Rest of India 102 for 2 (Vihari 40*, Rahane 25*) and 330 lead Vidarbha 425 (Karnewar 102*, Wadkar 73, Sanjay 65, Chahar 4-112) by seven runs
The day belonged to Vidarbha's Akshay Karnewar, whose maiden first-class century handed the Ranji Trophy champions a 95-run first-innings lead, but a fighting partnership between Rest of India's Hanuma Vihari and Ajinkya Rahane wiped out the deficit to bring the Irani Cup contest back on an even footing on Thursday's third day.
At stumps, RoI were 102 for two, having inched seven runs in front on a deteriorating pitch, where Vidarbha will have to bat last.
Karnewar's 133-ball 102 - with 13 fours and two sixes - helped Vidarbha post 425 in response to RoI's first-innings total of 330. Karnewar was ably assisted by overnight batsman Akshay Wadkar, whose 139-ball 73 had arrested a collapse on the second day.
Despite losing Wadkar before lunch, Karnewar did not curb his aggression. After reaching his half-century, he struck the day's first six, when he smashed Dharmendrasinh Jadeja over midwicket, and he followed it up with a glance in the next over to take Vidarbha closer to the RoI total. The new batsman, No. 9 Akshay Wakhare, played his part too, and gave Vidarbha the lead in the 114th over of their innings when he tickled one down to fine leg just before lunch.
The 76-run eighth-wicket stand between the two was finally broken just after lunch, when Karnewar shaped to pull Rahul Chahar's half-tracker, but the ball stayed low and trapped him in front. Wakhare soon followed, bowled off Chahar's googly while trying to drive through the off side.
Vidarbha were 56 ahead at that stage, but a last-wicket partnership of 39 between Yash Thakur (10) and Rajneesh Gurbani (28 not out) frustrated RoI further, and a drive to long-on from the latter took Vidarbha past 400. Ankit Rajpoot later claimed the final wicket, with Thakur lbw to one that swung in late.
Nineteen-year-old Chahar (4-112) was the pick of the RoI bowlers. He dismissed Vidarbha's two highest scorers - Karnewar and Wadkar - and wasn't afraid to show off his variations, earning two wickets courtesy his wrong 'un. Chahar could even have had a fifth wicket when he found the outside edge of Gurbani's bat late in the innings, but RoI captain Rahane fluffed the chance at first slip, much to the dismay of the close-in cordon and the bowler.
In the morning, Karnewar had struck three consecutive boundaries off Rajpoot to give Vidarbha a rapid start to the day. The flurry even led to a brief exchange of words between batsman and bowler, but Karnewar continued confidently, scoring at a good clip and bringing up his century in glorious fashion when he muscled a six over midwicket off Jadeja in the over before lunch.
When RoI came out to bat, an hour before tea, Vidarbha captain Faiz Fazal gave left-arm spinner Aditya Sarwate the new ball. The plan paid off when Anmolpreet Singh looked to take the bowler on in the seventh over, only to toe-end a leg-side heave to long-on.
That brought Vihari into the middle, and together with Mayank Agarwal (27), they tackled the difficult surface by looking to play straight. Vihari, in particular, played mostly in the V to the spinners, and his battle with Wakhare's offspin made for fascinating viewing.
However, Agarwal, who made 95 on the first day, holed out in the 12th over trying to take on Wakhare. He skipped down the track to a ball that wasn't quite there, and miscued the shot to Mohit Kale at long-off. That brought in Rahane, who worked the ball around in the company of Vihari to chip away at the lead.
Rahane found his groove courtesy a full-toss from Sarwate, and that leg-side whip briefly led to a rise in the scoring rate as Vihari also played a beautiful drive through the covers and followed it up with a lofted shot over long-off.
But Karnewar stemmed the flow of the runs when he began varying his pace more than usual, in a bid to extract more spin, and that made Vihari and Rahane bat cautiously. Their prod-and-push style led to two half-shouts for lbw and a difficult dropped chance at short leg, but the batsmen stuck it out. Intriguingly, of the 35 overs they have faced so far, RoI have had to deal with pace in only four, all from Gurbani.
The day ended with a good spell of spin bowling under the setting sun. Sarwate and Karnewar troubled Vihari and Rahane no end, but they survived, which was crucial. When stumps were called, their stand stood at 56 runs, and Vidarbha had a slender lead.
With rain expected overnight, RoI will have some plotting to do for the penultimate day if they are to push for a win. In case the game ends in a draw, Vidarbha will lift the Irani Cup for a second year in a row on the back of their first-innings lead, but there are still 180 overs of play remaining, weather permitting.