In June 2018, Kerala's dressing room felt like a "pot of boiling water" to head coach Dav Whatmore. Now, the team is in the semi-final of the Ranji Trophy 2018-19, and it's taken a lot of work to get them there.
At the time, the senior players were "frustrated and angry", according to a team member, and didn't even look at their captain, Sachin Baby. Five of them - Raiphi Gomez, Sandeep Warrier, Rohan Prem, KM Asif and Mohammed Azharuddeen - were subsequently suspended for dissent against the captain and eight others were fined.
Fast forward eight months, and Warrier, among those who were sanctioned, was back in the gym with Baby, six hours after they had beaten Gujarat to reach their maiden Ranji Trophy semi-final. That they have done so after the state was wrecked by the worst flood in decades, which also meant that their cricket facilities couldn't be used for around three months, makes the journey even more special.
Now, as they face defending champions Vidarbha, it will be a re-match of the 2017-18 quarter-finals. Kerala were pounded by 412 runs then. Incidentally, it was Chandrakant Pandit who plotted Kerala's rise by working at the grassroots level in 2015 - at the time, a number of players of the present side were coming through the ranks. Pandit is now the Vidarbha coach, and whichever way the semi-final goes, it might be an emotional time for Pandit.
The turmoil in the Kerala camp had the potential to undo the positives from 2017-18, when they reached the Ranji Trophy quarter-finals for the first time. So Whatmore sat the players down and made it clear he wouldn't tolerate personal egos.
"You don't become a good team with flashes of brilliance. We're now aiming for consistency. I want them to fight all the way" DAV WHATMORE
"I'd be lying if I say I wasn't affected by the team divide," he tells ESPNcricinfo. "When your senior players don't trust the captain, there's potential for things to turn ugly. So I needed to step in. There was no way I could just pretend things would be fine.
"The message was simple. I said, 'I don't care if you're seniors or juniors, friends or enemies, when you wear the Kerala state cap, all of you are one. You don't need to be friends, you don't need to be lovey-dovey all the time. But think about the common goal and work towards it.' As simple as the message was, it has taken a while, so the results we've achieved along the way has also helped make the environment a lot better."
Kerala's 2018-19 season has been topsy-turvy to say the least. After a draw against Hyderabad, they recorded back-to-back wins over Andhra and Bengal. But the euphoria vanished when they were shot out for 63 by Madhya Pradesh as they went on to concede a 265-run first-innings lead. An innings loss loomed as they slipped to 100 for 6, before Baby and Vishnu Vinod scripted a remarkable turnaround, batting out nearly a day.
Baby made 143, while Vinod, brought in for his first game of the season, made an unbeaten 193 as Kerala got a 195-run lead. They lost the game, but the fightback injected a fresh wave of belief and confidence in Baby, and helped earn the respect of his mates.
For Whatmore, the knock showed the team's character. "You could see it then that they can really achieve what they want to should they put their mind and heart to it. That was a fabulous effort."
But the loss to MP was followed by a 151-run defeat at the hands of Tamil Nadu. The campaign had started to turn pear-shaped. A season of promise looked set to finish as a season of what-ifs. It continued in much the same vein as they roared back to beat Delhi by an innings but then lost to Punjab. Since then, they have beaten Himachal Pradesh and then, in the last-eight stage, Gujarat.
The failure to put together a consistent run of results is something they want to change, but it can wait. "That's for after the season," Baby says. "Right now, we just want to focus on the positives. History of not playing five-day cricket went against us last time. Our game awareness was tuned to four-day cricket. The patience aspect was missing.
"If we conceded a lead, we were gone. We didn't think like a team that thought it could fight back and still win outright. We have worked on our mental game. This season, we realised the need to stay neutral and not let success or failure affect team morale. Stay the same, train hard, and take every result in your stride."
Jalaj Saxena, the Kerala professional, has played a big part in changing the team ethos. He also leads their run-chart so far this season. With the ball, they've moved from spin-oriented to being pace-centric, with Basil Thampi and Warrier at the forefront. One of the biggest factors, however, has been defying conventional wisdom and embracing an instinct-driven approach.
Sijomon Joseph, primarily a left-arm spinner, showed promise as a batsman and the team management gave him a prominent batting role in a crucial game. Sent in at No. 3, primarily to lengthen the batting, he tackled a rampaging Gujarat pace attack in the second innings to make a half-century to help build a lead.
The experiments also worked when Vinoop Manoharan, a bowling allrounder who wasn't in top form in his primary skills, was thrusted to open the batting for the first time in the must-win league game against Himachal Pradesh. In a chase of 295, Manoharan responded with a 143-ball 95 as Kerala completed the chase with five wickets in hand.
"It was down to belief and gut feel," Whatmore explains. "As a side, when you see potential, you have to take the chance and give them the belief. There's no place for apprehension when you're in a must-win situation. We knew we had to go after the runs or go home, so putting a guy who had the belief in a situation like that was a win-win for us."
Yet, as well as their makeshift batsmen responded, they wouldn't have been in the semi-finals if not for the efforts of their two premier fast bowlers, Thampi and Warrier, who picked up 16 wickets together. Overall, the two have 72 wickets between them this season.
It didn't start too well for Warrier, who picked up just three wickets in the first two games.
However, the team management persisted with him. On a greentop that Bengal had rolled out at Eden Gardens, chiefly to field a pace battery headlined by Mohammed Shami, Ashok Dinda and Ishan Porel, little did they realise the move could backfire. Warrier ended with a match haul of seven wickets, while Thampi too did his bit in an imposing win. The pair had been room-mates at the MRF Pace Academy and during their age-group days. Here they were spearheading Kerala's season.
"Warrier didn't have confidence in himself last year, so to see this improvement is credit to the work he has put in," Whatmore says. "He's built a solid work ethic with his fitness, the work he puts into his bowling at training, and the hunger to keep learning. This has rubbed off on all the bowlers."
Rajesh Chauhan, a trainer who had previously worked with Whatmore during his time in Zimbabwe, is now part of the support staff, and attributes the change to Warrier's fitness routines.
"Kerala's staple diet is rice, so it was a challenge to get all our bowlers move away to a carb-deficit diet, work on protein-rich food," he says. "John Gloster [the former India physiotherapist] introduced me to the low-carb-high-fat system, and this has worked wonders."
Warrier bowled 16 overs unchanged during the quarter-final match, while Thampi has logged spells of 12 overs in at least four games. Saxena, too, has earlier in the season bowled long spells, and then returned to open the batting.
As is to be expected, the victories have aided the team's improved camaraderie and Baby says "everyone is on the same page now". For Whatmore, this involves asking the players to present slides at team meetings to get them to open up. At other times, he joins the players for chai [tea] and puttu [a rice dish] at roadside eateries, chatting about the world outside cricket. This mix of the serious and the sensible has helped improve relationships, although Whatmore believes there is a lot more to do.
"There's no balm like victory. It's a simple message. They've done well, but I don't want them to be carried away by this success. You don't become a good team with flashes of brilliance. We're now aiming for consistency. I want them to fight all the way."
Sanju Samson exhibited this spirit and single-minded determination when he batted with a broken right hand in the quarter-final to help stretch Kerala's lead. Now for the team, who've shown similar spunk, to carry it forward as a whole.