Harare: On Thursday, at the Harare Sports Club surrounded by jacaranda trees and with a lovely gabled pavilion, a new bilateral series will kick off in an already busy international summer. Following the Ashes and 50-over contests in the West Indies and Sri Lanka, a fourth series will begin between hosts Zimbabwe and India, the first of five ODIs spread across 11 days.
While many may roll their eyes at the starting of another bilateral series - and that too featuring India, who have not let-up this year with the ICC Champions Trophy and triangular in the Caribbean coming right after the IPL, which came right after the Tests against Australia - for Zimbabwe the first ODI will be their first home international against any other side than Bangladesh since November 2011.
Bangladesh were the last team to visit Zimbabwe, in April-May this year, but before that New Zealand's visit was the only time the country hosted international cricket. In fact, this will be Zimbabwe's sixth ODI series (20 matches) since the 2011 World Cup; in that time, India have played 11 ODI series (54 matches). Sufficed to say, this is a more important series for the home team. And it's also the most appetising contest they've had since New Zealand toured.
Head-to-head, a record of ten wins out of 52 ODIs against India is nothing to boast of, but on India's last visit to Zimbabwe, the hosts beat them twice. That too was a weakened side, and so Zimbabwe have reason to believe they can do it again. The challenge will be to be consistent over five matches.
From the side that beat Bangladesh 2-1 in May, three players have been dropped: fast bowlers Shingi Masakadza and Tinashe Panyangara and wicketkeeper Regis Chakabva. Skipper Brendan Taylor, the only wicketkeeper in the squad, remains Zimbabwe's most valuable player - he averages 46 against India - and will need to reprise the form shown against this opposition in 2010. The experienced openers Hamilton Masakadza and Vusi Sibanda will have to be counted for, as will Sean Williams and Malcolm Waller in the middle order.
Of the five seamers named, the probable starters are Kyle Jarvis, Brian Vitori, Tendai Chatara and Elton Chigumbura. The uncapped Michael Chinouya may have to wait to make his debut. The spin department will yet again be led by the experienced Prosper Utseya and Ray Price, who was initially not named in Zimbabwe's squad.
India, under Virat Kohli, will look to avoid another embarrassment against Zimbabwe. India are without several key players, including their captain MS Dhoni and lead spinner and pace bowler, which provides a crop of rookie players a chance to impress the selectors.
Of the bunch of uncapped players, two could debut on Thursday. After a successful IPL 6 season, Haryana pace bowler Mohit Sharma is in line for an international debut and could find himself sharing the new ball with R Vinay Kumar. He will face stiff competition from Bengal seamer Shami Ahmed, who has already played ODIs, however. The third seamer looks likely to be the left-armer Jaydev Unadkat, who played one Test in 2010. With R Ashwin rested, Amit Mishra looks set to play his first ODI since June 2011.
The other ODI debutant could be a man who has two Test double-centuries to his credit. Cheteshwar Pujara, who has played 13 Tests already, averages 56.97 across 61 List A matches and he could be picked ahead of the recalled Ajinkya Rahane. The slot open in the current ODI line-up is that of Dhoni's in the middle order, and considering Rahane is a top-order batsman, the chances are higher that Pujara will be picked.
The rest of the Indian XI looks likely to stay the same as in England and the West Indies, with Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma continuing their association at the top. Raina and Dinesh Karthik (the sole wicketkeeper in the squad) will form the bulk of the middle order, with Ravindra Jadeja slotted in at his customary No. 7 spot. The four below him will be a mix of recalled players and rookies.
The remaining ODIs will be played in Harare on July 26 and 28 and Bulawayo on July 31 and August 3. India have played 12 ODIs at the Harare Sports Club, winning seven and losing five. Against Zimbabwe at this venue, they have won five and lost two. Overall, Zimbabwe have a 30-64 win-loss record in Harare.
Zimbabwe:1 Hamilton Masakadza, 2 Vusi Sibanda, 3 Brendan Taylor (capt/wk), 4 Sikandar Reza, 5 Sean Williams, 6 Malcolm Waller, 7 Elton Chigumbura, 8 Prosper Utseya, 9 Kyle Jarvis, 10 Brian Vitori, 11 Tendai Chatara
India: 1 Shikhar Dhawan, 2 Rohit Sharma, 3 Virat Kohli (capt), 4 Cheteshwar Pujara, 5 Dinesh Karthik (wk), 6 Suresh Raina, 7 Ravindra Jadeja, 8 Amit Mishra, 9 R Vinay Kumar, 10 Jaydev Unadkat 11 Mohit Sharma