One of the most complicated aspects of Elite Group A and B is the process of selection for the knock-outs. To keep a fair margin and give top teams a fair chance as compared to Elite Group C, only five teams will be promoted to the knock-out phase - making it a race between 18 teams instead of nine.
As we calculate the rankings, we have kept the qualification criteria in our head but for simplification, we went ahead with individual groups instead of mixing them up. You can also refer to Group B prediction and figure out your quarter-finalists.
#1 - Vidarbha
The two-time defending champions have a squad to make anyone feel jealous and there is little doubt why they won both Ranji Trophy and Irani Cup back to back. This year, with the core in place, Vidarbha can do the encore of the stuff they had done last year and the belief got stronger thanks to the quality of the opponents. Given Gujarat and Delhi are the only strong teams in the group, with Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Mumbai being placed in Group B, it should be a cakewalk for the Faiz Fazal-led side. If at all they outrightly drop points, it would be against Delhi or 2016-17 champions Gujarat - both the matches away - and Bengal are the only other team who can push them out of their comfort zone at home. Things are slated to be played on predictable lines, and I am backing Vidarbha to top the Group A table.
#2 - Gujarat
The only other champion team in the last three years, whose name is not Vidarbha, Gujarat should fill lucky, as do Vidarbha, to be in the Group B. The downfall of Delhi and Bengal are no news and looking at Delhi’s squad for this season, the team won’t be a huge challenge for the western Indian team. At home, Bengal can pose a challenge but Gujarat had a few easy outing lined up for them, making it a two-way race with Vidarbha for the top spot in the group. Thanks to the fact that Vidarbha are playing all of their four games at a single stadium and Gujarat at four, the chances of understanding the conditions would be better for the defending champions than the Parthiv Patel-led team which has the likes of Axar Patel, Priyank Panchal, and Rush Kalaria.
After the controversial selection day meeting, the only thing for which Delhi can thank their stars ahead of the Ranji Trophy is an extra home match as compared to others. The team from the national capital will play five matches at home but the inexperience in the side, compounded by an inexperienced skipper Dhruv Shorey, will talk. Even if they can draw the game against Rajasthan and Gujarat - I am being kind to them here - and somehow, pull off a win in Bengal, that would keep them in good stead to finish in top-three. Punjab, with Shubman Gill in the team, are dangerous as do Rajasthan with the presence of Chahar duo. Delhi will have to pull off an absolute blinder to beat them. In the worst-case scenario, they will have to ensure that they beat Andhra and Hyderabad - which would probably mean they need another first-innings lead to finish in the top three.
#4 - Rajasthan
In some ways, it is unfair on Rajasthan to be called as underdogs, for the way they dominated Group C last year with as many as seven outright wins making them the first quarter-finalists from the group. That, however, comes with a caveat this year for multiple reasons. First, the two fulcrums of their success - Deepak and Rahul Chahar - will miss multiple rounds due to national and India-A commitments and that somehow can throw a spanner in their works. A win against Kerala and Hyderabad would do them good and I am predicting the North Indian team to take three points against Punjab and Bengal. That means the total points would be around 21, helping them end up in fourth place. The chances of qualifying for the quarters are pretty less, but Rajasthan will keep other teams hold their wine.
#5 - Bengal
Abhimanyu Easwaran is doing well. Manoj Tiwary can still bat. Ishan Porel is one for the future yet Bengal is not pushing them from what, since a long time, has been a ground of mediocrity. 2020 is fast approaching yet Bengal’s proclamation of Vision 2020 is somehow in dreams and if anything, they are in for another shocker of a season. One thing to be noted that they are a potent force in home conditions, and with Andhra and Gujarat travelling to their den, trust them to pull off a coup or two. I am going against the idea of them gaining any point against Vidarbha and Rajasthan but will reserve at least four points - three and one either way - for Delhi and Kerala. However, would it be enough? The probability of them finishing with anything more than 23 points is very less and I am having them to finish at fifth on the points table.
#6 - Punjab
Mandeep Singh and Shubman Gill, PrabhSimran Singh and Anmolpreet Singh - Punjab have a core that can dismantle any domestic side but then again, has it really helped them ever? Sandeep Sharma’s underperformance coupled with Punjab’s lack of options in the spin department has come to bite them hard in red-ball cricket, which needs a solid shake-up. While I won’t doubt their capabilities to stir the group and take the cake in the last moment, but how much success do you attribute to uncertainties? My bait on them finishing at sixth.
#7 - Kerala
A solid home run and success of new stars helped Kerala to quarter-finals in 2017-18 season and then to the semi-finals last year but expecting them to do an encore this year would against the intelligence. Vidarbha are one of the most consistent teams on the domestic circuit now and Gujarat, powered by the hope and belief, are ready to conquer the challenge once again. It would be difficult for Kerala to take a point in those games and the worst part is they are playing those two teams away. They will host Delhi, Bengal, Punjab and Rajasthan at home conditions, from which we expect them to take a total of 10 points but that is about that. #7 seems like the position they would end up with.
#8 - Hyderabad
Here comes one of domestic cricket’s biggest contrarians. Past glory days aside, what Hyderabad has been able to serve Indian cricket in recent years is a topic for debate. They have fallen apart and although, they somehow managed to get back on track in recent times, keeping them in top-tier, that they can sneak into the top-five would be too far-fetched for imagination. Certainly, Kerala, Rajasthan and neighbouring Andhra might serve well for them to give the South Indian team an outside chance, I would go with #8 for the team that had already lost the services of Ambati Rayudu who reasons other than cricket.
#9 - Andhra
With Hanuma Vihari back in the scheme of things, and KS Bharat going strong, Andhra can afford to dream. But that comes with a caveat. India will tour New Zealand in early February and before that India-A team will be in the country as a preparation. Can Andhra really sustain without Vihari and Bharat? This is a question that would keep them in hook while I am almost certain - pardon the blasphemy - that I might end up being right.