Test specialists Cheteshwar Pujara will be looking for some serious game time while wayward talent Prithvi Shaw will aim for redemption in what promises to be an eventful three months of Ranji Trophy starting Monday. The 41-year-old Wasim Jaffer also gears up to roll back years and make yet another impact in the tournament.
With them will be the hundreds of young talent, who will certainly figure out their motivation and purpose during the marathon tournament that will have a record 38 teams including new entrant Chandigarh.
The national first-class championship is BCCI's most high-profile domestic tournament and the months of December and January could be very eventful for India's Test and 'A' team regulars while 'Men in Blue' under Virat Kohli remain engaged in their white-ball battles against West Indies, Sri Lanka and Australia.
With India playing two Tests against New Zealand, starting from third-week of February, the likes of Pujara (for Saurashtra), Ajinkya Rahane (Mumbai), Mayank Agarwal (Karnataka) Ravichandran Ashwin (Tamil Nadu), Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma (both rested on BCCI advice for their respective first games) are expected to feature in a significant number of games during the first two months.
And sooner than later, Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya are expected to play a few games to test their fitness before they are back in the national fold. Their presence will only lift the profile of the tournament as well as making it competitive.
With Mayank grabbing his spot in the Indian team, he would relish the challenge of facing Ravichandran Ashwin, expected to come up with a bagful of tricks when Karnataka take on Tamil Nadu in a high-profile group B clash in Dindigul.
Ashwin against Mayank and back in-form Karun Nair will be the marquee duel in the first round games. Similarly, Rahane and Shaw will have their own check lists when Mumbai take on Baroda in an away match. Having made an impressive return in the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 post doping ban, Shaw will be vying for the third opener's slot in the Test side or at least a place back in the India 'A' squad for the "shadow tour" of New Zealand in January.
He will face stiff competition from Gujarat's Priyank Panchal, Bengal's Abhimanyu Easwaran and his former India U-19 teammate Shubman Gill of Punjab, who many consider to be as talented as the Mumbaikar if not more. Rahane, on his part, will like to make some big hundreds and see if he can sneak into the white ball squad in the wake of some good red ball performance even though it is highly improbable at the moment.
For Pujara, it couldn't have been a better place to play the first game as Saurashtra take on Himachal Pradesh at Dharamsala in chilly conditions where Rishi Dhawan and company are expected to make the ball talk. A three-figure mark will be a special one as it will be his 50th first-class hundred.
For Delhi, where off-field drama dominates news space, the team sans Ishant Sharma, who is expected to play some of the later games, will be banking on their pace trio of Navdeep Saini, Pradeep Sangwan and Pawan Suyal to unsettle a Kerala line-up which has the likes of Vishnu Vinod, Sachin Baby and Jalaj Saxena. Dhruv Shorey, Hiten Dalal and Nitish Rana will be hoping to give good account of themselves against Sandeep Warrier's back-of-the-length stuff and Basil Thampi's pace.
Last but not the least is two-time defending champions Vidarbha, who probably will depend on Rajnish Gurbani's seam-up stuff in the absence of Umesh Yadav. But all eyes will be on 41-year-old Jaffer, who is only 853 runs shy of 20,000 first-class runs. Jaffer's insatiable appetite for runs, Ashwin's knack of showing who's the boss, Shaw's audacious strokeplay are what will make the months of December, January and February special.