Ojha’s likely absence will leave a bit of a hole in the spin bowling forces that Manoj Tiwary can command. © KSCA

Ojha’s likely absence will leave a bit of a hole in the spin bowling forces that Manoj Tiwary can command. © KSCA

Strangely enough, there isn’t a single semifinalist from the 2016-17 Ranji Trophy in Group D this season. On paper then, this might just be the ‘weakest’ group. Conversely, this means it is also a group that offers each team the best chance of making it to the quarterfinals. On the face of it, Bengal, Punjab and Vidarbha will fancy their chances of going through, given that the other four in the group – Chhattisgarh, Goa, Himachal Pradesh and Services – were all in Group C last year. But the shorter league phase means that all it will take is one slip-up or one inspired performance for equations to change.

Bengal

The whole drama surrounding Pragyan Ojha’s participation – or not – for Bengal this season is something the team could have done without. Ojha’s likely absence will leave a bit of a hole in the spin bowling forces that Manoj Tiwary can command, but Bengal’s strength over the full season is going to be batting. Tiwary himself will lead the way, but there are a couple of exciting youngsters in Sudip Chatterjee and Abhimanyu Easwaran too. Wriddhiman Saha and Mohammed Shami won’t be available for the full season, but should be there at the beginning, which gives Bengal a formidable look and the chance to get off to a good start.

Three players in focus: Manoj Tiwary, Sudip Chatterjee, Abhimanyu Easwaran.

Best performance/s: Winners in 1938-39, 1989-90.

2016-17 performance: Fifth place out of nine teams in Group A.

Squad: Manoj Tiwary (c), Sudip Chatterjee, Boddupalli Amit, Writtick Chatterjee, Ashok Dinda, Abhimanyu Easwaran, Aamir Gani, Koushik Ghosh, Sayan Ghosh, Shreevats Goswami, Anustuo Majumdar, Mukesh Kumar, Pradipta Pramanik, Abhishek Raman, Wriddhiman Saha, Kanishk Seth.

Chhattisgarh

Chhattisgarh's fight in their debut season has impressed coach Sulakashan Kulkarni. © Wisden India

Chhattisgarh’s fight in their debut season had impressed coach Sulakashan Kulkarni. © Wisden India

Their debut last season was promising, and even though Chhattisgarh finished ninth in ten teams in Group C eventually, they showed spark and the promise of better performances with time and experience. Mohammad Kaif is the ideal man to lead a young team and shepherd the players into maturing. Amandeep Khare has already impressed at the Under-19 level and is a batsman to watch out for, while Sumit Ruikar showed the classic spinner’s qualities of guile and deception last year.

Three players in focus: Mohammad Kaif, Amandeep Khare, Sumit Ruikar.

Best performance/s: Ninth place out of ten teams in their debut season in 2016-17.

2016-17 performance: Ninth place out of ten teams in Group C.

Squad: Mohammad Kaif (c), Prateek Sinha, Shubham Singh, Shahnawaz Hussain, Jatin Saxena, Sumit Ruikar, Rishabh Tiwari, Vishal Kushwah, Manoj Singh, Shourabh Kharwar, Amandeep Khare, Abhimanyu Chauhan, Sahil Gupta, Pankaj Kumar Rao, Shubham Agarwal, Ashutosh Singh.

Goa

Goa had been a Plate Group or Group C staple since a few years. They never did so badly as to be bottom, but not so well as to progress to the knockouts either. Last season could have heralded new hope, though, with Sagun Kamat slamming a triple-century and Shadab Jakati grabbing 41 wickets. Rituraj Singh, the pacer imported from Rajasthan, also proved to be a force, bagging 34 wickets at 22.29, the best average for Goa last season. Rituraj was also handy with the bat, contributing valuable lower-order runs. To go better than they have previously, though, Goa will need more batsmen to pull their weight. Kamat apart, only Snehal Kauthankar averages over 40, a sureshot recipe against getting first-innings leads.

Three players in focus: Sagun Kamat, Rituraj Singh, Shadab Jakati.

Best performance/s: Goa have never qualified for the knockouts.

2016-17 performance: Sixth place out of ten teams in Group C.

Squad: Sagun Kamat (c), Suraj Dongre, Reagan Pinto, Felix Alemao, Amit Yadav, Sumiran Amonkar, Swapnil Asnodkkar, Saurabh Bandekar, Samar Dubhashi, Shadab Jakati, Gauresh Gawas, Darshan Misal, Amulaya Pandrekar, Rituraj Singh, Keenan Vaz.

Himachal Pradesh

In the three-group structure of the Ranji Trophy, Himachal Pradesh had acquired a bit of a reputation for being perennial bridesmaids in Group C. They came close to finishing in the top two, and thus qualifying for the quarterfinals and a place in Groups A or B, several times, but faltered at the end on each occasion. Perhaps they will have better luck in a four-group structure. Rishi Dhawan’s brief stint with the Indian team may be over but he remains HP’s talisman. The emergence of the batting and spinning talents respectively of Prashant Chopra and Mayank Dagar augurs well for the team, and with skill allied to some luck, they could yet make a run for the knockouts.

Three players in focus: Prashant Chopra, Rishi Dhawan, Mayank Dagar.

Best performance/s: Quarterfinalists in 2008-09.

2016-17 performance: Fourth place out of ten teams in Group C.

Squad: Rishi Dhawan (c), Ankush Bains, Priyanshu Khanduri , Ankit Kalsi, Ankit Kaushik, Nikhil Gangta, Paras Dogra, Sumeet Verma, Ankush Dhariwal, Pankaj Jaiswal, Mayank Dagar, Akash Vasisht, Akshay Chauhan, Gurvinder Singh, Prashant Chopra, Shresth Nirmohi, Vinay Galetiya

Punjab

© BCCI

Punjab will be without Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh in the first match. © BCCI

Harbhajan Singh had been announced captain with Yuvraj Singh the vice-captain for the Punjab team in the 2017-18 season. To not any great surprise, in the week leading up to the opening match, it emerged Harbhajan wouldn’t be available “for the first few games”. Even the official Twitter handle of the team didn’t know the cause, though. Yuvraj will be attending a fitness test at the National Cricket Academy and will also miss the first match. In fact, Punjab will be quite orphaned for the first match or two, with the talented young Shubman Gill, Gurkeerat Singh Mann and Siddarth Kaul also missing for different reasons. Nevertheless, they have the personnel to do well. Sandeep Sharma and Barinder Sran have all had a taste of representing India and then fallen away. There’s no better way to get back in the reckoning than with a blockbuster Ranji season.

Three players in focus: Sidharth Kaul, Gurkeerat Singh Mann, Shubman Gill.

Best performance/s: Winners in 1992-93.

2016-17 performance: Fourth place out of nine teams in Group A.

Squad: Harbhajan Singh (c), Abhishek Gupta, Manpreet Gony, Gurkeerat Singh Mann, Jiwanjot Singh, Siddarth Kaul, Uday Kaul, Taruwar Kohli, Pargat Singh, Sandeep Sharma, Raghu Sharma, Shubek Gill, Shubman Gill, Mayank Sidhana, Barinder Sran, Yuvraj Singh.

Services

Even when they have battled in Group C, the pluck of the Services side has been ever-present. Their team and Railways have almost been treated like the step-children in the Ranji Trophy, not enjoying the rich inflow of funds the state teams do, but still duking it out every year. G Rahul Singh emerged as a potential batting star last year, and Shamsher Yadav also had a good outing last season. The batting looked in reasonable shape, though Services lacked a wicket-taking bowler. That is what they’ll hope to remedy this year with the young Rahul Chahar joining them. Chahar will miss the first match, though, having been selected for the Board President XI team that will take on the New Zealanders – and attaining unwanted headlines when the BCCI goofed up by announcing Deepak Chahar in the team only to issue a clarification later.

Three players in focus: Rahul Chahar, G Rahul Singh, Shamsher Yadav.

Best performance/s: Semifinalists in 2013-14.

2016-17 performance: Seventh place out of ten teams in Group C.

Squad: Sachidanand Pandey, Rahul Chahar, Vikas Hathwala, Muzzaffaruddin Khalid, Amit Pachhara, Diwesh Pathania, Gahlaut Rahul Singh, Pal Raj Bahadur, Ravi Chauhan, Nakul Harpal Verma, Shamsher Yadav, Vikas Yadav, Nitin Tanwar, Navneet Singh.

Vidarbha

Vidarbha have reached the quarterfinals in two of the last three seasons, and both times, they looked a good bet to go further too. Wasim Jaffer, their stalwart professional, wasn’t available through the last season, and it remains to be seen if he will play this year. Even without Jaffer, there are the likes of Ganesh Satish and Faiz Fazal to lend batting spine, while Shrikant Wagh has been a very handy left-arm seam-bowling allrounder for some time now. The biggest difference to Vidarbha’s fortunes may well be Karn Sharma, though, their latest signing. Karn has been in outstanding form in both the Duleep Trophy and the unofficial Tests against New Zealand A, and he could provide the cutting edge they lacked in taking the next step.

Three players in focus: Karn Sharma, Ganesh Satish, Shrikant Wagh.

Best performance/s: Quarterfinalist in 1970-71, 1995-96, 2014-15 and 2015-16.

2016-17 performance: Sixth place out of nine teams in Group B.

Squad: Yet to be announced.