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How Tamil Nadu molded a winning season

'The Vijay Hazare Trophy win is a tap on the back and a validation that we are on the right track' - Hrishikesh Kanitkar PTI

Visakhapatnam, December 24, 2016. Tamil Nadu dismantle Karnataka inside two days to storm into the semi-final of the Ranji Trophy. It is Tamil Nadu's first outright victory over their arch-rivals in the Ranji Trophy since 2003-04. Their coach Hrishikesh Kanitkar insists he will "smile" only when Tamil Nadu secure a title.

Rajkot, January 5, 2017. Mumbai dash Tamil Nadu's hopes in the semi-final and knock them out.

Chennai, February 3, 2017. Tamil Nadu beat Kerala but fall short of topping the South Zone table - on net run rate - in the subsequent Inter-State T20 competition.

Delhi, March 20, 2017. Tamil Nadu, perhaps, feel a sense of déjà vu after being dismissed for 217 in the final of the Vijay Hazare Trophy against Bengal. Their bowlers, though, will the team to the title, finally putting a smile on Kanitkar's face.

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Moments after Tamil Nadu's win, Kanitkar celebrated with fitness trainer Ramji Srinivasan. A journey that began with an intense pre-season conditioning camp in Dehradun in September last year culminated in a fitting reward.

While Kanitkar said that the success was a "tap on the back" for the efforts of the players and the support staff throughout the season, he challenged Tamil Nadu to emulate Mumbai's khadoos attitude and make winning a habit.

"The Vijay Hazare Trophy win is a by-product of what we have done throughout the season," Kanitkar told ESPNcricinfo. "It is a tap on the back and a validation that we are on the right track. But the long-term goal is we should see Mumbai's record and keep getting better."

Tamil Nadu's limited-overs captain Vijay Shankar echoed similar comments. "The Vijay Hazare win is something we can look back and always cherish," Vijay said. "Winning a trophy is not easy and this is a milestone for every member in the squad and support staff. But we need to set this as a benchmark and keep improving."

That Tamil Nadu emerged triumphant despite the absence of Abhinav Mukund, M Vijay, R Ashwin, who were involved in the national set-up, and first-choice seamers T Natarajan and K Vignesh (who were both injured) pointed to a strong bench strength.

Opener GS Raju and left-arm spinner R Sai Kishore - products of the TNPL - broke into the XI and impressed. Over the course of the season, the management ventured into tapping talent from the lower division of the TNCA league as well. TI Cycles allrounder Sanjay Yadav, having shown promise in the TNPL, made his debut for Tamil Nadu in the Inter-State T20s, and went onto bag an IPL deal with Kolkata Knight Riders.

"Building a base is a conscious effort on our part and the selectors' part," Kanitkar said. "We don't want to miss out on any talent. If somebody does well and plays well in lower division, he will get picked. The player should have the right attitude. Once that is there, the skill can always be improved. We want to have a pool so that we can pick players when and where we need them."

Another stand-out feature in Tamil Nadu's rise this season has been their fielding. M Mohammed and Aswin Crist pulled off sharp catches to remove Baroda's Krunal Pandya and Yusuf Pathan respectively in the Vijay Hazare semi-final. In the final, Vijay flew to his left from midwicket to send back Bengal wicketkeeper Shreevats Goswami. Kanitkar and Ramji put down the stark improvement in fielding to a 10-day fitness camp in Chennai prior to the tournament.

"In the semi-final two of the best catches were taken by our opening bowlers. Vijay is a good fielder and I expect him to take such catches. Fielding is something we take a great pride in," Kanitkar said. "These are the efforts that make people up sit up and take notice. A lot of credit has to go to Ramji who managed the boys in the fitness camp.

"They simply went through the grind for those 10 days and embraced it," Ramji said. "We have a two-year fitness programme in store for Tamil Nadu. My goal is to make these boys the fittest going around. These kids are responding very well. The camp was not just about strength training. You can't go the gym every day, lift weights, and become a fit cricketer. We focussed on flexibility, hand-eye coordination, reaction timing, diving, sliding, high catches, cutting down angles, and most importantly direct throws. And the effort at training showed in the field.

"The players also took care of their diet and avoided all the junk food. Our masseur Avinash, the physio Thulasi Ram have done a great job too, keeping the boys fresh and fit."

Did the players get tired of the drills during the camp? "Fitness can be a bit monotonous and boring at times but we made it fun sessions," Ramji said. "Points were given, points were deducted, and everybody enjoyed it. It is not like they do the same drills. Batsmen have different drills. You can't have the same for a wicketkeeper. Similarly, the bowlers have specific exercises."

Crist who has sent down 405.4 overs - the most by a seamer in this Indian domestic season - came away with 35 wickets in the Ranji Trophy and a chart-topping 20 scalps in the domestic 50-over tournament.

"To do well in four-day cricket and then one-day cricket is very difficult. He [Crist] has bowled a lot of overs for us and has stayed fit throughout the season," Vijay said. "Bala [L Balaji, the bowling coach] has worked a lot with him. Bala asks him to keep hitting the stumps. 'A batsman should be out bowled or lbw, you can't beat him outside off and get him out,' Bala tells all bowlers. I am really pleased Aswin is now going to Bangladesh for the ACC emerging players tournament in Bangladesh."

While Crist led the bowling, Dinesh Karthik - the only player in the squad to have played fifty or more List A games - led the way with the bat, amassing 607 runs, a tournament record.

"To see him [Karthik] bat with consistency and bat through the innings is something we all should learn," Vijay said. "When he is there, the opponents are always under pressure because he can change the game quickly. In the Baroda game, the runs were not coming, then me and him built a partnership and got the team through. Even when things are not going our way, Dinesh says: 'Come on boys, we can do it'. He has pushed the boys to do more than what we have been doing."

The Vijay Hazare Trophy also handed Vijay an opportunity to test himself as a finisher. Vijay saw the side home in the semi-final with a measured half-century, having made cameos against Gujarat and Kerala in the group stage.

"I found out something that works for me in this tournament. I finished some innings with two or three not outs," Vijay said." The Hyderabad T20 game [Tamil Nadu were bowled out for 93] was a big learning curve for us. We all threw our wickets away that game and in the end we lost out on net run rate in the Inter-State T20s. Then in the Vijay Hazare final it was not easy to defend 217, credit to the bowlers and fielders. It was a total team effort."

Vijay said that off-field activities during the long season brought the team closer and added spark to performances on the field. The players sat together, watching the English Premier League or movies. More recently, ahead of the Vijay Hazare Trophy final, they tried out the fire paan at Connaught Place.

"This season involved a lot of travelling and we really bonded together and got to know each other better," Vijay said. "There was nobody who was alone. It is always fun with these boys and we are one happy family."

Over the course of the season, several members earned higher honours. Mukund made the India Test XI, Vijay represented India A and struck a hundred against the visiting Bangladesh side, B Indrajith was called-up to the India A squad against the Australians, while his twin brother B Aparajith, and Crist were picked in the India squad for the upcoming ACC Emerging Cup in Bangladesh. Vignesh got a call-up to the Rest of India squad for the Irani Cup while Natarajan became the highest-paid uncapped Indian player at the IPL auction.

"I spoke to the boys in Dehradun: for individuals to get opportunities, it is important for the team to do well," Kanitkar said. "Mumbai play a lot of knockout games in the domestic season and that's why many get picked for India after performing under pressure. So I told my players 'if you all want to play higher cricket it is imperative to perform for the team'. One can't hit 800 runs in a season and get picked for Tests if the team does not qualify for the knockouts. If you score big and make the knockouts, your name gets highlighted. If the team does well, you can reap the benefits. This is just the beginning. This team has a long way to go."

Tamil Nadu will now return to Visakhapatnam for the Deodhar Trophy, featuring India Blue, led by Harbhajan Singh, and India Red, led by Parthiv Patel. Will they cap the season with another trophy?