The brains behind Tamil Nadu's resurgence

Rajasthan captain Hrishikesh Kanitkar with the Ranji Trophy K Sivaraman

During a Ranji Trophy match between Maharashtra and Punjab in December 2006, Hrishikesh Kanitkar twisted his knee on a bad outfield in Kolhapur, braved the pain and led Maharashtra's response to Punjab's 550 with a century that spanned 389 minutes, without using a runner.

That fierce determination stood out during Kanitkar's stints with Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. He then merged it with man-management skills to lead Rajasthan, who finished at the bottom of the lower division of the Ranji Trophy in 2009-10, to championship glory in the next season. He then helped the team defend the title in 2011-12. Rajasthan's opposition in the 2011-12 final was Tamil Nadu, captained by L Balaji.

From plotting against each other, the two have now combined to spark Tamil Nadu's resurgence in the 2016-17 Ranji Trophy season as the head coach and bowling coach. Ramji Srinivasan, the former India fitness trainer who now works with Tamil Nadu, is the other "spoke" in the wheel that has rolled towards the semi-finals.

"Hrishi [Hrishikesh Kanitkar] is an amazing man. Very intelligent. His inputs are very sharp and valuable," Ramji told ESPNcricinfo. "No man is an island. The coach is the key. We are all like spokes. He wants excellence and we strive for it."

There are a few similarities between Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu's successes. The three-pronged seam attack of Pankaj Singh, Rituraj Singh, and Sumit Mathur did the job for Rajasthan in 2011-12. The three-pronged seam attack of K Vignesh, T Natarajan, and Aswin Crist is doing the job for Tamil Nadu. Ashok Menaria was coming back from injury for Rajasthan then, like Vijay Shankar is for Tamil Nadu. Several players were ready to perform vital roles, however unglamorous they may have seemed.

Vineet Saxena batted for 15 hours to grind out 257 and frustrate Tamil Nadu in the 2011-12 final. Kaushik Gandhi has taken up the role of boring the opposition now. He has soaked up 1825 balls for 726 runs; his career-best 202 against Gujarat lasted nearly 13 hours. But the most striking similarity is the happy space in the dressing room.

The Kanitkar mantra of players celebrating each other's success is evident in the Tamil Nadu dressing room, as it was in Rajasthan. On an action-packed second day in Visakhapatnam, Tamil Nadu's reserve players cheered almost every run scored by the team. Ramji, whose first role with the state team was in 1996, believed the current bunch is the "happiest and fittest" he has seen.

Much of the groundwork was laid in the pre-season camp in Dehradun. Ramji and Balaji developed the muscle memory of bowlers by making them bowl for long durations like they would have to in a match. The bowlers, who came into the camp after participating in the local league in Chennai and the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL), were given individual schedules to strengthen their core, lower body, and the shoulders, and tune them up for the long season.

Kanitkar was impressed with Vignesh's smooth action and attitude in that camp. "I saw him in the pre-season camp in Dehradun," Kanitkar says. "His rhythm, his action, the ease with which he could generate certain amount of pace. And where he bowls the ball. It's a very natural area for him where he pitches the ball. He doesn't do anything extra. That's what I liked about him."

Abhinav Mukund, the captain, too echoed those views. "As a batsman and as a captain of the team I have always looked at other players like [Ashok] Dinda and Vinay Kumar and Pankaj Singh running in hard and bowling 12-over and 13-over spells," Abhinav said of Vignesh's marathon spell of 12-1-43-4 in the quarter-final. "Today, when I see a young bowler from my team doing that I don't want to tell him and make him go over the top of the stadium. But it is really heartening to see from my team. I have always hoped something like this would happen after Balaji. Touchwood! Hope this continues."

Overall, Vignesh, Natarajan, and Crist have bowled 784.4 overs between them for 94 wickets this season. "For domestic cricket, especially Ranji Trophy, you need to have a minimum of two or three good fast bowlers to go to the next level," Balaji says. "To reach the last stage of the tournament you need have good fast bowlers. Once it crosses a certain phase you need to have the fast bowlers coming in and doing the job again and again for 120 overs."

The introduction of neutral venues has put additional pressure on the seamers, but they have coped with it. "Sometimes we had to board two-three flights to go to one place," Ramji says. "From Lahli to Bilaspur - about nine-and-a-half or ten hours on road. From Bilaspur to Dharamsala, again six hours. They have to practice, rest, and bowl. Planning becomes important and there have been no major injuries.

"During two matches I had to go home, but schedules had been arranged individually and these young boys embraced it. We have a log system to record, and we know who has done what. They have to get minimum points; they don't know, but I keep track. They have got more points in the end and frankly I did not expect it."

That the management is also building a solid pool of players with an eye on the future bodes well for the set-up. When Dinesh Karthik suffered a hairline fracture on his right hand, N Jagadeesan took the wicket-keeping gloves and also struck a century on debut. L Vignesh, who made his Ranji debut last season, and M Mohammed, who led the seam attack in the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy in 2015-16, are also in the mix.

"Jaggi [Jagadeesan] played because Dinesh was injured and was not keeping wicket," Kanitkar explained. "After his century, he did not score in a few innings. We need just what the team needs. He got a very good hundred and we are still working on his batting. It's not that we don't need him again. You never know when the need arises. Similarly, L Vignesh is always trying to do what the team needs even when he is not playing. That 100% attitude helps the whole team. Mohammed was there initially, but then went to the academy to sort himself out. Now he is back and bowling much better.

"I believe you need to have a core set. [It's the] Same thing we had in Rajasthan. We had a set, and a very few came from outside. I believe in having a fair selection and sticking to those guys, so that they get a fair chance."

Tamil Nadu still need to clear two more hurdles to end a 28-season drought. Mumbai are probably the stiffest hurdle. They have won 41 out of 82 Ranji Trophies, and Tamil Nadu have managed to beat them only once in eight attempts in the Ranji Trophy in the last ten years. On current form, however, putting it past the defending champions can't be ruled out.