K.L. Rahul will have to show drastically improved leadership acumen when he leads India against a buoyant South African side in the second ODI on Friday, with the three-match series and his long-term Test captaincy ambitions both at stake.
Rahul was at best mediocre in terms of "on-your-feet-thinking", something that's basic to art of captaincy, and also didn't look the part with the bat in a deflating 31-run defeat in the opening ODI where India were outplayed for the better part of the game.
The middle-order, which had been a problem since Virat Kohli's heady days as captain, is still sticking out like a sore thumb and no one knows what exactly the solution is.
Once again, it was a case of one opener—Shikhar Dhawan on this occasion—and the indomitable Kohli holding fort before the middle-order caved in on a slower pitch where there was turn and the ball gripped, making a run-of-the-mill seamer Andile Phehlukwayo look formidable.
South Africa crushed India both strategically as well as on skills and therein lay serious questions about Rahul's wares as captain.
The most dominant query was what exactly was Venkatesh Iyer doing in the team if he was not bowling at least four to five overs as the sixth bowler when Yuzvendra Chahal and Shardul Thakur were being taken to the cleaners by Rassie van der Dussen and Temba Bavuma?
If Venkatesh is playing as a specialist batter at No 6 then why not use Suryakumar Yadav, who is more experienced with a better range of strokes under pressure?
The next question that arose was whether Rahul spoke to Chahal or Ashwin when Van der Dussen and Bavuma started playing the sweep shots—both conventional and reverse sweep on a good batting strip.
There wasn't a singular inspired bowling change unlike Proteas who introduced Aiden Markram's off-breaks first-up and bottled up the Indian skipper.
When India batted, the game was lost at the halfway stage once Dhawan and Kohli were out in quick succession following their 90-plus stand. Suddenly, the strip where batting looked easy became difficult.
Shreyas Iyer's well-documented struggles against the short ball were again exposed on the day and the Mumbaikar would know that a place in the Indian playing XI comes at a premium and he can't go on wasting chances like a millionaire.
But going by Rahul Dravid's template, he would get his share of chances.
On a slow track, where rotating the strike is a must, the likes of Rishabh Pant and the two Iyers will have to play a bigger role.
Similarly, Shardul Thakur, despite his fifty which came when the match as a contest was over and there was no pressure of a target, will have to measure up as a bowler which is his primary skill.
Going for 70 plus runs in his 10-over spell with too many loose balls didn't help the team's cause and even Bhuvneshwar Kumar looked insipid on his return to the national playing eleven after the tour of Sri Lanka.
The difference between the two sides was how the spinners fared -- Ashwin and Chahal in their combined 20 overs gave away 106 runs for a single wicket while Markram, Tabraiz Shamsi and Keshav Maharaj bowled 26 overs between them for 124 runs and snared four wickets between them.
"It was a sort of wicket that we get back home. It was not a typical South African wicket. There was turn (on offer) in the wicket, and the ball was also keeping straight, so it wasn't easy for the new batsmen to score runs," senior batter Dhawan had said after the match.
"The plan of the set batsmen was to take it deep, but unfortunately I got out on the ball which turned a lot and I didn't expect that, but yes that happens," he said.
Test captaincy is a different ball-game compared to white ball but Rahul only knows too well that when it comes to decision-making, the top brass will fall back on references they have.
And a series defeat against South Africa isn't going to do his case any good unless the head coach is bent on trying to make a leader out of him.
India: KL Rahul (captain), Jasprit Bumrah, Shikhar Dhawan, Ruturaj Gaikwad, Virat Kohli, Suryakumar Yadav, Shreyas Iyer, Venkatesh Iyer, Rishabh Pant (wicket-keeper), Ishan Kishan (wicket-keeper), Yuzvendra Chahal, R Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Deepak Chahar, Prasidh Krishna, Shardul Thakur, Md. Siraj, Jayant Yadav, Navdeep Saini.
South Africa: Temba Bavuma (captain), Keshav Maharaj, Quinton de Kock (wicketkeeper), Zubayr Hamza, Marco Jansen, Janneman Malan, Sisanda Magala, Aiden Markram, David Miller, Lungi Ngidi, Wayne Parnell, Andile Phehlukwayo, Dwaine Pretorius, Kagiso Rabada, Tabraiz Shamsi, Rassie van der Dussen, Kyle Verreynne.
The match starts 2pm IST on Jan 21.