Dharamsala: Hardik Pandya's eagerly-awaited international comeback adds a lot of context to India's three-match ODI campaign against South Africa starting Thursday where the hosts would be aiming to put the 'New Zealand Nightmare' behind them.
Amid the ever-rising danger of Novel Coronavirus and threat of rain once again playing spoilsport, Pandya's all-round flamboyance will keep skipper Virat Kohli in a good headspace as he would be desperately trying to forget the 0-3 mauling in the last series in New Zealand.
Pandya last played an ODI against New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final in Manchester and his last international game was a T20 against the Proteas in Bengaluru in September last year.
He forced his way back into the national team with his all-round performances at the DY Patil Corporate Cup, where he looked completely fit and ready to go.
Skipper Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri has spoken openly about ODIs being least of priority in a World T20 year. But his men can ill-afford to lose another series against an inexperienced South African side which is buoyed after crushing Australia 3-0 in their own den.
Especially having lost five international games (two Tests included) on trot, the Indian skipper, enduring one of his rarest of rare bad patches in last six years will be keen to buck the trend.
Kohli managed just 75 runs against the Kiwis, and going by his standards the Indian skipper would be itching to silence his critics, who have raised eyebrows after his statement on ODIs not having context in the current calendar.
The presence of Pandya along with a fit-again senior opener Shikhar Dhawan (shoulder dislocation) and seamer Bhuvneshwar Kumar (sports hernia surgery) makes India favourite on paper against a South African side that comprises of seasoned campaigners like Quinton d Kock, Faf du Plessis and David Miller in their ranks.
The three players automatically pick themselves in the playing XI while Manish Pandey might just get a longer run at No 6 now that Kedar Jadhav has finally been dropped from the squad.
In the absence of Rohit Sharma, who is yet to recover from a calf injury, Dhawan's return would lend valuable experience to the Indian top-order, which badly missed both the openers in New Zealand
Dhawan had dislocated his shoulder during the final ODI against Australia at home and missed the New Zealand series.
Bhuvneshwar's return will give India good depth during the slog overs where Shardul THakur had seemed completely misfit.
Mohammed Shami has been rested for the series after getting a blow on his shoulder in the second Test in New Zealand.
Ravindra Jadeja is expected to be the lone spinning option on a seamer-friendly Dharamsala track unless team management feels the urge to include Kuldeep Yadav in the team.
South Africa, on the other hand, are coming into the tour brimming with confidence after whitewashing Australia in the three-ODI series.
Faf du Plessis and Rassie van der Dussen, who were rested for the ODIs against Australia, are part of South Africa's touring party. Since quitting as captain, du Plessis has not had a good run and would like to do the course correction in his most preferred format.
Heinrich Klaasen and Kyle Verreynne, both of whom played crucial roles in South Africa's ODI series win over Australia, would look to carry on their form in India while Temba Bavuma, who suffered a hamstring strain and missed the last two ODIs against Australia, has also returned.
Janneman Malan earned his maiden India tour call as the 16th member of the squad after his match-winning ton in the second ODI against Australia.
This will be South Africa's maiden ODI at this venue while India have played four ODIs here, losing two and winning two. The side batting second has won three of the four contests at the ground.
The second and third ODIs will be held at Lucknow (15 March) and Kolkata (18 March).
India: Virat Kohli (C), Shikhar Dhawan, Prithvi Shaw, KL Rahul, Manish Pandey, Shreyas Iyer, Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah, Navdeep Saini, Kuldeep Yadav, Shubman Gill.
South Africa: Quinton de Kock (C), Temba Bavuma, Rassie van der Dussen, Faf du Plessis, Kyle Verreynne, Heinrich Klaasen, Janneman Malan David Miller, Jon-Jon Smuts, Andile Phehlukwayo, Lungi Ngidi, Lutho Sipamla, Beuran Hendricks, Anrich Nortje, George Linde, Keshav Maharaj.
Match starts at 1:30 PM.
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