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A Ranji Trophy with international flavour and increased pressure

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Runorder: Are there too many tweaks to the Ranji Trophy? (5:10)

Ajit Agarkar, Shaun Tait, Cyrus Broacha and the team of ESPNcricinfo discuss whether the Ranji Trophy is being tinkered with a bit too much (5:10)

Two seasons ago, Amit Mishra was India's preferred spin partner to R Ashwin in Tests. Ravindra Jadeja had been dropped across formats, his bowling lacking its usual bite following a shoulder surgery. He could have enjoyed time off with his horses at his farm in Jamnagar, but asked to be included in Saurashtra's Ranji Trophy squad.

On pitches tailor-made to suit the team's strengths, Jadeja picked up six consecutive five-fors - apart from scores of 91 and 58 - to give Saurashtra a head start. At the end of the season, they had made their second final, and Jadeja had nailed his place in the Test squad after tormenting South Africa at home.

While he is a Test regular, exclusion from India's limited-overs XI is likely to hurt, if his cryptic posts on social media are anything to go by. The 84th Ranji Trophy season, beginning Friday, could be Jadeja's chance to channel those frustrations and get some match practice before the Sri Lanka series in November. While he is out of their tournament opener in Lahli, where he could have got a taste of the conditions India are likely to face in South Africa in 2018, his participation from the second round could benefit both him and Saurashtra.

Jadeja is just one of many India internationals adding a layer of excitement to this Ranji season. R Ashwin and M Vijay will turn up for Tamil Nadu. Cheteshwar Pujara will lead Saurashtra in the first round following Jaydev Shah's absence. Wriddhiman Saha and Mohammed Shami will feature for Bengal. Ishant Sharma, pace spearhead not too long ago, could play four straight games for Delhi, if not more, and prove himself not only as a bowler, but also as captain.

Ashwin and Pujara are coming off a hectic stint in county cricket. Vijay, who has not played for India since March 2017, has another opportunity to rate his match fitness. A wrist injury had forced him out of the Sri Lanka tour, but since then he has played the Duleep Trophy and will welcome the chance for more time in the middle. Among the bowlers, Shami will want to go through the rigours of days cricket again so that he can put his name up for the Tests against Sri Lanka in November.

While the inclusion of big names is a positive, it leaves fringe players who may have otherwise been picked fewer games to impress. They had, potentially, eight straight matches last year - those in Group C got nine. But this time, with teams split between four groups, each one will play only six games in the league phase.

This is a direct consequence of the BCCI's decision to include an extra recovery day to the existing three-day window, following suggestions put forward at the captains' and coaches' conclave earlier this year.

Another factor putting the onus directly on the players to better their performance is the decision to play home and away again. The neutral venues experiment of 2016-17 has been abandoned after the logistics of arranging travel and accommodation for 27 teams turned out to be a nightmare. Teams often traveled for 24 hours, sometimes more, via connecting flights and bus journeys, and were left exhausted. And while it was hectic for some teams, it was relatively easy on the others.

Gujarat, the eventual champions for example, had all their games in and around Delhi for the first five rounds. One trip down to Pune was followed by three games in Karnataka to complete their league phase. It may not have been the deciding factor in their triumph, but it certainly was an advantage. Jharkhand clocked up more miles in just one trip from Thiruvananthapuram to Agartala with stopovers in Chennai and Kolkata. Poor training facilities and underprepared surfaces were also cited at many venues. As a senior player put it, host associations were "simply not interested" because they had nothing to gain.

The home-and-away format has had its issues as well, such as teams preparing surfaces that blatantly suited their strengths, but the BCCI has taken precautions against it by bringing in neutral curators for the 2017-18 season. Whether this results in a more aggressive brand of cricket to ensure teams earn points early on before easing the pressure in the second half remains to be seen. After all, with fewer matches, teams who start poorly won't have much wiggle room for comebacks.

There is plenty of incentive to do well in this Ranji Trophy. With the India A coach Rahul Dravid focused on expanding the talent pool, he will keep an eye on the best bowlers and batsmen that are coming through. Then, if they make it to the A team, which tours countries alongside the senior team, the step up to international cricket can happen very quickly.

But the benchmarks they are judged against are bound to change. With fewer games, VVS Laxman's record of most runs in a Ranji season (1415), which Priyank Panchal came close to breaking (1310) last season, is unlikely to be touched. And the prospect of a bowler picking up 50-plus wickets, like Shahbaz Nadeem has done over the last two seasons, has become distant.

So while the travel may not make players sweat, their yo-yo tests will, as they prepare for what could be another intriguing season. Will there be another Gujarat-like fairy tale? We'll find out in the first week of 2018.