"We're not going to take the foot off the gas in the third Test."
Virat Kohli's words after the end of the Pune Test sent a scary reminder to the South African dressing room of the fire-breathing dragon that this Indian team has become. It sends an ominous signal to an already battered South African side that they might be in for more embarrassment if they continue performing the same way.
This kind of feeling is shared by many other visiting teams in the past, not just South Africa, and as they near the end of the tour, most are already in a state of submission.
In the record 11 series wins at home on the trot, India have achieved a clean sweep four times (in series of two matches or more). They have won two one-off Tests. Of the 31 matches played in this period, they have lost just one of the 31 matches, won 25 and drawn 5. These are staggering numbers that testify their ruthlessness.
India have already taken an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series and are rampaging towards the full 120 points for the second series in a row.
"We're looking for a result again, and hopefully make it 3-0," Kohli said after the Pune win. "Because these points are important, we understand that with the Test Championship, it's going to be very crucial, at all the stages, when we play away from home as well. And no one's going to relax at any stage, that's a guarantee."
In their quintessential way, India have ground down the Proteas and made them bite the dust. They have made them bowl 360 overs in three innings, which amounts to 122 overs an innings, and scored 1391 runs at an average of 86.93, including five centuries. They have been absolutely battered, which was pretty much evident in their body language on day two of the Pune Test where they just seemed to be waiting for India's declaration rather than ten wickets in the first innings.
The frustration was palpable. Tempers flared up within their own camp as Kagiso Rabada and Quinton de Kock entered into an altercation.
This is what sustained pressure can do. The Proteas went haywire in the field. Catches were dropped, overthrows conceded, long hops and no balls were gifted, the discipline went for a toss.
Hell, even wrists were broken. Aiden Markram has flown home with a fractured wrist after hitting a solid object in the dressing room post his second innings dismissal in Pune. Skipper Faf du Plessis understands the rigours and challenges of an Indian tour and wants his team to somehow stay afloat.
"It is tough. It is tough when you're losing," he was quoted as saying by Cricinfo in the pre-match conference. "For us, we're very, very competitive people, so it does take a dent out of your confidence, but international sport is supposed to be hard, and the guys who've stayed at the top for a long time will tell you that it comes with ups and it comes with downs, personally and from a team point of view.
"So it's important for us to understand that we have to fight our way out of these last two losses. We can't expect things just to happen. They won't happen, because India is a very powerful team at the moment. As I said, their record at home is amazing. So is ours — I mean our record at home is just as good. So for us, it's just about trying to keep doing the things well, keep practising hard, keep doing the processes as well as you can, and then hopefully it's just a matter of time and you start winning again."
Heading into the Ranchi Test, the Proteas need to get their act together and up the ante big time.
The batsmen fell short on India's first innings total (601/5 declared) by 137 runs even after two innings combined. They haven't managed the replicate the application and balance of aggression and defence from the first innings in Vizag and it seemed as if the last-day collapse in the first Test was still playing in their mind. A solid top-order performance is the need of the hour, which could pass on the confidence to the middle and lower order. Dean Elgar and Faf du Plessis have impressed in patches. Theunis de Bruyn has struggled with scores of 4, 10, 30, 8 and so has Temba Bavuma (18,0,8 38). These scores are unacceptable for No 3 and 4 batsmen, especially when playing in India.
The Proteas desperately need to push Du Plessis or Quinton de Kock, who has also somewhat gone missing after the breezy ton in the first innings in Vizag, up the order at 3 or 4. They need stability at the top and maybe a leaf out of the lower-order and tail's patience and resilience.
Du Plessies himself needs to lead from the front with his captaincy and strategies. A bit of luck might help his cause. He's lost both tosses so far and faced the scoreboard pressure. If the flip of the coin goes his way, he can try to reverse that pressure.
"We've felt that we've done it (compete) in stages, more probably in the first Test, so hoping that we can start with the toss tomorrow," he said. "Probably will (send) somebody else to the toss tomorrow, I'll give you that, because my record so far hasn't been great, and then, yeah, if we put big runs on the board in the first innings, that's where we need to start.
"We get runs in the first innings, and then anything from there is possible. So hopefully, that'll be how it'll unfold over the next couple of days, where we can put some runs on. The pitch looks a little bit drier, a little bit crustier, so first-innings runs are going to be vital, and then anything is possible in the second innings."
They might ponder a change in batting and bring in Heinrich Klaasen to make his Test debut in place of De Bruyn, while opener Zubayr Hamza may replace Markram.
Bowlers have erred frequently, and on Indian soil where the margin of error is very minimal, committing so many errors is a cardinal sin.
Pune was a track which was tailor-made for the South African pacers with the grass, dampness, and bounce, especially on Day 1, but they didn't capitalise and were left chasing the game for next four days. There was a lot expected of seniors Rabada and Vernon Philander, but like some of their batsmen, they have only managed to impress in patches. Nortje was welcomed to Test cricket in brutal fashion in Pune but it's a crucial learning curve for the youngster. He, however, might have to make way for Lungi Ngidi in Ranchi.
Though Keshav Maharaj didn't have a good time with the ball, he showed good resolve with the bat amidst all the carnage. Unfortunately for Proteas, he will miss the Test due to a shoulder injury which might pave the way back for Dane Piedt in the starting eleven. South Africa have added left-arm spinner George Linde to the squad.
India have had near-perfect performances in both the Tests. Kohli's five-bowler strategy gave them the option to enforce follow-on and bowl the Proteas out inside four days. They would probably look to work on strategies to break the lower-order resistance which has been bothering them for some time now.
With the pitch expecting to assist spin, India might ponder going in with three spinners and two pacers, which might lead to Shahbaz Nadeem's surprise Test debut.
The JSCA International Stadium Complex in Ranchi will host its second Test. The first one ended in a high-scoring draw between India and Australia two years ago. Du Plessis expects the wicket, which is dark, dry, and hard, to aid spin and also assist reverse swing.
If India win, it will be their first clean sweep over South Africa in a three-or-more-match Test series. They have had a strong chokehold so far and it will take a Herculean effort for the Proteas to wriggle free, salvage some pride and earn 40 points. The knockout punch is on the way and it could end up being a brutal one.
Disclaimer: This article was updated after the news of Kuldeep Yadav's injury