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High stakes for KL Rahul and Deepak Chahar in Zimbabwe

Players returning from injury have very little time to push for their place in the T20 World Cup squad

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
KL Rahul returns to Zimbabwe, where he made his ODI debut, as India captain  •  AFP/Getty Images

KL Rahul returns to Zimbabwe, where he made his ODI debut, as India captain  •  AFP/Getty Images

India's tour of Zimbabwe begins on Thursday and normally the series - sandwiched between a Caribbean tour and the Asia Cup - would fly well under the radar. But for KL Rahul and Deepak Chahar, these three ODIs could have enormous significance.
Both players are coming back from long injury layoffs, but there is no time to ease in. India are preparing for two massive tournaments - the Asia Cup, which starts on August 27, and the T20 World Cup, from October 16. Rahul and Chahar need to be at their best. And if they are not, there are plenty of players waiting in the wings.
Chahar, primarily because he has been out of action for so long, is in the reserves for the Asia Cup. Rahul, however, is a first-XI contender. And it was here in Zimbabwe, back in 2016, that he began the journey from red-ball specialist to all-format star. He had followed a breakout IPL season for Royal Challengers Bangalore with a century on ODI debut.
Six years later, as he returns to the country of his white-ball emergence, Rahul is India captain of a squad that's missing many first-choice players. His match fitness will be under much focus, given he is returning from surgery and extensive injury management for a sports hernia, followed by a bout of Covid-19.
There will also be interest in the role he plays in the ODI set-up. In T20Is, it's amply clear that Rahul will slot in at the top of the order. In ODIs, though, much of his recent success has been at No. 5, as a finisher, with the team management keen for more X-Factor players down the order.
Rahul has taken to his new role well. At No. 5, he has averaged 56.62 in ten innings and has struck at 113.81. This includes a century and four fifties.
With India likely to persist with the prolific opening pair of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan - and Shubman Gill's emergence as yet another back-up opener - Rahul's batting position in Zimbabwe could offer a peek into the team management's thinking going forward, given the next ODI World Cup is only a year or so away.
Chahar is returning to top-flight cricket after nearly seven months. He played his last cricket in February and will be auditioning in the 50-over format for a place on the T20I team, which may not be ideal but, under the circumstances, it is the best-case scenario.
For Chahar, what was to be a six-week layoff for a left quadricep injury, took more than six months and multiple rehabilitation stints at the National Cricket Academy to fix. It meant Chahar, the second-most expensive pick at the IPL 2022 auction, missed the entire season for Chennai Super Kings and all subsequent cricket for the national team.
The timing of the injury coincided with Chahar's rise as an allrounder. In his last three ODIs, Chahar showed his recently developed big-hitting exploits with match-turning knocks: 69* (against Sri Lanka), 54 (against South Africa) and 38 (against West Indies). With him at No. 8, India could afford to play several bowling combinations without compromising on batting depth.
This was certainly among the reasons why as many as four IPL teams - Delhi Capitals, Sunrisers Hyderabad, Rajasthan Royals and Super Kings - engaged in a bidding war for him. Super Kings eventually signed him for INR 14 crore, reasoning that his skills as a swing bowler, plus the runs, made him worth it at any cost.
And while that may be true, India already have someone performing the Chahar role with the ball for them. Bhuvneshwar Kumar has overcome form and fitness issues himself to once again become a key member of the T20I bowling pack. Since 2021, Bhuvneshwar has picked up 32 wickets in 29 matches, with an economy rate of just 6.73. Seventeen of these wickets have come in the powerplay, where he has an economy rate of 5.75.
In his most-recent outing in England, Bhuvneshwar finished with returns of 6-1-25-4 in two games. This came on the back of impressive series against South Africa - six wickets in five games at an economy rate of 6.07 and best of 4 for 18. His pace, which had dropped, is back up.
Should Chahar impress upon his return to international cricket, India may well find themselves facing another healthy selection dilemma.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo