The Ranji Trophy final of fortune swings seems heading for a gripping conclusion. The contest changed shades on a dramatic Wednesday as different protagonists influenced the proceedings.

The commitment in Dhawal Kulkarni's batsmanship, the red-hot Abhimanyu Mithun's six-wicket haul and Ajit Agarkar's fiery bowling were followed by an engaging rescue act of contrasting styles.

Just when Mumbai closed in for the kill, Manish Pandey's sizzle and the solidity of Ganesh Satish kept the host afloat on the third day at the Gangothri Glades ground.

On a pitch that appears to have eased out, Karnataka, chasing 338, was 135 for three in its second innings. Time is not a factor with two days remaining.

Pandey (59 batting, 71b, 9x4) and Satish (40 batting, 125b, 5x4) came together at 46 for three. Mumbai was pegged back.

The intrepid Pandey's uncluttered mind and bat-speed were evident as he drove on the up, cut, and flicked. He reached a hectic half-century under pressure with a pull off Agarkar.

Pandey, on 44, had the rub of the green too when wicketkeeper Vinayak Samant put down a low catch to his right; the right-hander had edged an attempted cut off Kulkarni.

Satish, who eased into a front-footed cover-drive off Kulkarni, has displayed a firm resolve and defence.

Earlier, Agarkar snared make-shift opener C. Gautam on the slash, dismissed K.B. Pawan with the one darting in and swung the ball away from Robin Uthappa to find the edge.

It was surprising why skipper Uthappa did not open in the second innings. Psychologically, the move sent the wrong signals. Agarkar was the pick with his off-stump line and away movement. Pandey was fortunate to survive the final over.

It was also a day when tempers flared up. There has been some bad blood between Agarkar and the Karnataka cricketers after the former's controversial run-out on day one.

On Wednesday, Uthappa banged the ball into the ground after picking up a smart catch at short cover when Mithun, with his extra bounce, forced Agarkar to pop one up. Walking back, Agarkar complained to the umpires, who soon had a word with the Karnataka players.

Earlier, Kulkarni's innings (87, 181b, 17x4) of application and maturity symbolised Mumbai's combative spirit as the visitor recovered to a total of 234. He blunted the attack with studious forward defence, leaned into his cover-drives off both Mithun and Vinay Kumar and swung left-arm spinner Sunil Joshi past the ropes. When Kulkarni struck the ball, he invariably found the gaps.

The Mumbai think-tank's decision to promote Kulkarni ahead of Agarkar and Romesh Powar worked. Kulkarni's straight batted approach was required by the side after Mithun had sliced through the top and middle-order.

Kulkarni might have been, on 47, grassed by Pandey at gully off Mithun but deserved a hundred. He was eventually held in the cordon attempting to steer paceman Vinay Kumar.

Abhishek Nayar's 50 (139b, 4x4) and his 95-run sixth wicket association with Kulkarni were crucial. The southpaw put a lid on his attacking instincts and milked the bowling with firm pushes. Nayar was sensationally held by an airborne Pandey at long-on as he lofted Joshi.

There was a handy contribution from Powar (28 not out) as the Mumbai lower-order rallied once again.

If Karnataka triumphs, it would have conjured the highest successful chase in a Ranji Trophy final.

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