The Ranji Trophy quarterfinals begin across four venues on Thursday with usual suspects such as Saurashtra and Karnataka taking on not-so-fancied teams who are more than capable of springing a surprise.
Two-time defending champions Vidarbha and the tournament’s most successful side (41-time champions) Mumbai are big-name teams missing from this year’s knockout stages, as are Tamil Nadu and Delhi.
The knockout stages of the prestigious tournament, however, features some in-form teams although the quarter-finals are expected to go largely on predicted lines.
On paper, the most well contested quarter-final should be between Saurashtra and Andhra in Ongole, Andhra Pradesh as both teams go into the knockouts from the elite cross pool.
Last year’s runners-up Saurashtra are expected to go past Andhra, having shown solid form in the league stage to finish with three wins, four draws and a loss from eight games. Their sole defeat came against Uttar Pradesh.
Seasoned pacer Jaydev Unadkat will be expected to fire once again, having taken 51 wickets this season at an average off 11.90, continuing his stellar form from last season.
In the batting department, Sheldon Jackson has stepped up in the absence of Cheteswar Pujara and is the leading scorer of the team with 605 runs at an average of 55.
Andhra go into the game after back-to-back losses towards the end of the league stage. However, their rampaging run in the first half of the season, when they were leading the table, helped them advance in the competition. They will rely a lot on in-form medium-pacer KV Sasikanth and batsman Ricky Bhui in the knockout game.
In Jammu, the mighty Karnataka take on the spirited bunch of J&K players who qualified despite a chaotic build-up in the wake of the communication clampdown in their state.
Karnataka, who finished third in the combined elite pool behind Gujarat and Bengal, scripted important wins over Tamil Nadu and Mumbai. They delivered when it mattered most, having won two of their last three games.
Karnataka will be gunning for their third title of the season having won the 50-over and 20-over titles already in 2019-’20. They could be boosted by the presence of KL Rahul in the last four but the in-form India player is absent for the quarter-final clash. But the domestic stalwarts will be boosted by the return of Manish Pandey.
They play Group C toppers J&K, who lost only to Haryana in the league stage. Captain Parvez Rasool has led from the front scoring 403 runs at 44.77 and 25 wickets at 14.56. Another player who has contributed massively to the success of the team is batsman Abdul Samad who has amassed 547 runs.
In Cuttack, a comfortable win is expected from Bengal against Odisha. Their confidence must be sky high following memorable victories over Rajasthan and Punjab in the last two games. They chased down 320 against Rajasthan before beating Punjab in a low-scoring game on a difficult track in Patiala.
The seasoned Manoj Tiwary has been their go-to batsman and left-arm spinner Shahbaz Ahmed their stand out bowler. Bengal will also be boosted by the return of Ishan Porel, who has been impressive for India A and will be raring to go with a possible senior team call-up not far away for the young quick.
At the Sardar Patel Stadium in Valsad, hosts Gujarat would be overwhelming favourites against Goa who advanced from plate group having suffered relegation last year.
Gujarat made it to the last eight after topping the elite cross pool with five wins from eight matches and three draws.
Goa will have their hopes pinned on their leading run-scorer Amit Verma (791 runs) and SK Patel (751 runs) and would want them to play crucial knocks in the last eight clash. But the quarterfinal will be a different ball game as they face a formidable Gujarat attack led by Roosh Kalaria, who has taken 30 wickets so far.
(With PTI and ESPNCricinfo inputs)