Group C had been the one with the lesser teams till last season, where the good players stacked up excellent numbers against not-so-strong opposition and the action, largely, took place without too many people bothering too much.
Not so after the latest rejig. This 28-team season has an even smattering of teams – in terms of standards and history – in the four groups. And Group C might just be the one to have the maximum following, what with Mumbai, the 41-time champions, and former winners Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Baroda in the mix, along with Odisha, Tripura and Andhra.
Andhra has a lot of history but not much in terms of silverware or big-ticket players.
Last season, in Group C, they almost finished in the top two but had to be content with third spot, having recorded three wins from nine games. The squad is pretty much the same, with G Hanuma Vihari at the helm, good competitors like K Srikar Bharat and Bhargav Bhatt around, and decent support in the batting line-up with Ricky Bhui, D Ravi Teja and the vastly experienced ‘elder brother’ Y Venugopala Rao.
Vihari, Bharat and Bhatt were a part of the Duleep Trophy, where Vihari scored a patient 105 opening the innings in one of the games, and Bhatt returned twin four-fors in the final in a losing cause for India Blue.
That should give them confidence, even if they look a bit thin on the pace-bowling front and don’t quite look like a top-two team.
Three players in focus: G Hanuma Vihari, Bhargav Bhatt, K Srikar Bharat.
Best performance/s: Quarterfinalists in 1985-86 and 2014-15.
Performance in 2016-17: Third place out of 10 teams in Group C.
Squad: Hanuma Vihari (capt), Ashwin Hebbar, Ricky Bhui, Uppara Girinath, Prasanth Kumar, Yarra Prithviraj, D Ravi Teja, Bodapati Sumanth, Y Venugopal Rao, Shoaib Md Khan, Bandaru Ayyappa, Bhargav Bhatt, K Srikar Bharat (vice-capt & wk), Pranith Manyala, Karthik Raman, KV Sasikanth, Paidikalva Vijaykumar.
With Atul Bedade taking up coaching responsibilities and Irfan Pathan the leader, Baroda will hope for better results than last season, when they ended near the bottom of Group A. The Pathan brothers Yusuf and Irfan bring with them a wealth of experience and nous. Throw in Deepak Hooda, one of the more exciting young batsmen around, and regulars like Pinal Shah, Kedar Devdhar and Aditya Waghmode, and it’s a team that can challenge the bigger sides on its day and keep its head above water against others. Baroda would have liked to have Hardik Pandya around, no doubt, but that won’t happen too often. They do, however, have two promising young pacemen in Atit Sethi and Babashafi Pathan, which should help.
Three players in focus: Irfan Pathan, Deepak Hooda, Atit Sethi.
Best performance/s: Winners in 1942-43, 1946-47, 1949-50, 1957-58 and 2000-01.
Performance in 2016-17: Eighth place out of nine teams in Group A.
Squad: Irfan Pathan (capt), Kedar Devdhar, Deepak Hooda (vice-capt), Yusuf Pathan, Swapnil Singh, Aditya Waghmode, Pinal Shah, Mitesh Patel (wk), Vishnu Solanki, Soaeb Tai, Rishi Arothe, Lukman Meriwala, Ketul Patel, Babashafi Pathan, Atit Sheth.
Madhya Pradesh have been a middling team in recent memory, at their best at home on the belters at Indore, where the likes of Devendra Bundela can always be trusted to bat long and big.
There are other skilful batsmen around too, like Harpreet Singh and Naman Ojha, while Ishwar Pandey might be unwanted by the Indian team but is much valued at MP. Young Rajat Patidar is no muck either, and there’s Avesh Khan, the 20-year-old medium pacer with a big, and burgeoning, reputation.
Together, they must script a better finish than last time, and in their bid to turn things around, MP have named four uncapped players this season – Parth Sahani, Anshul Tripathi, Waseem Ahmed and Samad Khan.
Three players in focus: Avesh Khan, Harpreet Singh, Ishwar Pandey.
Best performance/s: Winners (as Holkar) in 1945-46, 1947-48, 1950-51 and 1952-53.
Performance in 2016-17: Sixth place out of nine teams in Group A.
Squad: Devendra Bundela (capt), Harpreet Singh (vice-capt), Ankit Dane, Saransh Jain, Rajat Patidar, Shubham Sharma, Aditya Shrivastava, Anshul Tripathi, Waseem Ahmed, Ankit Sharma, Avesh Khan, Anushul Tripathi, Puneet Datey, Naman Ojha (wk), Mihir Hirwani, Ishwar Pandey, Chandrakant Sakure.
Don’t even look at the line-up. Mumbai have always been, and will always be, one of the favourites for the Ranji Trophy – 41 titles in 83 editions confirms that.
This time, however, it might start a bit trickily for them when they face MP for their first match in the second round, because Shreyas Iyer, Prithvi Shaw and Dhawal Kulkarni will be out representing the Board President’s XI against New Zealand, while Shardul Thakur will be with India A facing New Zealand A.
Even without the big names, Mumbai appear strong – any setup with Aditya Tare, Suryakumar Yadav, Abhishek Nayar, Vijay Gohil, Vishal Dabholkar, Akhil Herwadkar and others must always be taken seriously. And once the stars return, expect Mumbai to be back at their grumpy and no-inch-given-and-none-asked-for best.
Three players in focus: Shreyas Iyer, Prithvi Shaw, Vijay Gohil.
Best performance/s: Winners in 1934-35, 1935-36, 1941-42, 1944-45, 1948-49, 1951-52, 1953-54, 1955-56, 1956-57, 1958-59, 1959-60, 1960-61, 1961-62, 1962-63, 1963-64, 1964-65, 1965-66, 1966-67, 1967-68, 1968-69, 1969-70, 1970-71, 1971-72, 1972-73, 1974-75, 1975-76, 1976-77, 1980-81, 1983-84, 1984-85, 1993-94, 1994-95, 1996-97, 1999-00, 2002-03, 2003-04, 2006-07, 2008-09, 2009-10, 2012-13, 2015-16.
Performance in 2016-17: Runners-up.
Squad: Aditya Tare (capt & wk), Shreyas Iyer, Akhil Herwadkar, Sufiyan Shaikh, Siddhesh Lad, Jay Gokul Bista, Sairaj Patil, Eknath Kerkar, Royston Dias, Shashank Singh, Shivam Dubey, Siddharth Akre, Abhishek Nayar, Dhawal Kulkarni, Shardul Thakur, Vishal Dabholkar, Aditya Dhumal, Akash Parkar, Sagar Trivedi, Harshal Soni, Tushar Deshpande, Balwinder Sandhu, Vijay Gohil, Shivam Malhotra.
Another of the middling teams, Odisha have been impressive in bursts in recent years, and much of that is due to experienced hands such as Biplab Samantray, the batting allrounder, and Basant Mohanty, the fast man who has an outstanding average of 21.95 over 78 first-class matches. Suryakant Pradhan is another strong cog in the fast-bowling wheel, while the Beheras – Deepak and Natraj –and Govinda Poddar, the captain, have seen it all over the years. It’s a good unit on paper, and could be one of the teams to challenge Mumbai and Tamil Nadu hard.
Three players in focus: Biplab Samantray, Suryakant Pradhan, Basant Mohanty.
Best performance/s: Semifinalists in 2000-01.
Performance in 2016-17: Quarterfinalists.
Squad: Govinda Poddar (capt), Abinash Saha, Natraj Behera, Biplab Samantray, Sandeep Pattnaik, Ranjit Singh, Subhranshu Senapati, Saurabh Rawat (wk), Dhiraj Singh, Suryakant Pradhan, Alok Mangaraj, Santanu Mishra, Basant Mohanty, Deepak Behera, Alok Chandra Sahoo.
The good news for Tamil Nadu, who finished in the semifinals last time, is that R Ashwin and M Vijay will be a part of at least the initial part of the campaign for Abhinav Mukund’s team. The bad news is that Vijay Shankar will not be around at the start as he is a part of the BP XI squad, and Dinesh Karthik will be busy with national commitments. Pacemen Aswin Crist and T Natarajan are also nursing injuries.
But it’s still a star-studded team, with Abhinav, B Indrajith and B Aparajith and Kaushik Gandhi shoring up the batting along with Vijay, and a host of spinners in the mix along with Ashwin – Rahil Shah, Malolan Rangarajan, R Sai Kishore among them – as well as the hot new face in the national scene: Washington Sundar, the all-round star in the Duleep final recently.
Three players in focus: Abhinav Mukund, Washington Sundar, B Aparajith.
Best performance/s: Winners in 1954-55 (as Madras), and 1987-88.
Performance in 2016-17: Semifinalists.
Squad: Abhinav Mukund (capt), M Vijay, B Indrajith (vice-capt), B Aparajith, Washington Sundar, R Ashwin, Kaushik Gandhi, V Lakshman, Ravi Kumar Rohith, Ravisrinivasan Sai Kishore, N Jagadeesan (wk), Malolan Rangarajan, Rahil Shah, Krishnamoorthy Vignesh, Lakshminarayanan Vignesh.
The thing Tripura have done well in recent years is to set their pace bowlers – led by Rana Dutta – loose on the opposition on home turf in Agartala and then battle hard with the bat.
They can’t but try the same ploy and hope for the best, and in Manisankar Murasingh, they have an experienced and skilful cricketer as captain. There’s Smit Patel, always-at-the-batsman Dutta, consistent top-order batsman Udiyan Bose and the experienced professional Yashpal Singh. Perhaps not a top-two team, but Tripura can certainly upset the plans of the more celebrated units.
Three players in focus: Manisankar Murasingh, Smit Patel, Rana Dutta.
Best performance/s: Plate semifinalists in 2009-10.
Performance in 2016-17: Bottom place (tenth) in Group C.
Squad: Manisankar Murasingh (capt), Udiyan Bose (vice-capt), Joydeep Banik, Dwaipayan Bhattacharjee, Bishal Ghosh, Samrat Singha, Smit Patel (wk), Abhijit Dey, Joydeep Bhattacharjee, Ajoy Sarkar, Rajesh Banik, Gurinder Singh, Rana Dutta, Abhijit Sarkar, Yashpal Singh.