The biggest-ever Ranji Trophy season will be another opportunity for a number of players to either consolidate their cases for a Test call-up, or showcase a smooth transition from age-group cricket. ESPNcricinfo looks at a number of hopefuls, for whom the upcoming first-class season will be more significant
Having spent two months with the Test side in England as a back-up batsman, Karun Nair saw his back-up, Hanuma Vihari, leapfrog him into the XI. Nair is due to captain India A in two first-class matches in New Zealand after which he will be available for Karnataka for the second half of the first-class season. Omission from the Test squad for Australia may just prove to be a blessing for Nair, as he will have a substantial amount of cricket to score the big runs chief selector MSK Prasad wants him to, before he eyes another national comeback.
Shubman Gill's big-match temperament and technique to stand up against tough bowling has been lauded by India A and Under-19 coach Rahul Dravid. Glimpses of his ability were seen in IPL 2018 and in England in the summer with India A. On greener tracks during the North Indian winter and in New Zealand, where he will be part of the India A squad across formats, he could press for a case to be fast-tracked into the national set-up, much like his Under-19 captain Prithvi Shaw.
Sanju Samson's story so far has been of talent not being fulfilled. Having been in the first-class scene for six seasons now, Samson hasn't topped 700 runs in a single season, at a time when players who have amassed 1000-plus runs are struggling to breakthrough. Yet, Samson's had people watch him bat in awe in the IPL, even as his wicketkeeping remains a work in progress. Having already seen KS Bharat, Rishabh Pant and Ishan Kishan leapfrog him in the pecking order, time is running out for Samson. The 2018-19 season could well be a make-or-break one for him.
India's search for a back-up seam-bowling allrounder to Hardik Pandya continues, with Vijay Shankar still not having done enough to prove he's the man. The reason isn't non-performance, but a history of injuries that has had Vijay spend a significant chunk of the last three seasons in rehab at the National Cricket Academy, for a quadriceps injury and hamstring troubles, apart from struggling with knee, shoulder and ankle injuries. Vijay is a technically solid middle-order batsman, and has added pace to his bowling, allaying early concerns that he may be a stop-gap bowler at best. He will have the tour of New Zealand with India A to showcase his long-form credentials as a bowler.
What more can Mayank Agarwal do? Two-thousand plus runs in 2017-18, the most-ever in a domestic season in India. Centuries for India A in England, a double-century for India A against South Africa A at home - but he's still not made it as even the reserve opener for India's Test series in Australia. The 27-year old Agarwal has more reason than most to feel hard done by. But having set himself up for so long and proven he's not a one-trick pony, the onus is on him to once again show the selectors that he has the pedigree by making big runs for India A in New Zealand to break the door open again. Even if he doesn't replicate the dizzying heights of the previous season, Agarwal has set a benchmark. Another good season will mean he'll be harder to ignore.
Navdeep Saini has been knocking on the doors of the national team for a while. He's been a part of three overseas tours as a net bowler. He's been an India A regular and even bowled Delhi to the Ranji trophy final last season. On recent form, he might even have an edge over Shardul Thakur, being an out-and-out quick who has learnt to marry pace with accuracy and the ability to reverse the ball on wearing surfaces. His improved fitness and ability to bowl long spells could also work for him, and strong performances in New Zealand and in the second half of the Ranji Trophy could bring him the much-awaited rewards.
Tushar Deshpande broke through after picking up 21 wickets in four Cooch Behar Trophy games. An unexpected call-up to replace Shardul Thakur, hours before Mumbai's 2016-17 Ranji Trophy opener, earned him a debut in Lahli. Since then, he's been on the fringes of the Mumbai set-up. Last year, injury to Dhawal Kulkarni and Thakur's unavailability handed him opportunities to step up. While he did pick up wickets, a no-ball problem affected his rhythm and consistency. Until the start of the 2018-19 first-class season, he had 67 no-balls and 21 wickets. Having been key to Mumbai's Vijay Hazare Trophy 2018-19 triumph, impressing with his bristling pace and accuracy, the stocky fast bowler has an opportunity to consolidate his position in the Mumbai set-up.
He narrowly missed out on being part of India's Under-19 World Cup squad earlier this year but Siddharth Desai, all of 18 and eligible to play in the next edition in 2020, continues to turn heads with his left-arm spin. In 2017-18, he picked up 29 wickets in five games, including consecutive five-fors in his first two matches. More recently, he was key to India Under-19's Asia Cup triumph, finishing the tournament as the second-highest wicket-taker. Desai has a classical open-chested action and relies on wickets through dip and turn. He's begun the new season much like he did in 2017-18, picking up a five-wicket haul against Baroda at the Moti Bagh Stadium in Vadodara.