New Delhi: No Ranji Trophy season in recent years has created so much excitement and expectations as the one starting Thursday. The buzz is created by the return of stalwarts to domestic cricket after losing their places in the national side in a bid to regain their form.

Some big guns will be competing with a number of youngsters, who have already grabbed their chances and performed admirably in the home ODI series against England and some others who look good to push their way in.

Youngsters Ravichandran Ashwin, Umesh Yadav, Ajinkya Rahane and Varun Aaron have already been rewarded by being included in the Test squad for the first Test against the West Indies starting Sunday.

Off-spinner Harbhajan Singh and middle-order batsman Suresh Raina, who were left out of the Test team, will be looking to fight their way back.

Harbhajan, who was ignored for the ODI series against England and also the first Test against West Indies, will lead Punjab and Raina will have the Uttar Pradesh reins in his hands when the two teams clash in Mohali in their first game Thursday.

Among others, fast bowlers Shantakumaran Sreesanth, Praveen Kumar, R. Vinay Kumar, Jayadev Unadkat, leg-spinner Amit Mishra, all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja and opening batsmen Abhinav Mukund and Murali Vijay will all be trying to force their way into the India side with big performances.

The other promising batsmen are Mandeep Singh, Suryakumar Yadav, Ishank Jaggi, Ashok Menaria and Unmukt Chand, the Delhiite who had a good outing as Under-19 captain in the tri-series against West Indies and Sri Lanka last month.

Rajasthan, who rose from the plate group to become the surprise champions last season, will have a lot to prove after being mauled by Rest of India in the season-opener Irani Trophy by 404 runs. They will take on six times champions Karnataka at home.

Karnataka, led by pace spearhead R. Vinay Kumar, will again be strong contenders. Robin Uthappa, Manish Pandey, Abhimanyu Mithun and Sreenath Aravind not only make them a strong outfit but they all have potential to go up the ladder.

Parthiv Patel, who made an impressive comeback to the national team, will have to keep up his good work while leading Gujarat against Bengal in Kolkata. Former India captain Sourav Ganguly has made himself available for the entire Ranji season, though it is to be seen if he can indeed be available for all matches considering his commitment as a television commentator.

Mumbai, led by veteran Wasim Jaffer, had a setback with seasoned pace spearhead Ajit Agarkar, ruled out of their opener against Railways in Delhi because of an injury. Agarkar has been replaced by Murtuza Hussain in the squad.

Jaffer himself is sore with the national selectors for discarding him after one bad series and says he will continue to fight for a national slot.

Mumbai will also be missing their reliable opener Rahane, who will be on national duty against West Indies.

For Delhi, it is the same old story of a disjointed lot and bickering. Things came to such a pass that coach Manoj Prabhakar was sacked barely 40 hours before their first match against Haryana for his acerbic remarks against the selectors and some of the players in media interview.

His deputy, another former India all-rounder Sanjeev Sharma has been given the charge of the squad.

The former India all-rounder made no secret of his serious differences with both the DDCA management as well as captain and before being shown the door he predicted a bleak season for the seven-time champions.

First Round matches (Elite):

November: 3-6
Group A: Orissa vs Saurashtra at Cuttack; Punjab vs Uttar Pradesh at Mohali; Railways vs Mumbai in Delhi; Rajasthan vs Karnataka at Udaipur

Group B: Bengal vs Gujarat at Kolkata; Delhi vs Haryana in Delhi, Tamil Nadu vs Baroda in Chennai

Plate:
Group A: Services vs Andhra in Delhi; Tripura vs Himachal Pradesh in Agartala; Vidarbha vs Kerala at Nagpur

Group B: Goa vs Maharashtra at Porvorim; Hyderabad vs Jharkhand in Hyderabad; Kashmir vs Assam at Srinagar.

(Agencies)