This is India’s third tour of Zimbabwe in the last four years, but the first time MS Dhoni will feature in a Zimbabwe v India series and lead what is an inexperienced Indian side too. It has been exactly six years since Zimbabwe last registered a victory over India, who lost to the African nation in 2010, when India and Zimbabwe played in a tri-series which also featured Srilanka. That Zimbabwe side was a lot more dynamic – with Brendan Taylor, Charles Coventry and Andy Blignaut in it – than the one which will take on the Men in Blue at the Harare Sports Club on Saturday, when Zimbabwe v India 2016, comprising of a three-match One-Day International (ODI) series and a three-match Twenty20 International (T20I) series, gets underway.
In this article, we assess Zimbabwe’s chances of beating India to a rare series win.
As the title reads, India have struggled as a unit in the 50-over format since their wonderful showing in the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup. They have won just seven of the 16 ODIs played since the start of last June, with three of those victories coming on their last tour of Zimbabwe. They lost to Bangladesh (2-1), India’s first opponents after their semi-final exit in the world cup, in a three-match ODI series. The Men in Blue followed it up with a series victory against Zimbabwe (0-3) under Ajinkya Rahane’s captaincy, but then returned to losing ways against South Africa (2-3) at home and Australia (away) earlier this year, quite ignominiously by a 4-1 margin.
The conspicuous aspects of India’s displays in ODIs and, to an extent, in T20Is too, over the last 12 months, have been the form of Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli and India’s collective batting performances. Rohit, Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan too, have starred with the bat in most of the games, but have received very little support from the middle-order batsmen in particular.
The fourth ODI between Australia and India in Canberra is an ideal example. In pursuit of 349 for victory, India had reached 277/2 in just the 38th over of their innings. Kohli scored a brilliant century, was involved in a huge, potentially match-winning 212-run partnership with S Dhawan, who himself scored a blistering 113-ball 126, for the second wicket, and for a long period during the Indian innings, it looked as though this duo would lead their team to another successful and famous run-chase. But as soon as Kohli and Dhawan were dismissed, the Indian middle-order capitulated and a golden opportunity to chase down a record score on Australian soil was squandered.
That game just told you about the significance of Kohli and how dependent India have been on the 27-year-old coming good and literally, taking them home in every game. If it had not been for him, India would have likely not reached the semi-finals of the ICC World Twenty20 (WT20) 2016 either. It was he who single-handedly took India home against Pakistan at the Eden Gardens and then, in the final Group 2 game against Australia.
Going back to the last time India toured Zimbabwe, the visitors had plenty of problems in the batting department. It was Ambati Rayudu, Kedar Jadhav, Manish Pandey, and Stuart Binny’s contributions which got them out of tight corners in all three ODIs, after the top-order had been dismissed cheaply. Zimbabwe, on the flipside, had a problem with dismissing India’s lower middle-order and the tail after skittling out the top and middle-order.
There is no reason why the Zimbabwean bowling attack cannot repeat and improve too, on their performances the last time they played India at home and trouble an Indian batting line-up bereft of its mainstays: Rohit and Kohli. The likes of Jadhav, Rayudu and Pandey will be keen to score heavily in the upcoming series and thereby put themselves in the fray for a spot in India’s middle-order when the next ODI series comes around. Suresh Raina didn’t feature in the ODIs against Australia and Rahane, who played in the middle-order during the Australian series and in the home series against the Proteas, has been unable to adapt to the demands of batting at Nos. 3, 4 and 5. So, if the aforementioned trio excel against Zimbabwe, they will likely be rewarded. There will be pressure on every batsman who gets the nod in India’s playing XI for the first ODI, and the Zimbabwe bowlers can take full advantage of that element.
In India’s 16-man squad for the ODI and T20I series against Zimbabwe, there are only seven proper batsmen and not many all-rounders too. Three of the seven batsmen have yet to make their ODI debuts – a proper indication of how inexperienced this Indian side really is. The hosts have a good blend of seamers and spinners in their 18-man squad for the home series against India and although not all of them carry a lot of ammunition, the Zimbabwe seamers and spinners can stymie and play on the patience of the Indian batsmen by taking the pace off the ball and bowling tight lines and lengths. Tinashe Panyangara, who is the leader of the Zimbabwe bowling attack, has been ruled out of the series against India due to a lower back problem and will be replaced by Taurai Muzarabani, a fast-medium bowler. Panyangara’s absence is a blow, but the hosts have other bowling options which can fill the void left by the 30-year-old fast-medium bowler.
What could also work in Zimbabwe’s favour is this being just a three-match series – in which there is very little breathing space if a team loses the first ODI. Looking at it from Zimbabwe’s perspective, therefore, the hosts have to play with a great deal of vigour and aggression, and hit the visitors hard on their very first outing of the tour. As aforementioned, there are many new faces in this Indian side led by Dhoni, who himself will be under pressure to produce results amidst constant talks of whether Kohli should lead India in the 50-over format too.
Zimbabwe’s batting line-up is more than capable of hurting the Indian bowling attack, which will be led by Jasprit Bumrah. He will be supported by Barinder Sran, Dhawal Kulkarni and Jaydev Unadkat – three bowlers who had good IPL seasons, but can be predictable with the lines, lengths and the pace at which they bowl most of their deliveries. The likes of Chamu Chibhabha, Elton Chigumbura and Hamilton Masakadza were good without being consistent during India’s tour of Zimbabwe in 2015 and are capable of playing the big knocks. And, depending on game situations, they can score runs at a canter as well. Axar Patel, Jayant Yadav and Yuvzvendra Chahal – the three spinners in the Indian squad – are quite inexperienced too, and are not big turners of the ball. So, if Chibhabha, Masakadza, Chigumbura, and lest we forget Sean Williams, get their act together, Zimbabwe can prosper as a batting unit against the touring Indians.
India have struggled for cohesion in ODIs since the world cup last year and the side picked for the series against Zimbabwe, is chock-a-block with new faces and players who will be keen to make a statement. This, therefore, presents the ideal scenario for Zimbabwe to register their first ODI victory over India in six years and possibly, go on and clinch the series too. Of course, Graeme Cremer and company will have to raise their own game if they want to beat India. But the obtrusive aspect is, this Indian side is bereft of an identity, in the batting and bowling departments.