Captain Dinesh Karthik and coach D Vasu are standing by the nets, overseeing Tamil Nadu's practice session ahead of the Vijay Hazare Trophy knockouts, in Alur on the outskirts of Bengaluru. Avinash Khandelwal, the fielding coach, and Arun KR, the strength and conditioning coach, put the players through their paces. Left-arm fingerspinner R Sai Kishore, among the youngest in the bunch, seemingly cracks a joke to which vice-captain Vijay Shankar bursts out laughing. "Sir sirripu mooturan (he's making me laugh)," yells Vijay Shankar.
The smiles are back in the Tamil Nadu camp. Not too long ago, this was a team that went through a winless phase. In the previous domestic season, they suffered premature exits in all three formats. At the start of this season many of their first-choice players - M Vijay (county cricket), R Ashwin (India duty), Vijay Shankar, B Indrajith, Washington Sundar, Aswin Crist (all injured) - were unavailable, but "good cop-bad cop" Karthik has turned the team into a potent unit that has zoomed into the knockouts on the back of nine successive wins in Group C.
"I think winning nine out of nine is not that important; it's in the past now. Winning the next three games is going to be more crucial for us"
Tamil Nadu coach D Vasu
While Karthik has blazed away as the side's finisher, with 349 runs in six innings at an average of 87.25 and strike rate of just over 135, Tamil Nadu have also had various other heroes in their unbeaten run. Vijay Shankar didn't start the season, but once he returned, he immediately hit form with the bat and often took the new ball with frontline seamer K Vignesh to exploit the fairly helpful conditions in Jaipur.
Vignesh, adept at bowling long spells with the new ball, is the side's joint-highest wicket-taker, with 13 strikes, along with fellow seamer M Mohammed and legspinner M Ashwin. T Natarajan, the designated death bowler, isn't too far behind with 11 wickets, but it is B Aparajith who has sprung a surprise with 10 wickets at an economy rate of 4.46. Given Tamil Nadu's wealth of spin resources, Aparajith was often considered surplus to the team's requirements in the past. However, with Washington still nursing a niggle in his hand and playing only as a specialist batsman, Aparajith has stepped up, particularly in match-ups against the left-handers.
Aparajith has played an even bigger role with the bat and is just 30 runs shy of 500, having reeled off four fifties and a hundred. Abhinav Mukund, who was the top run-getter in last year's Vijay Hazare Trophy, has extended his sparkling white-ball form, reuniting with M Vijay at the top. Vijay Shankar, Karthik and Shahrukh Khan have added further spark to the batting line-up.
Before taking up his wicketkeeping drills, Karthik acknowledged that it is the collective effort that has helped this team scorch the league phase.
"To win nine games in nine, you can't have one performer. Obviously, you need an assortment of performers, and this is what has happened," Karthik told ESPNcricinfo. "It has been a good run and the boys have responded to the challenges thrown at them in a very positive manner. So, it's a pleasure to be the captain of such a team."
Karthik, who has also led Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL, said he is still learning on the job and figuring out the right balance.
"The boys enjoy each others' company," he said. "A lot of them have played various categories of cricket together. So, there's lot of camaraderie in this team just like any other state team I'd imagine. But, with this team even more, it's very united and my job is to be friendly to them and it's [about] playing both the good cop and the bad cop."
Karthik's imaginative captaincy came into the spotlight when he bumped up tailender Sai Kishore to No.3 against Services on a seaming track. Sai hung on for 40 balls and blunted the new ball before Karthik and rookie C Hari Nishanth made fifties to lift Tamil Nadu from 55 for 4 to 294 for 8, and they ultimately won by 212 runs.
"Sai was somebody whom we had prepared saying if the conditions were doing a bit maybe he had to go out and fight it out," Karthik explained. "And he was able to do that and in turn the wicket got better and the batsmen were able to make better use of the conditions. Having said that, even in that game we were 60 for 4 and 70 for 5, and from there we managed to get over 250, which was commendable."
Karthik was particularly impressed with Shahrukh who was initially picked as a reserve player and then went on to establish himself in the XI after unbeaten scores of 48 and 69 against Rajasthan and Bengal.
"Shahrukh is a young guy and he's growing in his career now," Karthik said. "He's got some special shots and is very promising but more importantly the journey for him is to understand these situations and try and come out doing the best he can. He's training hard, he's on the path, doing everything he can to succeed."
In 2016-17, when Tamil Nadu trampled Karnataka inside two days to make the Ranji semi-final, seamers Vignesh and Natarajan were pivotal to the team's success. The seam attack wasn't as effective in the next couple of seasons, partly due to injuries, but it has come good again this season. Coach Vasu was wary of the workload of the seamers, suggesting they might be swapped in and out over a "gruelling" season.
"We had emphasised on fitness during the pre-season camp [in Tirupur] and we have also rotated our pacers, giving them breaks," he said. "The physio and the trainer keep talking to them and monitoring their workload as they play a lot of league cricket in Chennai and then TNPL (Tamil Nadu Premier League) also. And whenever they ask for a break, we give them, because fast bowlers must be preserved since it's a very long season. Next up is Mushtaq Ali T20s and Ranji; it's a gruelling season and we are conscious of that."
Vasu also cautioned against getting too excited by Tamil Nadu's unbeaten streak and instead challenged his boys to focus on seizing the big moments in the knockouts.
"I think winning nine out of nine is not that important; it's in the past now," he said. "Winning the next three games is going to be more crucial for us."