The usual suspects will be in focus as the new Ranji Trophy season gets underway on Monday. The recently concluded limited-overs leg of domestic cricket saw many established players find form a la Mumbai’s Suryakumar Yadav and Tamil Nadu’s Ravichandran Ashwin. There were new heroes too in the form of Mumbai’s Yashasvi Jaiswal and Karnataka’s Devdutt Padikkal.

But all eyes will be on Vidarbha, who are gunning for their third successive title as the 86th edition commences. Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Sikkim, Manipur, Mizoram and Puducherry, along with Bihar will be looking for improved displays this season. A new team, Chandigarh, will make their debut.

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Last season, Mumbai were left licking their wounds after a disappointing campaign. The 41-time champions have rung in the changes as they look to bring back the glory days.

Tamil Nadu, who finished runners up in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and the Vijay Hazare Trophy, also look like a team that can go deep. All-rounder Vijay Shankar will lead his team’s challenge this year.

Here is a look at some of the key pointers for the upcoming season:

Karnataka’s surge

Mayank Agarwal | BCCI/Sportzpics

Two trophies in the bag even before the start of the first-class season will, undoubtedly, give a huge fillip to Karnataka. However, the longer format presents a different kind of challenge. Moreover, they are all set to miss a number of key players as the season progresses. KL Rahul and Manish Pandey are currently on national duty. The prolific Mayank Agarwal will be away for the New Zealand series in February.

Maintaining the balance of the side will be a challenge for skipper Karun Nair and his deputy Shreyas Gopal. It would also be interesting to see how Padikkal, the tall left-handed opener who made waves in the Syed Mushtaq Ali, performs at the top of the order.

But the main question in everyone’s mind would be whether Karnataka can make a clean sweep of the domestic honours? It looks unlikely but this is a side where players invariably step up when the chips are down.

Mumbai’s return

Mumbai had a poor campaign in the last edition and would be keen to start afresh. Just like Karnataka, Mumbai are likely to miss key players during their campaign with Shreyas Iyer and Shivam Dube now regularly getting a run of games with the national team. With rising star Yashasvi Jaiswal travelling to South Africa for the U-19 World Cup early next year, Mumbai will miss yet another crucial name.

Suryakumar Yadav, captaining the side, is in the form of his life and will look to carry that on in the Ranji Trophy.

However, they will be buoyed by Ajinkya Rahane’s presence in the early stages. The senior batsman has had a solid season for India, scoring big runs in West Indies and at home. Youngster Prithvi Shaw was the star of the show during the recent Syed Mushtaq Ali too, as he smashed his way back to the side. The 20-year-old, returning after suspension, was at his fluent best and is batting like he has a point to prove.

The bowling, however, remains a worry for the league’s top dogs. Shardul Thakur and Dhawal Kulkarni have plenty of heavy-lifting to do given the lack of depth in the bowling department.

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Hat-trick of titles for Vidarbha?

Vidarbha’s famous son, Umesh Yadav, returned with a rich haul during India’s home season. But the pacer will not feature for the reigning champions during their first-round match against Andhra. Which means, a lot will depend on medium-pacer Rajneesh Gurbani in Yadav’s absence.

Big runs will be expected from the experienced duo of Wasim Jaffer and captain Faiz Fazal. The 41-year-old Jaffer is only 853 runs shy of getting to a whopping 20,000 first-class runs.

Vidarbha are a well-drilled, well-coached unit and the players getting a look-in have managed to make a mark over the last two years.

Spin remains their strength in the form of Akshay Wakhare, Aditya Sarwate and Akshay Karnewar.

Remember, no team has managed to win three Ranji Trophy titles on the trot since 1977. Can coach Chandrakant Pandit inspire them to create history? Write them off at your own peril.

Young guns

File image of Shubman Gill | IANS

While Shaw is a vital cog in the Mumbai set up, his one-time U-19 teammate Shubman Gill has also made rapid strides in domestic cricket. The Punjab batsman had a breakthrough season last year and has only gone from strength to strength in the limited-over tournaments, be it for his state or in List A cricket.

Gill was on the sidelines for India’s home series against South Africa and Bangladesh. While he is still awaiting his first Test cap, another Ranji season of promise will mean that it will be hard for the Indian team management to keep him out if any of the batsmen get injured or lose form in 2020. The spotlight will also be on Uttar Pradesh’s Priyam Garg (captain of the U-19 team at the World Cup next month), along with Padikkal and Jaiswal. In the pace department, Bengal’s Ishan Porel made a name for himself last year. Fitness concerns continue to plague young quicks Shivam Mavi and Kamlesh Nagarkoti, who play for UP and Rajasthan respectively and they would like to make a mark too.

Big names

Umesh Yadav | Sportzpics/BCCI

India internationals Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma will feature at some point in the tournament leading up to the New Zealand series. If pace spearhead Jasprit Bumrah makes a full recovery, he could also take the field for Gujarat after a gap of three years for match practice. Cheteshwar Pujara, as always, plays for Saurashtra when he is free from international commitments. Hardik Pandya, who has also been nursing an injury, can make is comeback in the tournament too soon.

After a horrendous second half to 2019, Kuldeep Yadav could do with some match practice in the longer format. Ravichandran Ashwin and Dinesh Karthik have bolstered the TN ranks and will be crucial to their side’s hopes. The off-spinner benefited from county cricket last year, and will relish this opportunity before India face the Black Caps.

The battle of the openers is set to continue as Rahul tries to force his way back in the Test team. Abhimanyu Easwaran, Priyank Panchal and Ruturaj Gaikwad are once again expected to be among the runs.

Group A - Andhra, Bengal, Delhi, Gujarat, Hyderabad, Kerala, Punjab, Rajasthan, Vidarbha

Group B - Baroda, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Mumbai, Railways, Saurashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh

Group C- Assam, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Odisha, Services, Tripura, Uttarakhand

Plate Group - Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Chandigarh, Goa, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Puducherry, Sikkim

Fixtures can be found here.