Thiruvananthapuram: Kerala begin their Ranji Trophy campaign against Delhi at the St Xavier's College Ground, Thumba, on Monday.
Kerala, who made it to the semifinals for the first time last season, had qualified for the quarterfinals in 2017. Sachin Baby, who was surprisingly overlooked in favour of Robin Uthappa as captain in the shorter formats, is back at the helm. Sachin and head coach Dav Whatmore were instrumental in Kerala's fine run in the Ranji Trophy in the past couple of seasons.
Star batsman Sanju Samson is away on national duty and will miss the opening tie. However, Kerala won't be too worried over Sanju's absence as they have got enough depth in their batting.
Vishnu Vinod will be aiming for a consistent run this season, while Uthappa is desperate to make his presence felt after a forgettable time in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.
Left-handed opener Rahul P is likely to be partnered by Vishnu, with Uthappa coming in at No. 3.
Left-handed Sachin pulled his weight in both the Hazare Trophy and Mushtaq Ali Trophy, while wicketkeeper Mohammed Azharuddeen is a classy strokeplayer.
Star all-rounder Jalaj Saxena and the hard working Sijomon Joseph add depth to the host's batting. Saxena, with his off-spinners, and left-arm tweaker Sijomon are expected to come into play as the match goes on.
Kerala have an explosive pace quartet in the experienced Sandeep Warrier, Basil Thampi, uncapped K M Asif and the steady M D Nidheesh.
It remains to be seen whether Asif will make his first class debut on Monday.
Kerala had thumped Delhi by an innings and 27 runs at the same venue last season. However, head coach Dav Whatmore and Sachin will be quick to remind the Kerala players that it counts for nothing in a new season.
Delhi, led by Dhruv Shorey, have an existing bunch of players at their disposal. The fiery Navdeep Saini will surely test the Kerala batsmen with his pace, while Shorey, opener Hiten Dalal and the hugely talented Nitsh Rana are the stars in the batting line-up.
Both teams will be keen to start off well and it promises to be an exciting battle over the next four days.
Bengal, Gujarat, Hyderabad, Punjab, Rajasthan, Andhra and holders Vidarbha are the other teams in the nine-team Elite Group A.
The top-five teams from Group A and B will progress to the quarterfinals where they will be jointed by the two best sides from Group C and the Plate Group toppers.