After narrowly missing out on qualification for the Ranji Trophy knockouts and the Super League phase of the 20-overs Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, Andhra's band of underdogs are eyeing their maiden domestic title, having stormed into the semi-finals of the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy with seven wins in a row. On Sunday, they will square off against the Cheteshwar Pujara-led Saurashtra in Delhi.
That they have achieved their best winning streak in List A cricket is down to improved self-belief, according to Sanath Kumar, their head coach. Sanath was recently the the glue in Assam's remaking, despite their sub-standard infrastructure and an absence of big names. He is now inculcating the same principles in Andhra's transformation following years of underachievement.
"I have worked with better and stronger teams. The skillsets across teams are largely the same but the mental strength differs," Sanath tells ESPNcricinfo. "Some of these Andhra boys, in fact, are more talented, but we were lacking in self-belief and mindset. They did not believe in themselves before, but this season I have kept telling them to back themselves and gave them confidence. That's when you get recognition and results."
Andhra's run to the semi-finals has been remarkable: they have knocked off higher-profile teams such as defending champions Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Mumbai and Delhi. Hanuma Vihari, their captain who moved here from Hyderabad, has led the way with 353 runs in seven innings at an average of 58.83 and a strike-rate of 108.61.
In the game against Madhya Pradesh, he took nasty blows to the helmet, but shook them off and marshalled his team to victory with a 60-ball 61. This display of resilience and self-confidence has had a trickle-down effect. "Hanuma Vihari has grown in a big way as captain this season, and continues to lead by example," Sanath says. "And my equation with him is good, I give him a free hand. He can handle things and once the game starts he is always the boss of the team."
Vihari has been complemented by 21-year-old Ricky Bhui, who has made 256 runs in six innings at an average of 64 and strike-rate of 90.14. This includes three successive fifty-plus scores against Goa, Tamil Nadu, and Mumbai. Bhui, however, had apparently been troubled by self-doubt before the start of the tournament. A one-on-one session, Sanath says, helped clear the batsman's cobwebs.
"When I was having a chat with Ricky Bhui, he told me: 'Sir, everybody tells me there is some problem with my technique and I always play square of the wicket'. I told him it's the wrong perception and that he can play square of the wicket because he has so much time to play that shot," Sanath explains. "All I told him was to play straight initially and not worry too much about technique because he's a good player. Once you're well set you can automatically play all your shots. He's working on it accordingly and has been consistent in the Vijay Hazare Trophy."
Sanath feels creating an environment where players feel secure is key to his methods. "If you show the right attitude and give 100%, I will back you," Sanath says. "That's what happened in Assam and now at Andhra. If the players feel secure, they perform well. The talent in Andhra is tremendous, Assam did not have a bigger pool, and I tell these [Andhra] players they have to aspire for higher honours. I keep telling them not to be tensed in the nineties. A hundred is not the goal. Think about the double-hundred."
Andhra's fitness was a major hindrance in the 2016-17 season, and Sanath addressed this by roping in Subhadeep Ghosh, who had worked with him at Assam, and Sudarsan, the former India trainer, as the fielding coach and fitness trainer respectively. The results are starting to show, with the side showing increased agility and athleticism, and sharper reflexes.
"Subhadeep Ghosh and Sudarshan have improved the fitness a great deal," Sanath says. "It has resulted in the boys taking outstanding catches and playing back-to-back games. Subhadeep is a tireless guy, he gives hundreds of catches and makes the players do the drills. The slides in stopping boundaries have put pressure on the opposition."
On the bowling front, different players have stepped up in different situations. D Sivakumar carved up Delhi's top order in the quarter-final while Bandaru Ayyappa has picked up at least one wicket in every match. Twenty-year-old Karthik Raman claimed 4 for 32 and 3 for 55 against Gujarat and Mumbai respectively, while left-arm spinner Bharghav Bhatt, their professional, has bowled with the new ball as well as in the middle overs.
"There is a lot of depth in the bowling attack. Besides the frontline bowlers we have Prithviraj, who is talented but was not considered as he was injured," Sanath says. "We also have back-up players like Bhaskar Reddy, a sharp left-arm seamer, C Stephen, and Harishankar Reddy, who bowled a lot of yorkers in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy."
Sanath credited meticulous preparation for Andhra's players not buckling under pressure. In the pre-season KSCA tournament, Andhra emerged as champions and followed it with another title win in the local Vizzy Trophy. Ahead of the Vijay Hazare Trophy, Sanath broke up the squad into three teams and set specific targets for them.
"During our net sessions, I make three teams - A, B, C - for inter-squad matches. I look for intensity and whether they are able to read the situation smartly. For the one-day tournaments, we had specifics like range six-hitting and playing scoops. In the same way for the bowlers we used to have yorker practice. Fielding is made absolutely compulsory for everybody.
"Simulation challenges the players. Sometimes, I take three batsmen in a team and set different targets for them to score or chase down. Every time one gets out, we minus some runs. When such a situation like that comes in a game, they will be confident that they have done that before."
After training, Sanath lets the players "party hard". And that's the recipe for Andhra's near-perfect set-up.