It's a delayed start, with the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy happening before the Indian Premier League player auction, but the Ranji Trophy 2019-20 is finally upon us. As many as 38 teams - with Chandigarh as the new entry - are set to compete over the next three months across the country for the title.
Cricketnext previews the talking points ahead of the season.
Can defending champions Vidarbha make it a hat trick?
Ahead of the Ranji Trophy last year, Vidarbha captain Faiz Fazal said his team wants to prove that their title win the previous year was no fluke. They managed to do that, winning two in two.
Now, Vidarbha have to deal with a different challenge, that of being one of the favourites. Can they become the only team apart from Mumbai to win the Ranji thrice in a row? That would be a serious achievement for a small association, although two in two is no mean feat!
Who are the other contenders?
As always, Karnataka will be a massive threat. They have a hat-trick of their own in the making, having won both the Vijay Hazare and SMA trophies this season. They haven't made it to the final since their 2014-15 victory, and will be keen on dominating this format once again. They've got a solid team too, with experienced players like KL Rahul, Manish Pandey, Karun Nair and Mayank Agarwal (although Rahul, Pandey and Agarwal will be away on national duty now and then), and youngsters like Devdutt Padikkal in the ranks.
As always, Mumbai will be a top team, looking for their 42nd title. Their last win came in 2015-16, after which they reached the final the subsequent year. Mumbai are so strong that talks about their decline begin when they don't win titles as frequently as they did in the past, but they're as strong a side as any other.
Gujarat, who won 2016-17, Saurashtra, the finalists last year, Punjab, Kerala, Bengal, Rajasthan will be in contention too. Tamil Nadu will want to move on from being perennial underperformers; they've made the finals two times in the last eight seasons but haven't won. They've got big names like R Ashwin, Murali Vijay and Dinesh Karthik available this year and could sense a chance.
Vidarbha have shown that the gap between small and big sides is reducing, and that would only make this competition tougher to call. Good for Indian cricket though.
Are the big stars available?
Yes, plenty of them would be playing this season. India don't play a Test till February 21 when they tour New Zealand, which means their Test stars will be available for most part of the Ranji Trophy.
Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara, R Ashwin, Mayank Agarwal, Hanuma Vihari, Shubman Gill, all part of the Test set up, will be free to play Ranji. Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma won't have national commitments too, but their workloads will be managed which means they're unlikely to play all games.
Shikhar Dhawan has already indicated he wants to make a Test comeback through Ranji, and should be available at some stage. Prithvi Shaw, back after a doping ban, will turn up for Mumbai and try to fight for a spot in the national team too.
Who are the stars in the making?
There are plenty, given the number of teams in the tournament. Let's look at the next in line knocking on the doors of selection.
Apart from Shaw and Gill, the batsmen coming up are Priyank Panchal and Abhimanyu Easwaran, who will lead Gujarat and Bengal respectively. They've scored tons of runs in the last season or so, and will be looking to continue knocking on the doors.
Among the pacers, Vidarbha's Rajneesh Gurbani, Delhi's Navdeep Saini and Hyderabad's Mohammed Siraj will be watched carefully by the selectors. The spin stock has been a cause of discussion; Shahbaz Nadeem (Jharkhand), Jalaj Saxena (Kerala), Vidarbha's Aditya Sarwate, Akshay Wakhare and Dharmendrasingh Jadeja are a few who have been successful in recent years.
What's the format?
The 38 teams are split into four groups - Elite Groups A, B and C, and Plate. The top five teams from Elite Groups A and B combined, the top two from Group C, and top team from Plate will make it to the quarterfinal.
The groups are:
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