Tri-series is a step in Zimbabwe's development
After the carnival of the World Twenty20 in the Caribbean, a one-day tri-series in Zimbabwe may not seem like the sort of fare to whet the appetite, but India and Sri Lanka's trip to the Southern African nation is an important sounding board for all three teams.
The reasons for this are manifold. For a start, the 50-over World Cup is just over nine months away, and after India's lacklustre showing at the World Twenty20, the performance of their squad for this series - with a number of big names not making the trip - will be a test of India's bench strength and may also unearth the potential of some of the less experienced players. Should this squad perform beyond expectations, it may also be just the reality check needed to get India's heavyweights performing again.
Sri Lanka made it as far as the semi-finals of the World Twenty20, but that they got there at all was almost entirely due to Mahela Jayawardene's sparkling early-tournament form. But with Sri Lanka also resting a slew of their frontline players, they too have the opportunity to test the depth of their resources and allow a few youngsters the opportunity to gain international experience in what should be fairly easy conditions.
The fact that so many known international stars are not making the trip has irked more than a few people in the Zimbabwe set-up, but while there are worries about how much local attention tours by two second-string sides might draw, Zimbabwe must surely also be looking ahead to the World Cup and a couple of positive results in this series could only help their attempt at a cricketing renaissance. Zimbabwe also need all the exposure they can get, and with a paucity of international cricket on their calendar, this series may be their last chance to really test themselves ahead of the tournament in February next year.
But the issue of most immediate importance is Zimbabwe's first hosting of a series against major opposition since the last time Sri Lanka toured the country in November 2008. Since then, the only senior sides to visit have been Kenya, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and although the Zimbabweans have travelled to South Africa and the West Indies - as well as the obligatory visits to Bangladesh and Kenya - and sent an invitational XI to play in the Deodhar Trophy in India in 2008-09, the successful hosting of two international sides will send an important message both about the state of cricket there, and more importantly about the state of the country.
In both areas, there has been little wholesale change, but positive steps are being made. Zimbabwe won the first Twenty20 and one-day game of their West Indies tour in March, and scored two notable victories against Pakistan and Australia in the warm-ups to the World Twenty20. Inbetween those successes, however, the team - and particularly the batsmen - have struggled.
Zimbabwe's early exit from the World Twenty20 came as a result of the frustrating, but far from unfamiliar, failure of the team's batsmen to apply themselves when even a modicum of pressure is placed upon them. The weakness is a mental one, as batsmen who have been repeatedly brutalised by being thrust onto the international stage before their time have had their confidence fractured, perhaps irredeemably so. The spectacular collapse has become a default setting, rather than an aberration. In this light, six games (at least) against weakened opposition on home soil will be an opportunity for the home side's batsmen to start pulling themselves out of the mire.
The last time Sri Lanka toured they came away with a 5-0 series whitewash, but were at least challenged in a few of the games, scraping home by five runs and two wickets respectively in the third and fourth games, while only a five-wicket haul by Muttiah Muralitharan saved them from defeat in the fifth. This time, the touring side will be missing Murali's guile, while Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara are also being rested.
The last Indian side to tour the country was an A side in 2007. That team included players such as Pankaj Singh, Pragyan Ojha and Rohit Sharma, and Zimbabwe also have experience of players such as Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin from their Deodhar adventure. The last full Indian side was in the country in 2005-06, and is unrecognisable from this touring squad.
It seems, then, that this tri-series may well be more competitive than many of Zimbabwe's recent international outings. Whether the home side plays to its potential, or implodes spectacularly, remains to be seen. Either way, the first major international tour to Zimbabwe in 18 months is a step in the right direction.
Liam Brickhill is an assistant editor at ESPN Cricinfo