Madhya Pradesh have hit a rough patch, but Karnataka are coming into their own

Jharkhand are in the final eight when it didn't look likely and Punjab are on the up thanks to a strong young batting core

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Madhya Pradesh are the defending Ranji Trophy champions  •  Shashank Kishore/ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Madhya Pradesh are the defending Ranji Trophy champions  •  Shashank Kishore/ESPNcricinfo Ltd

In part one, we looked at how teams from Elite groups A and B made the Ranji Trophy knockouts. Let's now look at groups C and D, which includes the defending champions, as well as a traditional favourite and two underdogs.
Mayank Agarwal may have lost his IPL captaincy and gone down in the pecking order internationally, but proved there is plenty in the tank to give in terms of leadership for his state team. It's helped that a young bowling attack has consistently delivered, as their champion teams consisting R Vinay Kumar & Co did some years ago.
That their batting hasn't revolved around just Agarwal and Manish Pandey bodes well too. They haven't tweaked their XI too much, and have only played an extra spinner or seamer based on conditions. Giving long ropes and being consistent with selection has given the players an overall sense of security. At no stage has their campaign looked in trouble, but things can change quickly in the knockouts.
All said, they must be strong favourites at home in the quarter-final against Uttarakhand. Their 35 points are the most by a team in the group stages this season.
Top performer
One of the few classical batters in the domestic circuit currently, R Samarth has had a strong season. In 2018-19, he was a regular for India A, but poor form, injuries and Covid-19 thwarted some of that momentum. He's now back on the up now, reeling off three successive centuries followed by an 81. Without KL Rahul around, and Devdutt Padikkal misfiring, Samarth has lent Karnataka some much needed steel at the top of the order.
For a second straight season, Jharkhand will play Bengal in the quarter-final. The possibility seemed unlikely when Jharkhand conceded the lead twice and lost one in their first four matches, but the stars have aligned since then. A roaring second half, where they picked up a crucial win over Chhattisgarh and a bonus-point win over Puducherry gave them an outside chance. Yet, going into their final league game against Karnataka, they knew should they lose or walk away with a solitary point, they would have to hope neither Rajasthan nor Kerala win their respective games. And that is exactly how it panned out.
Top performer
In going past 500 first-class wickets this season, Shahbaz Nadeem has proven that he still has it. He may not be in the mix for India's Test team, with Axar Patel and Saurabh Kumar ahead of him in the list behind Ravindra Jadeja, but he has continued to wheel away, and quite successfully at that, for Jharkhand.
His 41 wickets in seven games at 25.82 are the most for a player from the teams that have made the knockouts from the Elite pools. This includes a match haul of 10 for 246 in the season opener against Kerala.
The pressure of defending your title is more than winning it the first time. So believes head coach Chandrakant Pandit, who has previously achieved this feat with Vidarbha.
But the 2021-22 title-winners have been dominant right through the group stage. They surged to five straight wins to enter the knockouts even before the penultimate round, but since then, they have slumped a bit. This has coincided with Rajat Patidar's absence because of national commitments. However, much of their squad is the same as the one that won the Ranji Trophy last year, and they are still reaping the rewards of that continuity. Avesh Khan getting his mojo back with compelling performances after a spell away from the India team has given their already strong bowling further heft.
Top performer
Six matches, 31 wickets at 15.64. Avesh has breathed fire with his menacing pace and steep bounce. Having spent time with the India team for half a season in 2022, he has returned stronger, fitter and sharper following a series of injuries and inconsistent performances. That he has been able to do it even on lifeless pitches is a mark of Avesh returning to the kind of form that brought him into the national reckoning. An opportunity to help his team defend the crown beckons, and first up in front of them will be Andhra.
For Punjab, no batter has made over 400 runs and only one bowler has over 20 wickets this season. Yet, as a unit, Punjab have risen and performed under pressure when it has mattered most. They have a young batting core, led by Abhishek Sharma and Prabhsimran Singh to thank for such fighting performances. Abhishek, however, is a doubt for the quarter-final after hurting his shoulder in Punjab's previous game.
The experience of Mandeep Singh and emergence of two rookies - Nehal Wadhera and Naman Dhir - on a Valsad green top where they toppled Gujarat bodes well for them. They face Saurashtra in their quarter-final.
Top performer
Baltej Singh isn't express pace, but is always at the batter, moving the ball around and trying to prise them out through his accuracy. On surfaces with a bit of help, he has been menacing. His 34 wickets in seven games puts him on top of the Punjab leader board. In fact, this is the most by a seamer so far this season in the Elite groups. All others above him are spinners. It tells you two things: how spinners have had a bigger say, and how well Baltej has bowled. A best of 7 for 28 and average of 12.85 are reflection of his efforts but Punjab would be hoping his best is still yet to come.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo