In-form Pujara back to boost his state team ahead of the quarters.

In-form Pujara back to boost his state team ahead of the quarters. © Getty

For all the rich history that the Ranji Trophy is associated with, the Mumbai team, or Bombay as it was called earlier, have several chapters reserved for themselves in the textbook of India's first-class cricket, what with 41 title victories out of 46 finals they have appeared. However, among those chapters, the text of the 2018-19 season would be something that Mumbai will be eager to erase from their memories, having failed to enter the knockouts for the first time in eleven years.

Finalists of the previous season, Delhi, are also missing from the lineup for the knockouts, along Baroda, Madhya Pradesh Tamil Nadu and Bengal, leaving Karnataka as the only team in the knockouts among the top six teams who have played the most number of Ranji finals. Among those looking to profit from the absence of these teams are first time entrants Uttarakhand who are pitted against defending champions Vidarbha in the quarterfinal stage that gets underway on Tuesday (January 15). Saurashtra take on Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka are pitted against Rajasthan, with Kerala and Gujarat completing the quarterfinal lineups.

Vidarbha vs Uttarakhand

Among the three teams from their group not to lose a single game, Vidarbha's strength have been their batting - revolving around Wasim Jaffar, Faiz Fazal and Akshay Wadkar who have all aggregated more than 500 runs this season - and spin. Vidarbha's approach has been to out-bat oppositions and then make way for the likes of Aditya Sarwate and Akshay Wakhare to try and capitalise on worn surfaces. Their biggest win this season - an innings and 146-run victory against Mumbai - came as their first win at home this season, which should hold them in good stead in a home quarterfinal in Nagpur.

After six wins out of eight games in an unbeaten debut run, this game will be Uttarakhand's biggest test. Their performance in the Plate group, however dominating it was, isn't the ideal sample size to judge while going up against the top teams. But the match against Vidarbha can serve as a good platform for Uttarakhand to prove their prowess on the big stage. The experienced Rajat Bhatia, who's also the team's highest scorer this season, will be key to Uttarakhand's fortunes while they will also bank on Deepak Dhapola and Sunny Rana - their top two wicket-takers - to deliver.

Saurashtra vs Uttar Pradesh

The hero of India's first-ever Test series win in Australia, Cheteshwar Pujara, returns to his roots which comes as a big boost for Saurashtra ahead of their away clash in Lucknow. Like Vidarbha, Saurashtra too were undefeated with three wins and five draws. That they managed to take the first innings lead against Vidarbha in their previous game, with skipper Jaydev Unadkat leading from the front with a six-wicket haul, augurs well for the team who'll also count on Dharmendrasinh Jadeja to do the damage with the ball. Apart from Pujara, their batting will revolve around the experienced Sheldon Jackson.

Uttar Pradesh, who just about saw off competition from Jharkhand to finish second from Group C with a first-innings lead against Assam, will be counting on the trio of Rinku Singh, Priyam Garg and Akshdeep Nath to do the bulk of the job with the bat, as they have in the tournament so far. Saurabh Kumar and Ankit Rajpoot, their chief wicket-takers, will have key roles to play if UP are to emulate their only Ranji Trophy winning campaign in 2005-06. In that season Suresh Raina had scored the most runs for his team but he's yet to make a big contribution this season and UP will be hoping that he comes to the party.

Karnataka vs Rajasthan

Last season's semifinalists Karnataka, who are fresh off a loss against Baroda in a low-scoring thriller are up against Rajasthan who enter the knockouts with confidence of seven wins under their belt. Karnataka have blown hot and cold so far, with three wins and two losses and have had to do without several of their key players. Mayank Agarwal continues to be unavailable but they will be boosted by the presence of K Gowtham, who missed the previous game due to a finger injury. KV Siddharth and Dega Nischal have made the most of the opportunities with both scoring in excess of 600, and will provide additional strength to a batting order that comprises Karun Nair, Manish Pandey and R Samarth. Karnataka also have a quality bowling attack - with Ronit More being the pick of the lot - and will count on it to get the job done in home conditions at the Chinnaswamy stadium.

The only team to aggregate more than 50 points in this edition, Rajasthan are yet to concede first-innings lead so far. In Robin Bist, Mahipal Lomror and Amitkumar Gautam, Rajasthan have 1883 runs between them and will be banking on the trio to add plenty more to the tally. Pace has been the primary weapon for Rajasthan, with Aniket Choudhary, Tanvir-ul-Haq and Nathu Singh having bagged 116 wickets between them. Rahul Chahar's leg-break also gives Rajasthan some variety.

Kerala vs Gujarat

Having entered the knockouts for the first time in their Ranji history, Kerala were overpowered by Vidarbha in the quarterfinal final last season. They have the opportunity to make amends when they face off against Gujarat in a home game at the Krishnagiri Stadium in Wayanad, having made it to the knockouts after a thrilling five-wicket win against Himachal Pradesh in their last league game. Jalaj Saxena's all-round skills and his immense experience will again be key for the South Indian team, who will also be hoping for some of their other regulars in their batting order - the likes of Sanju Samson, Vishnu Vinod and Sachin Baby - to shoulder the responsibilities. Sandeep Warrier-Basil Thampi is a potent pace pair while Sijomon Joseph offers support to Saxena in the spin department.

Kerala, though, have to bring out their A game as they are up against a quality Gujarat team who are yet to taste defeat and are fresh off an innings win against Maharashtra. Priyank Panchal has yet again led from the front with the bat with 887 runs, which includes four centuries while Gujarat will be boosted by the return of the experienced Parthiv Patel. The batting workload has been distributed well among Manprit Juneja, Rujul Bhatt and Bhargav Merai, while the 22-year-old Kathan Patel, in his maiden first-class season, has scored 389 runs with two hundreds and two fifties in nine innings. The bowlers too have come up with a collective show with as many as five having picked more than 15 wickets, all of which bode well for the 2016-17 champions.

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