League phase: DWWWDW (completed matches, most recent first)
Since 2005, Vidarbha have made the knockouts thrice, including two successive quarter-final appearances in 2014-15 and 2015-16, where they lost to Tamil Nadu and Saurashtra respectively. Vidarbha's semi-final finish in 2011-12, where they went down to Hyderabad in the Plate division, remains their best performance.
Season so far
Vidarbha have amassed totals in excess of 400 on five occasions this season. That they have batted only eight times in six matches sheds light on what is essentially a simple success model - rack up a mountain of runs and watch the opponents crumble under scoreboard pressure.
Prime examples of the template falling in place are Vidarbha's innings victories over Punjab and Goa followed by the 10-wicket mauling of Bengal.
Such wins have been set up Vidarbha's top guns in the top five, led by captain Faiz Fazal, who has 710 runs, including four centuries, at an average of 101.42, Sanjay Ramaswamy (665 runs at 95, three hundreds and two fifties), Ganesh Satish (440 runs at 73.33, two hundreds and a fifty) and Wasim Jaffer (358 runs at 59.66) have unfailingly ensured the bowlers have enough runs to work with.
The team's appetite for runs has been whetted at the top with openers Fazal and Ramaswamy raising stands of 61,22,148, 259, 18*, 52, 264 and 68.
Having missed out on knockout berths by slender margins in the past, Vidarbha realised the need to go all out for outright wins with bonus points. "Having had to rely on a number of permutations in the previous seasons, we realised every point was crucial," said Fazal, the captain. "We understood how the first innings was really crucial in a four-day game - be it batting or bowling - and realised the impact a strong performance had on the opponents."
The men they need to thank
According to Fazal, new head coach Chandrakant Pandit has played a vital role in reshaping the team's mindset both on and off the field.
"Even in the way we walk down the pitch, we need to demonstrate positivity - that's what Chandu [Pandit] sir insists on. As a result, when you go to bat you don't worry about the opposition and their bowlers. Instead of that, we are more worried about our body language and getting the runs. So, you can call it a [positive] distraction," he said.
Tactically, too, Vidarbha have profited from Pandit's shrewdness, especially his knack of reading pitches to perfection.
"He read the pitch right in just about every game," Fazal said. "Pitch-reading is not easy and many people get it wrong, but he's very good and taught me a lot about how to read pitches. He's a very intelligent coach and is completely involved when it comes to planning. Wasim [Jaffer] bhai, too, has been brilliant when it comes to figuring out the right field positions right and how to pick up wickets. When you watch people like this, you understand why Mumbai has been so successful in the Ranji Trophy."
The area(s) of concern
While the bowling unit has been led by the spin troika of Akshay Wakhare (27 wickets), Aditya Sarwate (18) and Akshay Karnewar (16), the seamers haven't done badly either. With legspinner Karn Sharma returning from injury, the bowling will receive an added boost. They will, however, be without Umesh Yadav who is among the four Indian bowlers who will be rested ahead of the South Africa tour. Even as there remain no apparent weaknesses in the side, Fazal felt the team could do with an improved showing in the catching department as they have been guilty of spilling vital chances in the league phase. Also, Vidarbha would do well to look at a stable option for the No.4 slot which has been a revolving door during the league stages.
"I have been playing for the last 12-13 years for Vidarbha, but this year I can genuinely feel that every member of the team wants to get their hands on the trophy and see how it feels like. In the past, people have wanted to win the Ranji Trophy, but somewhere down the line people would get caught up in their own quest for runs and wickets. But this time, the approach has shifted from 'I' to 'We'. We need to play dominant and smart cricket and enjoy the game. We can't really change our approach too much. One of the big reasons for our success has been our extensive preparations and I think that will make the difference." Faiz Fazal
Knockout history: Madhya Pradesh have made the knockouts 11 times since 1955-56, but have progressed to the semi-finals only four times.
Season so far
MP's trademark feature this season has been the resilience mustered by their middle and lower order after the loss of early wickets. The win over Baroda in their season opener set the template for the side's league-stage performances: two near-200 stands for the fifth and sixth wickets led to MP declaring on 551 for 8 after they had slumped to 69 for 4 in the first session.
The efficacy of MP's bowling attack has revolved around legspinner Mihir Hirwani and allrounder Ankit Sharma. With 25 wickets, including three five-wicket hauls, Hirwani routinely wrested control from the opposition, as was best evinced in the side's must-win encounter against Odisha. Ankit, the left-arm spinner, ably complemented him with 17 wickets in addition to 345 runs in eight innings.
The surprise move that paid off
Medium-pacer Chandrakant Sakure had been dropped for three successive games after he leaked 71 runs in 17 overs while just taking a solitary wicket against Mumbai. With a quarter-final berth on the line, the management's decision to give Sakure a second game this season reaped rewards when his four-wicket haul skittled Odisha for 147 and sealed MP's third outright win and the quarter-final spot.
The men they need to thank
Ishwar Pandey coupled his 20 wickets with four 20-plus scores lower down the order. His 29-ball 47 against Tripura gave MP a 55-run first-innings lead in a low-scoring match and set the tone for a bonus-point win. Captain Devendra Bundela, who is 46 runs short of the 10000-mark in first-class cricket, showed his experience with a gritty 99 that triggered a middle-order fightback after an early collapse against Baroda.
With 444 runs so far, Harpreet Singh, MP's leading run-scorer this season, led the side's counterattack against Tamil Nadu with an unbeaten 100 that helped his team salvage a draw.
The areas of concern
MP tried out three opening partners for Rajat Patidar in the six matches. Aditya Srivastav, and rookies Waseem Ahmed and Aryaman Birla, however, managed to pass 20 only once in a combined 11 innings. According To MP coach Harvinder Sodhi, though, the right-left combination offered by Birla's inclusion against Odisha may have "resolved the issue to a great extent that has persisted since last season". Even though Birla scored only 16 in the first innings on debut, his 72-run stand with Patidar - the highest opening partnership for the side this season - helped MP snare a 241-run first-innings lead.
"Our players have peaked at the right time. That someone like Rajat converted his start into a hundred in the last league game [having gone past 75 on two previous instances this season], bodes well for the side going into the knockouts. Our batting's been a bit off-colour at times. With an experienced player like Naman returning from injury, he could be key in tipping the scales in our favour."Harvinder Sodhi
League phase: DWDWWD (completed matches, most recent first)
Since their Ranji Trophy triumph in the 2007-08 season, Delhi have made it to the knockout rounds on two occasions - they were semi-finalists in the 2009-10 season, and quarter-finalists in the 2014-15 season. They were beaten by Mumbai in both instances.
Season so far
Delhi finished Group A in second place with 27 points. They narrowly missed a win under controversial circumstances in their season opener against Assam but then went on to pick up three victories, two of them earning bonus points.
Their season was built around a young batting line-up, with six Under-23 players getting a go in the top six. Four of them - Kunal Chandela, Anuj Rawat, Lalit Yadav, Himmat Singh - were phased in during the latter half of the group stages and have made fifties at least every two innings on average. Nitish Rana has been the most prolific of that bunch, and is the top-scorer this season with 466 runs that include two centuries. These performances were built around Gautam Gambhir's good form, with the opener notching up two centuries and falling narrowly short of a third.
They had two bowlers with more than 20 wickets in the league stages - Ishant
Sharma and Vikas Mishra - while Navdeep Saini and Manan Sharma took 19 and 18 wickets respectively. Left-arm pacer Kulwant Khejroliya, in his debut season, has often played the role of enforcer this year in the absence of the injured Pradeep Sangwan.
The man they need to thank
Delhi had recognised that the big problem at the centre of their poor recent history was their failure to pick up 20 wickets regularly. To fix this - and their hand was forced by a vacant captaincy position - they appointed fast bowler Ishant Sharma as the captain. Purely on numbers alone, this has worked well. Delhi picked up 20 wickets in all four matches that Ishant captained, and won three comprehensively, with the fourth being that season opener against Assam. While he won't be available for the rest of the season, his contribution has been immense.
"You only win matches when you take 20 wickets. So we wanted to look from a bowler's point of view, and that's how Ishant's name came up," says head coach KP Bhaskar. "It paid off. Not only did he inspire the team, he's also bowled beautifully
throughout the season. It has even helped him get back into the Test team."
The areas of concern
Rishabh Pant is yet to make the kind of match-turning contribution that is expected of him. He has made only one fifty in five innings, and as stand-in skipper, notched up only four points in two games.
Another minor concern is the batting order. While it is a top-heavy unit - evidenced by Manan Sharma being promoted to No. 7 this season - they've struggled with the opening slot. This isn't a new problem - since October 2015, Delhi have tried nine different pairs, who have only managed two century stands in the 38 innings.
"It's a team sport and everybody is contributing. So far it has paid off. One
area of concern is our opening partnership. It would be nice to launch ourselves up with a solid base. Our boys have been doing well and we'll hope they continue their momentum. Just telling them to have self-belief and give their best." KP Bhaskar
by Varun Shetty
League Phase: WWWWLW
They debuted in 1957-58. It has taken them over 40 years to reach the knockouts for the first time since the tier system was removed.
Season so far
Group B was a fascinating three-way race all along, as Kerala, Saurashtra and Gujarat each kept mounting pressure on the other. Going into the final round, Kerala could also have faced elimination despite four wins, a sign of how close the group was. It is with this background of competition in the group that Kerala's penultimate game, against Saurashtra, needs to be looked at.
They conceded a slender first-innings lead from a position, despite having Saurashtra down at 178 for 7 in reply to their total of 225. This could have deflated another team, but Kerala came out all guns blazing in the second innings. Sanju Samson powered to a counter-attacking 180-ball 175- one of the knocks of the season under pressure -- as Kerala piled up 411 for 6 at a run rate of 4.46. Then they used that scoreboard pressure to bundle Saurashtra out for 95 and set themselves up for one final push. In a group of fine margins, that proved to be the difference.
The men they need to thank
In June, Jalaj Saxena wondered if he would be retained and given an extension as Kerala were also in talks with Robin Uthappa. It was only once that deal fell through that Saxena was confirmed. By chance or by design, that turned out to be a masterstroke as the offspinning allrounder is currently the leading wicket-taker in the competition, with 38 wickets in six matches. In addition, he has also been used as a floater in the batting order: opening with the team has been in need of quick runs or lower down in the order at other times. His runs: 482 runs in 11 innings, with three fifties and a century, prove his effectiveness.
The team also discovered two young spinners from the Under-23 group, purely through circumstances. Their primary left-arm spinner K Monish, who picked up 49 wickets in 2015-16, was injured. They had to look into the reserves and the junior structure. Dav Whatmore, the coach, handpicked KC Akshay and Sijomon Joseph, two left-arm spinners, who between them had no first-class experience. Thrown into the deep end, both made an impact - Akshay has returned 13 wickets in two matches while Joseph has 19 in four.
Areas of concern
So far, on helpful surfaces at home, it's their spinners who have dominated. The faster men haven't had too much of a role. That could change in a pressure game. Their frontline pacer Basil Thampi has earned a national call-up, but is likely to be available for the quarter-final. But he too has played just three first-class games, clearly not the number of overs under his belt as some of the other premier fast bowlers who will be featuring in the quarter-finals. Sandeep Warrier's four games have fetched nine wickets. Seam bowling, then, is an area they could be a little undercooked.
"We knew this would be a tight group, especially with two quality teams and then the defending champions. We had no option but to play an aggressive brand of cricket. The format sure did have a hand in the way we approached our game. There's not been any scope for negativity within this group. All of them have pulled together as a group, irrespective of who is in the XI and who isn't. Because of that, there are no insecurities. Everyone knows their role in this side."
Dav Whatmore on the team's mantra to pull through