From the Indian viewpoint, it would be tempting to dismiss the five-match ODI series against Zimbabwe commencing on Wednesday as just another meaningless contest. But in the context of the youth policy followed by the selectors, the series presents another opportunity for the youngsters to come good.
The focus is clearly on building a team good enough to retain the World Cup in 2015 and while the rebuilding process is continuing along the right lines - and a couple of trophies have already been won - the short tour of Zimbabwe could well mark another judicious step towards coming up with the winning combination in Australia and New Zealand, a little over a year and a half from now.
For starters, it would be wise to take Zimbabwe as serious opposition. The ICC rankings have India at No 1 and Zimbabwe at No 10 but the chasm isn’t really all that wide. Zimbabwe can be dangerous particularly at home, and Virat Kohli and his team cannot afford to take them lightly.
In any case, this is a young side and one is sure the new boys will like to make an impression on their first tour with an Indian team. Enthusiasm can make up for the lack of experience and this is a plus point for the Indians. Moreover, young legs are always important when it comes to fielding and running between wickets.
Zimbabwe’s new coach Andy Waller has remained cautiously optimistic about his team’s chances but has no illusions about the tough task that awaits them. India has won four of the last five bilateral contests while the overall record too is heavily in India’s favour – Zimbabwe have won only ten of the 51 ODIs the two countries have played in the last 30 years.
So perhaps, not unexpectedly, Waller who played two Tests and 39 ODIs for Zimbabwe in the 80s and 90s, has talked about surprising the Indians in at least one of the games. There is no denying, however, that the hosts have done a lot of hard work in preparing for the series.
They also have a few players who could pose problems for the young India side notably the captain Brendan Taylor, experienced cricketers like Hamilton Masakadza, Vusi Sibanda, Elton Chigumbura and Prosper Utseya besides veteran left arm spinner Ray Price who is well known in India for having troubled Sachin Tendulkar and bagging his wicket three successive times in the two Test series way back in 2001-02. At 37 the series against India could well be the swan song for Price who has played in 140 internationals (Tests, ODIs and T-20s) since 1999.
From the Indian angle, chief focus will be on the new faces Pervez Rasool, Ambatti Rayudu, Mohit Sharma and Cheteswar Pujara. It might seem odd to be terming Pujara as a new face but the fact remains that while he has established himself at No 3 in the Test side he has yet to play in an ODI, something that has been the subject of considerable debate for some time.
In this regard even Jaydev Unadkat is a new face despite having appeared in one Test. These players have got a look in because the selectors wisely decided to rest Ravichandran Ashwin, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav, besides of course MS Dhoni and the series presents them an opportunity to show that they are not out of place on the international stage. Perhaps this does not apply to someone like Pujara but he has already spoken about wanting to do well in ODIs too and this is his chance.
Of course the selectors have done well in providing the proper balance between fresh faces and old pros for though this is essentially a young side it is not without experience. Much interest will also centre round the performances of Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Shikhar Dhawan, Dinesh Karthik, Ravindra Jadeja and Suresh Raina even though they may be established stars while Virat Kohli gets his first chance of being captain in a full series.
Hitherto he has been only a stand-in skipper in the absence of Dhoni but the ambitious young man widely tipped to succeed the incumbent has the opportunity to show that besides being a batsman of considerable talent, he is also a deserving candidate for the Indian captaincy when the right time comes along. The series will also show whether the responsibilities of being a leader will help him to curb his notoriously quick temper.
The tour management would do well in giving maximum opportunities to the new faces. Rasool has impressed one and all by his text book action, the alluring flight and vicious turn while being more than adequate with the bat (he has three first class hundreds in his brief career of 17 matches).
Rayudu for long has been considered as one of the most gifted young batsmen in the country. He has a penchant for big scores and a steely temperament to go with it. Mohit Sharma made a favourable impression in the IPL but the fact remains that he has also taken 44 wickets in eleven first class games.
It is hoped that all of them are not played only after the series has been decided. Pujara too should be given adequate chances to prove his worth in ODIs. He has been a worthy successor to Rahul Dravid in Tests and he could well be India’s anchor man in ODIs too.