Kohli praises young mates for successful transition
For most cricket teams, losing a generation of legends in a short space of time would be disastrous. Australia, seemingly stuck in an infinite rebuilding loop, are still reeling from the departure of their greats. Not so India. In barely more than two years, India's World Cup-winning side has been chopped, shopped and rendered barely recognizable, but their new school is ready and waiting to take up the mantle.
"If you have such big players going out of the team suddenly, you do feel a little weird initially but it's all about how you pick it up and the guys have done a brilliant job in that," said Virat Kohli on the eve of his first full series as India's (albeit temporary) captain. "A transition is never easy, and the guys have taken up the responsibility.
"You see Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan stepping into the shoes of Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag. It's not an easy task but they've batted beautifully for us the last two months, and that's been one of the main reasons for our success."
Suresh Raina captained the last India side to visit Zimbabwe, in 2010, and while he remains a fixture in the one-day side his potential as a future leader appears to have waned. A similar fate is unlikely to befall Kohli, who set off on the path that has brought him here a decade ago as a precocious 14-year-old captain in the Polly Umrigar Trophy. He was put in charge of India sides at Under-15 and U-19 level, and there is a sense of destiny being fulfilled in his current apprenticeship to the India captaincy.
He showed in the recent tri-series in the Caribbean, however, that he still has a lot to learn and readily admitted that he found that assignment, in the absence of the injured MS Dhoni, rather tough. "It was a good experience for me in the West Indies, although I was stepping in between games so it wasn't that easy because I field in every position when I'm playing under MS and it's very hard to analyze where the fielders are, what angles they're standing at, what bowlers to rotate when because you're focussing on just stopping the ball and giving your 100% in the field."
In Zimbabwe, he'll have a clear five matches against modest opposition to hone his skills and learn how best to balance instinct and strategy in the heat of the moment, as every good captain must. Kohli will be helped by the presence of six of the players who toured in 2010, as he did, and have some experience of mid-winter conditions in Zimbabwe, when the pitches are dry, the sun dips below the horizon early and the toss can become vitally important.
There's also the small matter of Duncan Fletcher and Trevor Penney's presence on the coaching staff. Both men were born in Zimbabwe, and have built reputations as two of the finest coaches going around.
"Guys who have played here before have shared that input, but Duncan has been a great help, not just for this series but overall since he's been coach," Kohli said. "He had really difficult times initially and was criticised a lot, but he's stuck with the team and stayed strong and we've seen the results now. We're really benefiting from all the experience he has - he has the best cricketing brain in the world and just has so much knowledge about the game.
"Him and Trevor Penney are both really excited to be here because they haven't been here for a while, so it's a good feeling to have both of them who've played here, helping us in that department."
India's squad has, potentially, five ODI debutants but Kohli downplayed the importance of experience, given the sheer amount of short-format cricket being played these days. "I don't think experience matters so much in one-day cricket, because we've played so much in the IPL back home that we know how to play in different situations. I think that's helped in a big way as far as limited-overs cricket is concerned.
"All the players in the team are quite young right now, and our careers are building up together. I think it's really exciting for Indian cricket, especially in the one-day format, that 15 players can sort of grow up together in international cricket. It's really important to have a strong bond in the team, and we have that right now."
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town