11:34 AM ET
Into its 86th year, the biggest first-class competition in the world - the Ranji Trophy - gets bigger with a 38th team, Chandigarh, added to the roster for the 2019-20 season. Like every year, it gives around 800 hopefuls a platform to establish themselves. Players aside, it is also a true test for ground staff, curators, logistics personnel, scorers, coaches and, of course, match officials. Here is a look at what the key talking points from this season are likely to be.
Vidarbha have won two back-to-back seasons. They must be favourites again?
Barring the great Bombay side of the 1960s - they won 15 successive titles from 1958-59 to 1972-73 - no team has won three back-to-back titles. Vidarbha have a rare chance to jump into the pool having successfully defended their crown in 2018-19. But Karnataka are in some serious form, having waltzed their way to the Vijay Hazare Trophy and Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy titles. They're going for a treble, and it will need an incredibly good team to stop them.
But won't KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal be away on national duty?
The draw is such that Karnataka will have at least one of them right through the campaign, unless of course Agarwal earns a limited-overs call-up. With the New Zealand tour coming up in February, Rahul has the incentive to score big runs to put himself back on the Test selection radar. Then they've also got Manish Pandey, Karun Nair and Devdutt Padikkal, this tall 19-year old left-hander who has made heads turn by finishing as the highest run-getter in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. Bowlers from other teams - good luck.
What about the other Indian players - will they feature in the Ranji?
Well, Tamil Nadu, who finished runners-up in the Hazare and Mushtaq Ali, will have M Vijay, R Ashwin and Dinesh Karthik available in the initial rounds. In the early stages, Mumbai will feature Ajinkya Rahane and Prithvi Shaw, who is on a comeback trail after his six-month suspension for a failed dope test. Cheteshwar Pujara will turn up for Saurashtra like he always does when free of national commitments, while Shubman Gill is set to feature for Punjab, and Hanuma Vihari for Andhra. So, a big part of the cream of India's Test batting line-up will be available. Shikhar Dhawan, who is recovering the freak knee injury, might also fancy playing the odd match for Delhi.
What about the mean fast bowlers?
The Indian team management is monitoring workloads carefully. Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma have been asked to skip the first round at least. Mohammed Shami, meanwhile, is with Indian limited-overs squad. Don't be surprised if you see Jasprit Bumrah return to play a Ranji Trophy game for the first time in three years. He's on the recovery path and could well feature for Gujarat in the first week of January, to prove his match fitness and get overs under the belt ahead of the Test series in New Zealand. Ditto with Hardik Pandya, who is recovering from a back injury, and could turn up to play for Baroda, who are led by his brother Krunal.
What are the rewards for a good Ranji performance?
India are playing just one Test series before the Ranji Trophy gets over - the away series in New Zealand in February-March. But immediate rewards are unlikely considering the Indian Test unit is fairly settled. That said, the BCCI has carefully managed to schedule shadow tours for India A, to get their players acclimatised ahead of every big overseas assignment. That is the tour a lot of players should aim to make. After that, it could just be that one X-factor performance or a series of them, like the kind Vijay Shankar came up with in November 2018 in New Zealand - albeit in the shorter formats - to force his way into the World Cup squad.
Do any names stand out?
Shaw, Gill along with Priyank Panchal and Abhimanyu Easwaran will all be vying for that third opener's spot. The competition has gotten tougher with Rahul returning to his run-scoring ways, and in some style.
With Hardik Pandya still injured, the assumption is that India will go back to Hanuma Vihari at No. 6 to fortify their batting. Partly, the reason for that is the absence of a genuine seam-bowling allrounder. But Vijay Shankar's improved bowling and his solidity with the bat could just translate into a Test call-up, should the new Tamil Nadu captain churn out runs and pick up wickets. His calmness stood out under pressure in a tense Syed Mushtaq Ali final. Can he replicate that in the long form?
What of India's spin stocks, beyond the three currently in the Test squad?
Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja remain the top two spinners, but there are question marks suddenly over Kuldeep Yadav. Shahbaz Nadeem, at 31, proved what years of picking wickets here can do, when he was rewarded with a Test debut against South Africa in Ranchi. There's Jalaj Saxena, another consistent domestic match-winner, waiting to get noticed while Yuzvendra Chahal and Rahul Chahar are looking to fill the legspinning void.
Tell us something about new entrants Chandigarh
For starters, while they are "newbies", they have a lot of players from Punjab, who have had a solid culture of cricket. So unlike the new sides from the north east that had to build from scratch, Chandigarh had a solid talent pool to choose from. They've got former India fast bowler VRV Singh as head coach. Among their key players are Manan Vohra and Barinder Sran. Watch out for the young Under-19 batsman Arjun Azad.
What about the format?
Like last year, the five teams from Groups A and B combined - consisting nine teams each - will qualify for the knockouts. It is entirely possible that all five teams could qualify from the same group. So topping one's own group may not be enough, and this will keep teams on their toes because they'll constantly be watching what is happening in the other group too.
Then we've got two teams making the cut from the 10-pool Group C and the one entrant from Plate Group, also consisting of 10 teams. Uttarakhand have been promoted to Group C after securing a quarterfinal berth last year, while Goa have been relegated to Plate division.
And finally, is there anything interesting from the transfer window?
Robin Uthappa is now with Kerala, but won't lead after their failure to make the knockouts in the limited-overs competitions, with Sachin Baby back as captain. Smit Patel, the India Under-19 World Cup winner from 2012, is now with Goa, after moving in from Tripura to replace CM Gautam. His captain from that U-19 World Cup edition, Unmukt Chand, is leading Uttarakhand. Vinay Kumar, the Karnataka stalwart, has moved to Puducherry, while Stuart Binny, Vinay's one-time team-mate, is now with Nagaland.