Low-key series an audition for middle-order spot
A limited-overs tour to Zimbabwe may not garner as much attention as a series against a higher-ranked team, but for the seven specialist batsmen in India's squad, the next fortnight may prove to be a crucial phase in their career. Ajinkya Rahane, the captain on this tour, Ambati Rayudu, Robin Uthappa, Manish Pandey, M Vijay, Kedar Jadhav and Manoj Tiwary will be looking to use this series to make a strong claim for the lone spot available in India's middle order in ODIs.
Barring Pandey, the other six batsmen have played ODIs for India. However, only two - Rahane and Uthappa - have enjoyed an extended run in the XI. Rahane was given a long run in ODIs over the last couple of years in ODIs before he was dropped in the series against Bangladesh, while Uthappa enjoyed the team management's support early on in his international career almost a decade ago. No wonder then that the players attach great significance to the three ODIs and two Twenty20s in Zimbabwe.
"It is a good opportunity for all the youngsters to express themselves at the international level. All the players who have been selected for this tour did pretty well in the IPL as well as in domestic cricket," Rahane said during the team's pre-departure media interaction on Monday. "I am pretty confident about this bunch of guys, that whoever gets the opportunity will do well. As a team our only motto will be to do well in Zimbabwe and get back our winning habit."
While Rahane played down the competition, some of the other players had no qualms admitting it. "You could say that," said Uthappa, when asked if the five forthcoming games would serve as a mini face-off between the batsmen. "As a batting unit, we are looking at a No 6 batsman in the country and I believe I have what it takes to perform that role and bring about that flexibility the team is looking for. In case MS (Dhoni) wants to rest, or we need someone down the middle order, towards the end, I am willing to take up any challenge that's available for me."
While Vijay aimed for a consistent run in limited overs "for the first time in my career", Jadhav hoped to make the best of the opportunity.
"Obviously these five innings are crucial for everyone. For me, it is even more important. This is the best opportunity I could have asked for to score consistently at international level and make a case to the selectors," Jadhav said. "Otherwise, I will again have to wait and score big on the domestic circuit to get back into contention."
Even Rahane, whose average of 30.63 from 55 ODIs is below his potential, spelt out the target he has set for himself: "I am looking for consistency in ODIs. Whenever I bat in Tests and T20s, I am in a different zone. It's all about mindset and how I prepare before the ODI series. For me consistency will be the key in ODIs."
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo