Virat Kohli and the rest of India's ODI team would have felt a tad strange, out of place even, as they set upon their journey to Harare over the weekend. For once, there was no buzz around their departure. For once, the skipper didn't even have to indulge in the customary pre-tour media briefing. For once, it almost seemed like not many really cared about the Indian team or their five-match ODI tour of Zimbabwe.
There will, however, be a lot on stake for a majority in the 15-member squad that takes on the hosts in the first ODI at the Harare Sports Club on Wednesday. For them, the next 10 days or so could well be make or break.
Just over 1100km and a 13-hour drive separate Harare from Johannesburg in neighbouring South Africa. In around three months time, India will land in the Rainbow Nation's commercial capital for a high-profile tour. They will be accompanied by the customary fanfare and the incessant media glare. That tour will be the talk of the town.
The next 10 days or so in Harare and Bulawayo, in contrast, present a bunch of talented young men a wonderful opportunity to shine and make a name for themselves away from the glare of the spotlight. As regular skipper MS Dhoni said following India's tri-series triumph in the Caribbean, it will also be a great stage for India to embolden their bench strength and identify their second-string with the 2015 World Cup in their thoughts.
India had gone to the West Indies on the back of winning the Champions Trophy in England. That ODI outfit carried a settled look in spite of the many inexperienced members in the mix. In Zimbabwe, a number of the regulars have been given a break considering the hectic nature of the impending schedule.
On the rise
Kohli's crew in Zimbabwe can be divided into two groups: those with significant experience and an established spot in the ODI team and the others vying to rise from the periphery and stake their own claim as suitable replacements. Beating Zimbabwe in their own backyard shouldn't be much of a concern for the No.1 ranked ODI team nor a significant achievement. The likes of Cheteshwar Pujara, Ambati Rayudu, Mohit Sharma and Parvez Rasool will be focused on making personal gains along the way to ensure that the Rainas and the Jadejas are kept on their toes. Indian cricket should only benefit from this battle within a battle.
His incredible exploits in the Test arena over the last six months might have turned Pujara into a potential superstar. But despite a List A average of 56, the Saurashtra run-machine hasn't been considered too much of an ODI exponent. And Pujara will be desperate to put that reputation to rest by making full use of what promises to be a guaranteed spot in the middle-order for the first few ODIs anyway. The same could be said for the temperamental Rayudu, who after a few series on the bench will get his international career underway. Ajinkya Rahane, meanwhile, is back in the mix and will hope to improve on the numbers he's returned in his 16 ODIs to date.
Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma enhanced their reputation as a potentially long-standing opening combination option by following up their Champions Trophy performances with a string of partnerships in the Caribbean. Dhawan and even the likes of Raina and Dinesh Karthik, however, weren't really among the runs in Jamaica and Trinidad. They will look forward to countering the modest Zimbabwe bowling attack and getting back to run-scoring ways. The pitches in Harare and Bulawayo will not be cake-walk and should present a learning curve for the younger batsmen in the squad.
Plenty to gain
It's in the bowling ranks that there's a lot to gain. With Vinay Kumar the most experienced bowler in the mix, Jaydev Unadkat and Mohit Sharma have a chance to build on strong IPL showings. The pace department, despite the successes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav, could still do with some strengthening and Unadkat, Mohit and Vinay could hope to win a spot for South Africa with a strong showing here against a decent batting line-up that includes Brendan Taylor, Vusimuzi Sibanda and Hamilton Masakadza.
Rasool will want to be talked about as more than just being the first Kashmiri to be picked for India and has an opportunity to make a case for being second in line behind Ravindra Jadeja for the second-spinner-cum-all-rounder slot.
The Zimbabwe tour on the surface might be nothing more than an ICC FTP obligation as far as Indian cricket is concerned, especially with bigger and more glamorous tests lined up in the near future. But for Kohli & Co, it promises to be more than just an express 10-day safari.
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