India look to batsmen without baggage
Cheteshwar Pujara and M Vijay are the only two India batsmen to have previously played Tests in South Africa. They don't carry too many scars of defeat either. Of the two Tests that Pujara has played there, India have won one and drawn the other. Vijay became part of one of India's two Test wins in South Africa in his only Test in the country. Even in the ODIs, Vijay has been on the winning side in two out of three games. Nor has either of the two been part of the drubbing handed out in the ODIs on this tour.
Instead, while India lost the ODI series, Pujara and Vijay were part of the contingent that has gone through six net sessions. They have had more time to get used to the conditions than those who played the ODIs, who, in the words of Virat Kohli, have played the games and then got to know the conditions. India will look to them to bring positive reinforcement to a side that will be low on confidence. The two promised the same a day before India begin their two-day tour game before the Tests.
"I think the important thing here is that you need to adjust to the bounce and the lateral movement that is there on the wicket," Pujara said. "So since I have played a couple of matches here it will help me adjust better and I think the preparation time that we had here is also enough and should help us to perform better."
For Vijay, it is all about not paying too much attention to external factors. "I personally think you have got to keep it simple because already there is a lot of talk going around," Vijay said. "You have got to go out there and be free in your mind, and just see the ball and play. That's the basic plan, as simple as that."
Pujara and Vijay have had different build-ups to the tour of South Africa. Playing in Ranji Trophy, Pujara has scored two centuries in three matches, one of them a double, which he said gave him confidence coming here. Vijay scored only 118 runs in his three matches, but he said he was feeling good about his game.
"When you have some runs in the last innings, it does feel good," Pujara said. "The kind of runs that I had in the last innings, the time I spent at the crease, it really helps me to improve my concentration and when you have the best of concentration it's easy to adjust to the conditions. Obviously, confidence-wise it helps."
"For me, it's a feel-good factor inside," Vijay said. "It's not about how many runs I score, it's more about how I bat. If am in good touch and hitting the ball well, that matters to me more. In that respect, I am satisfied at where I am. Looking forward to whatever I can do in South Africa."
This is the first time Pujara and Vijay have travelled out of India as certainties, out of right and not because the main players are resting. Pujara admitted this tour was a challenge for him. "When you are playing at the international level you expect fast bowling, so it is not about who is the fastest," Pujara said, "but yeah conditions are favourable for the bowlers and so it is a little challenging for us, but that is the important part as a youngster because when you want to grow as a cricketer you want to face challenges and learn out of it. It will be a challenging tour for us, but we are well prepared for it."
The last time Pujara was here he fought hard in Durban before a back-foot defensive topspun onto his stumps. In Cape Town he got an unplayable delivery from Dale Steyn, which started leg, swung, and hit his pad in front of off. It has been three years since.
"The last one-and-a-half years has been really good for me," Pujara said. "Playing the Test format and scoring those runs. I think I have become a matured player, and playing against teams like Australia and England has helped me a lot because they have very good fast bowling. I think the kind of runs you score in one-one-and-a-half years when you're in good form, you've got a lot of confidence. Even in the domestic matches I have scored runs. I have very good confidence, which helps a cricketer prepare himself mentally rather than what he does on the field. When you are mentally prepared there are some adjustments, which need to be done on the field. Then you are in the best frame of mind, you have the best chance of preparing yourself on the field."
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo