"I feel you have to keep your mind clear and not underestimate any opposition; perform no matter who you're playing against," said Dhawal Kulkarni on the eve of the Indian cricket team's departure for Zimbabwean shores to play a three-match ODI and T20 series.
Most players in the touring party have just finished a hectic T20 season, one that started with the World T20 followed by the Indian Premier League (excruciatingly long from a sports writer's perspective), and one might be inclined to take the Zimbabwe tour on a light note.
For the youngsters in the Indian squad, however, it is an opportunity to carry their domestic successes over to the international front. For those who had dreamt of donning the Indian jersey while participating in tournaments such as the Vijay Hazare Trophy or the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, the upcoming tour could turn out to be just the foundation they needed to build their international career.
In a tour that is widely perceived as one that will test the Indian bench strength, the likes of Faiz Fazal, KL Rahul, Karun Nair, etc have the chance to impress the national selectors. A few good performances in Zimbabwe could mean getting picked for bigger battles ahead, even if the opposition have barely managed to keep themselves afloat in recent times.
Having hammered two centuries from five Test appearances in a relatively brief international career so far, Rahul has the opportunity to make his mark in the shorter formats. A consistent run in the IPL, in which he hammered 397 runs at 44.11, will only help him in his momentum for the tour.
During a press interaction ahead of the team's scheduled departure for Harare, Rahul credited this improvement in batting to ideas and advice he received from batting superstars and RCB teammates Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers. "I spent time with Virat and AB and asked them questions about what they thought I should do to improve my cricket and be successful in the shortest format. Their ideas and feedback did help me in improving my batting," he said.
Let us not forget that Rahul may also jump in the battle for the wicketkeeper’s slot after Dhoni’s retirement from the international scene. Having given hints that he is looking to improve the art under the tutelage of the master himself, the Karnataka lad may have started off in his preparation for that role.
Jasprit Bumrah has established himself as a death overs/yorker specialist, both for India as well as Mumbai Indians, and should be an easy pick to lead the bowling unit. However, the story is a different one for Kulkarni, Barinder Sran, Yuzvendra Chahal, etc. Kulkarni, especially, has been a pace mainstay for the Mumbai Ranji team in recent years, with his domestic exploits earning him a debut during India's tour of England in 2014. Since then, however, his performances have been sporadic at best, having last played in the tour of Zimbabwe last year. However, he now looks inspired following a superb run in the IPL, even squeezing himself into the top five bowlers' list with 18 scalps.
"I have been consistent, it's just that the hard work I put in for my bowling has paid off (in the IPL). I'm looking forward to the Zimbabwe tour," he said.
Meanwhile, Yuzvendra Chahal was one of the few bright spots in an RCB bowling attack that had to be bailed out by their batting repeatedly in the IPL. Chahal has had to wait a rather long time to finally get a shot at a berth in the national team — seven years after his first-class and three years after his IPL debut.
The odds might not really be in his favour, given that the Harare pitch is not exactly known for producing much turn, but Chahal will still look to give his best if he is to bowl during the middle stages of the innings alongside Ravichandran Ashwin for the 'Men in Blue'. The same holds true for Sunrisers Hyderabad pacer Barinder Sran, whose consistent performances found praise from skipper Dhoni himself.
The tour will bring a sense of déjà vu for certain members of the squad like Kulkarni, Ambati Rayudu, Axar Patel, Kedar Jadhav, who were all part of the side in 2015. Rayudu and Patel had topped the batting (ODIs) and bowling (T20Is) charts respectively, earning a spot in the squads for the limited-overs fixtures against South Africa.
While they did seemed to have ran out of luck in international cricket, they have made themselves heard in the IPL with a series of consistent performances. Rayudu got runs on a regular basis for Mumbai Indians, while Axar was the second-highest wicket-taker for Kings XI Punjab with 13 scalps, including a hat-trick.
The importance of the tour was also echoed by interim head coach Sanjay Bangar. "This is a very important tour for the young players. It provides them an ideal opportunity to test themselves in international waters. It is the start of a new season and it gives them an opportunity to make a mark and keep knocking at the doors of the Indian team," Bangar was quoted as saying on Tuesday, a few days before the first game.
It remains to be seen how many of these individuals pass the litmus test, help their skipper pass through a torrid run with a series victory (which would be a great morale booster for everyone even if it barely helps with the rankings), make coach Bangar proud and boost their chances for representing their country for the bigger battles ahead, starting with the home fixtures against New Zealand.