Johannesburg is closer to Harare than it is to Cape Town, but it's been eight years since Zimbabwe last played an ODI in South Africa. The cricketing gap is far wider than the geographical one between these two teams, and the financial realities of modern cricket add a further constraint. A series against Zimbabwe doesn't make much money or fill grounds, and so the limited-overs games over the next two weeks will be played on some of South Africa's further-flung ovals.
Starting with Kimberley, a city built on old mining money in the parched north-west. Zimbabwe coach Lalchand Rajput thinks his team are diamonds in the rough, but it is South Africa who will likely shine on the day. Ahead of Zimbabwe in every discipline, each member of their squad will be eyeing a place in South Africa's World Cup touring party. South Africa only play 16 ODIs between now and their World Cup opener in May. Every match counts as a chance to make a good impression, and with Faf du Plessis and Hashim Amla injured, and Quinton de Kock and David Miller rested, these ODIs offer a particularly crucial opportunity to South Africa's batting hopefuls. No quarter will be given.
There will be no let-up with the ball, either. The pitch in Kimberley tends to be as flat and hard as the desiccated country around it, but the home attack bristles with pedigree and before the series, South Africa coach Ottis Gibson joked about his bowlers possibly doing too good a job to allow the batsmen to be tested in doing theirs. Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn and Lungi Ngidi present a fearsome prospect, and if the Zimbabweans can somehow sustain the new-ball barrage, the likes of Imran Tahir and Tabraiz Shamsi await them with the old.
Zimbabwe, at least, will not have to face all five in the same game, and there's a healthy competition for limited spaces in South Africa's attack. Ngidi seemed to develop particularly quickly during South Africa's tour of Sri Lanka, taking 10 wickets at 20.10, and the returning Steyn is relishing the competitive dynamic in South Africa's fast bowling stable.
Their top order is no less hungry. Dean Elgar has made no secret of his one-day ambitions, and a modest Zimbabwean attack could make his audition a smooth one. Gibson sees Elgar as a like-for-like replacement for Amla, and is also eager to see if Christiaan Jonker can transfer his T20 skills as Miller has. Heinrich Klaasen will be hoping he can complicate de Kock's eventual return, while Reeza Hendricks has the opportunity to show that his debut hundred against Sri Lanka was no fluke. Khaya Zondo, too, scored a brilliant century against Australia A a month ago and is pushing for a recall.
Rajput believes his team will provide a hostile testing ground for South Africa's batting and bowling options, and the Zimbabweans will be buoyed by the return of several seniors from a hiatus prompted by unpaid salaries. Brendan Taylor, Sean Williams and Craig Ervine are back, but Zimbabwe are still without Graeme Cremer's tidy legspin and will surely miss the talismanic Sikandar Raza. All of the above were sorely missed on their last ODI outing, when the depleted Zimbabweans were badly exposed and Pakistan romped to a 5-0 win.
While Zimbabwe are looking to put that disaster well behind them, South Africa's eyes are already cast firmly forward to the World Cup next year. Their preparations start now.
South Africa LLWWW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Dale Steyn's white-ball return is a vital cog in South Africa's World Cup plans. Steyn is relishing the challenge of fighting for his place in the one-day starting XI, and a workout against Zimbabwe could be just the thing to get him primed for the trip to Australia in November.
Brendan Taylor is back in Zimbabwe's middle order, and will be eager to show his team just what they were missing during his mid-year hiatus. Taylor has enjoyed himself against past South African attacks, scoring his career-best 145* here in 2010, and is averaging 45.60 with the bat over the last calendar year. Raza's absence will make his contributions all the more crucial.
Injuries mean South Africa go into this series missing some big names in their top order, but their bowling is at full strength and will still pack a punch. Gibson is fond of his all-round options, so Wiaan Mulder and Andile Phehlukwayo should complete the attack. With Hendricks likely to play at his home ground, Zondo may be the batsman to miss out.
South Africa (possible): 1 Dean Elgar, 2 Aiden Markram, 3 Reeza Hendricks, 4 JP Duminy (capt), 5 Heinrich Klaasen (wk), 6 Christiaan Jonker, 7 Wiaan Mulder, 8 Andile Phehlukwayo, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Dale Steyn, 11 Imran Tahir
Zimbabwe's returning trio should slot straight back into their middle order, while Rajput may well want the ballast of Elton Chigumbura's experience to add batting strength to the lower-middle order. Peter Moor and Ryan Murray will go head to head for the wicketkeeping gloves. While Moor's experience will count for plenty, Murray is coming off a good effort at the Africa T20, where he averaged 51.
Zimbabwe (possible): 1 Solomon Mire, 2 Hamilton Masakadza (capt), 3 Craig Ervine, 4 Brendan Taylor, 5 Sean Williams, 6 Peter Moor/Ryan Murray (wk), 7 Elton Chigumbura, 8 Wellington Masakadza, 9 Kyle Jarvis, 10 Tendai Chatara, 11 Richard Ngarava.
Pitch and conditions
It's going to be a warm day in Kimberley, but there should be a bit of a breeze to keep things bearable. There tend to be runs on offer in Kimberley, and the last three ODIs played here saw four top-order hundreds.
Stats and trivia
- 'South Africa have won 35 of the 38 ODIs they have played against Zimbabwe, with Zimbabwe's last win coming 18 years ago in a thrilling, last-ball day-nighter at Kingsmead.
- Zimbabwe have played only one ODI in Kimberley, against England 18 years ago. Mark Ealham's medium pace brought him a record five lbw dismissals, and England won by eight wickets.
"The first couple of games in Sri Lanka were exactly the way we want to approach the 50-over format."
South Africa coach Ottis Gibson wants his team to replicate their positive approach as they tinker with their World Cup formula.
"We have had a very good preparatory camp for two months and when you prepare well normally results will be on your side."
Zimbabwe coach Lalchand Rajput reckons his team are ready for their South African challenge
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town