On the eve of the New Year Test against South Africa in Cape Town, India captain Rohit Sharma appeared cool and relaxed as ever. Given the margin of defeat and a three-day finish at Centurion, there has understandably been scathing criticism on the visitors who were outplayed comprehensively by the Proteas. Rohit, though, didn't seem too perturbed by the result and instead stressed on the need to back the youngsters unconditionally during such a time of crisis.
"It's just about showing faith and trust in everyone" - Rohit
While India's batting showed a familiar trend of being susceptible on a lively surface, the inability of their seamers to make use of favourable conditions is what turned out to be a telling difference. Shardul Thakur and debutant Prasidh Krishna in particular endured a horrendous game with the latter struggling to find his mojo at any point. In a two-game series, it's a tricky call regarding making changes and Rohit didn't sound like he felt the need for it.
"Honestly, I haven't thought too much about that (pace bowling changes) although we have had a brief chat with the management and the coaching staff. We've not completely finalised our playing XI. Obviously, everyone is available for selection. There are no injury concerns. We'll sit down in the evening and decide what is the right one. I still feel that sometimes when you have inexperience in your attack, we have that, you have to show some faith.
"That can happen to any team. Like I said in the last post-match press conference about Prasidh playing his first game, we all get nervous when you are playing your first game. I will still back that thought of mine that he has got good ability to succeed at this level, especially in this format. It's just about showing faith and trust in everyone, and getting the job done from them."
With India intending to transition from the likes of Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, this series was bound to provide a stern challenge to the younger players. Shreyas Iyer, Shubman Gill and Yashasvi Jaiswal all found the going tough as they were found wanting in terms of technique and determination. While it's still early days for Jaiswal in his red-ball career, the same isn't the case for Gill and Iyer although neither of them have gained significant experience in overseas Tests. Furthermore, the challenge of adapting quickly in a two-match Test series has also been a hurdle to overcome.
However, Rohit didn't prefer to use the shortness of the series as an excuse although he did acknowledge that to be a factor. The skipper threw his weight behind the trio and exuded confidence in their ability to turn things around.
"We have to accept what is in front of us, whether it is two Test matches or five Test matches. Have to play it and play well. About these three guys (Gill, Shreyas and Jaiswal), you rightly said that they haven't played a lot of cricket. They have been around the team for a number of years. If you perform well in these conditions against such a team, you can take your game to another level. And that's the positivity you need to find from games like these. It doesn't matter how many games you have played, whether you have played one game or hundred games. When you perform in conditions like this, against a team like that, it gives you lot of confidence going ahead.
"That's the positivity that not just them, all of us need to think about. At some stage, they all need to get exposed to conditions like this, bowling like this, they all have to do it. We all have done it. I'm sure they have learnt a lot from the first game they have played. Tomorrow will be another opportunity for them to understand what's required in these conditions. It is challenging, but that is what Test cricket is about. Hopefully they understand that, they learn from the first game, they apply themselves. Again, not just them, all of us batters."
South Africa's dominating win in the opening game means that they cannot lose the series now. But Rohit doesn't feel that his team is lacking in motivation or confidence. Instead, the 36-year-old maintained that the visitors are raring to have a crack at the South Africans with the sole aim of squaring the series.
"The hunger level is high in the team because the boys are all young in the squad. If at this age, you aren't hungry, then there is no point playing. Winning the series or drawing the series, this remains the main goal overseas. If you can't win the series, then it's important to prevent the opponent from winning it. We take a lot of pride in winning games outside India. The chat in the dressing room is about this all the time, what we can do to achieve the same.
"Test match as you all know isn't a game of a few sessions. You have to stay in the game for longer periods. You need to work harder and be patient. The boys know it though a lot of them haven't come here before and haven't played Test cricket here often. Still they know what needs to be done to win the game. So if we execute what we discussed, then we will get the results."
From the early looks of things, the track at Cape Town also has a greenish look to it, much like it was in the Centurion game. Another track with assistance for the fast bowlers is expected and that would mean more challenges for the batters from both sides, particularly India's. The one thing that could differ from the opening game, as Rohit rightly put it, shall be the overhead conditions that could have a huge say in the contest.
"The pitch looks similar to what it was in Centurion. Maybe not so much grass but there is enough covering of grass. Overhead conditions will matter I think, it's quite hot here. Centurion was much cooler. When we played here last time in 2018 and 2021, in 2021 I wasn't there but the guys were telling me that it was similar in terms of overhead conditions. We know exactly what is required when conditions are like that. Based on how the pitch is, how the conditions are, we have to respond to that."
While Rohit has plenty to think about regarding his team's chances, his counterpart Dean Elgar is gearing up for his farewell Test match. With Temba Bavuma ruled out due to injury, Elgar gets the rare opportunity of captaining the side in his final red-ball game. The gritty left-hander was at his ominous best at Centurion and Rohit is aware that his bowlers will have their task cut out to prevent the experienced batter from signing off on a high.
"He (Elgar) has been their mainstay for a number of years now. Scores a lot of runs against us for sure. But again, a very quality player. Somebody who puts a lot of weightage on his wicket, a big price on his wicket. Doesn't throw it away. You've got to get him out. Important thing for us to see if we can get him early and see what the other batters do. We know how important he is to them. Likes to score big runs, likes to bat long as well. We've got our plans, let's see. Hope it works out. Clearly it didn't last game. Hopefully it will this time," said Rohit.