Transformed Zimbabwe face their biggest challenge since Dave Houghton became coach two months ago when they host India in a series of three One-Day Internationals, starting on Thursday.
Although several stars, including batters Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma, are being rested ahead of the Asia Cup in the UAE this month, the tourists are expected to win all three matches in Harare.
India are placed third behind leaders New Zealand and England in the ODI rankings, 10 places above Zimbabwe.
Opening batter KL Rahul, a late inclusion after recovering from a hernia injury and testing positive for coronavirus, leads the tourists.
“You might be out for two months but they haven’t forgotten what you have done for the team and the country in the last two-three years. Players actually thrive in such an environment,” the Indian captain said in the press conference ahead of the first ODI.
“It is this kind of environment that can help a player transform from being a good player to a great player, playing a lot more match-winning innings for his team.”
He added: “It is very important for a player to get the backing of selectors, coach and captain. It gives you so much confidence that your mindset is clear and you can focus on the things that are necessary. It becomes easy for player that your support group is backing you.”
Under the guidance of 64-year-old former batting star Houghton, the southern Africa nation have won nine of 11 ODI and T20 Internationals.
With Houghton in charge, hosts Zimbabwe beat non-Test teams Jersey, Singapore, the United States, Papua New Guinea and the Netherlands to qualify for the 2022 T20 World Cup.
Higher-ranked Bangladesh were expected to burst the bubble, but suffered shock 2-1 losses in both T20 and ODI series.
Pakistan-born batter Sikandar Raza, whose childhood dream to be a fighter pilot was dashed by an eyesight glitch, played a key role in the ODI series with successive centuries.
“He is a very good player who has been representing Zimbabwe with distinction for a long time,” said India vice-captain and opening batter Shikhar Dhawan.
“Sikandar is a quality cricketer with bat and ball. I am sure our bowlers will come up with nice plans against him.”
Houghton said the unbeaten innings of 135 and 117 by the 36-year-old had a knock-on effect as they instilled confidence in his teammates.
“Playing alongside Sikandar, Innocent Kaia hit a century in his first ODI, then Regis Chakabva scored his first ODI ton with some brilliant shots.”
‘Deserve wider recognition’
Former West Indies fast bowler Ian Bishop hailed the Raza tons, tweeting “The things that Sikandar Raza has been doing in recent weeks with the bat deserve wider recognition”.
Although missing Kohli and Sharma, Houghton said there is no such thing as a weak India cricket team.
“They could pick four teams and then occupy the first four places in an international tournament. That is how good they are,” said Houghton.
“However, I told my boys that we dare not become mere spectators in this series while India play all the cricket. We must believe we can win. The boys know they are far from invincible despite nine victories – we were 90/9 in our last ODI against Bangladesh before the tail-enders added 61 runs.
“But if we continue to play without fear and express ourselves, we will succeed far more than we fail.”
Houghton pinpointed poor batting starts as a concern, and vowed to “try and get higher scores from our top order”.
Opening batter and wicketkeeper Chakabva skippers Zimbabwe in place of injured Craig Ervine on Thursday as the home team seek only a fifth ODI victory over India at home in 24 matches.
Injuries have also ruled out Blessing Muzarabani (thigh), Tendai Chatara (collarbone) and Wellington Masakadza (shoulder) while former captain Sean Williams is unavailable.
India had to make a late change to a 16-strong squad with all-rounder Shahbaz Ahmed coming in for Washington Sundar, who was injured playing English county cricket.
India: Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul (c), Shubman Gill, Rahul Tripathi, Sanju Samson (w), Deepak Hooda, Axar Patel, Shardul Thakur, Avesh Khan, Mohammed Siraj, Kuldeep Yadav, Shahbaz Ahmed, Deepak Chahar, Ishan Kishan, Prasidh Krishna, Ruturaj Gaikwad.
Zimbabwe: Regis Chakabva (w/c), Takudzwanashe Kaitano, Innocent Kaia, Wesley Madhevere, Sikandar Raza, Ryan Burl, Luke Jongwe, Milton Shumba, Donald Tiripano, Victor Nyauchi, Richard Ngarava, Brad Evans, Clive Madande, John Masara, Tadiwanashe Marumani, Tony Munyonga, Tanaka Chivanga.
Inputs from AFP