b, 4x4)
Munaf Patel not out 1 (4b)
Extras: (b:12, lb:13, nb:11) 36
Total: (all out in 92.5 overs) 302
Fall of wickets: Jaffer (1-44), Badrinath (2-111), Kaif (3-111), Laxman (4-152), Dravid (5-207), Kumble (6-241), Harbhajan (7-241), Zaheer (8-261), Dhoni (9-277), RP Singh (10-302).
Bowling: A Nehra 20-1-84-0, I Sharma 21-7-52-3, C Nanda 26.5-48-5, P Sangwan 11-0-35-1, V Sehwag 12-2-55-0, R Bhatia 2-0-3-0.
Delhi (2nd innings) Target: 378 runs to win
G Gambhir not out 51 (87b, 8x4)
V Sehwag lbw b Zaheer 3 (6b)
V Kohli lbw b Zaheer 16 (26b, 2x4)
R Bhatia c Dhoni b Harbhajan 31 (69b, 5x4)
Extras: (b:1, lb:9, nb:2) 12
Total: (for 3 wickets in 31 overs) 113
To bat: A Chopra, P Bisht, C Nanda, P Sangwan, A Nehra, I Sharma.
Fall of wickets: Sehwag (1-5), Kohli (2-37), Bhatia (3-113).
Bowling: Zaheer Khan 8-0-18-2, RP Singh 8-0-37-0, Munaf Patel 6-1-23-0, Anil Kumble 5-1-14-0, Harbhajan Singh 4-2-11-1.