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India's tour of Zimbabwe - Reloaded

It was a short, but eventful tour of Zimbabwe for a young and inexperienced Indian squad

It was a short, but eventful tour of Zimbabwe for a young and inexperienced Indian squad
©REUTERS / Action Images

A handful of debuts, a seasoned leader, an ODI series whitewash and a rape controversy - India’s tour to Zimbabwe reloaded and reviewed by Bisma Ahmed, who watched it all unfold first hand.

The Indian cricket team’s tour of Zimbabwe reminded some of us of the National Geographic’s feature where a lioness brings inn a baby gazelle so that the cubs could learn to hunt - cruel yet captivating.

The debutants

Last month, when the BCCI announced the squad that would visit Zimbabwe for a three-match ODI and T20I series, there were quite a few surprises. Topping that list was the inclusion of left-handed opening batsman from Vidarbha, Faiz Fazal. Fazal, who has been in red hot form, was playing club cricket in England when the announcement was made, and was also the only player without an IPL contract.

India's squad

MS Dhoni (captain and wicket-keeper), KL Rahul, Faiz Fazal, Manish Pandey, Karun Nair, Ambati Rayudu, Rishi Dhawan, Axar Patel, Jayant Yadav, Dhawal Kulkarni, Jasprit Bumrah, Barinder Sran, Mandeep Singh, Kedar Jadhav, Jaydev Unadkat, Yuzvendra Chahal

Having previously played for the Rajahistan Royals, Fazal was rather "surprised" by this call-up, as deserving as it was, knowing how the board likes to test its young guns at such outings. But form and luck were both on this 30-year-old's side, as the board did not hesitate one bit in giving this extremely promising late bloomer a chance to don the national colour jersey number 214.

There were celebrations at a few more households that same day as the BCCI had announced a squad that had not one, not two, but five youngsters who had been showing excellent form on the domestic circuit.

The other players who were gearing up to embark on an all-important journey included Karun Nair, the Karnataka all-rounder, Mandeep Singh, the right-hand batsman from Punjab and two of Haryana’s stars - the leg-break googly bowler Yuzvendra Chahal and all-rounder Jayant Yadav.

The right-handed wicket-keeper batsman KL Rahul, also from Karnataka, was included in the squad, and although he had already made his Test debut against Australia in December 2014, this was his chance to flaunt his skills in the limited overs format.

Mandeep Singh was one of the debutants who played a starring role

Mandeep Singh was one of the debutants who played a starring role
©REUTERS / Action Images

The mentor

The other little surprise that day came in the form of the inclusion of India’s very own ‘Captain Cool’, MS Dhoni, who could have easily excused himself from this series citing fatigue from the last few  months’ commitments. However, he decided to play mentor to the youngsters and under his captaincy, these young players were ready to take on the world and demonstrate their worth at international level.

The ODI series whitewash

From the word go, the young blue brigade made no mistakes in availing the opportunity they had been given and on 11th June, the first ODI played between the two nations marked the debuts of three probable "future stars of Indian cricket" as per Dhoni in KL Rahul, Karun Nair and Yuzendra Chahal.

The day become memorable for more than one reason with India experimenting with debutant openers for the first time in 40 years in the form of Rahul and Nair, and successfully so as Rahul became the first Indian to become a centurion on debut scoring 100 not out off 115 balls, breaking the previously held record of Robin Uthappa (86).

1st ODI: India 173-1 (Rahul 100no, Rayudu 62no) beat Zimbabwe 168ao (Bumrah 4-28) by nine wickets

2nd ODI: India 129-2 (Rayudu 41no) beat Zimbabwe 126ao (Chahal 3-25) by eight wickets

3rd ODI: India 126-0 (Rahul 63no, Fazal 55no) beat Zimbabwe 123ao (Bumrah 4-22) by 10 wickets

This day also marked the star of Zimbabwe, Elton Chigumbura’s 200th ODI, however neither he (out for 41) nor his side could taste success, as the young Indian side steered confidently towards victory. Jasprit Bhumra registering his best ODI figures by taking four wickets for 28 runs. An eventful day indeed!

The second outing of the boys in blue was no different to the first one with an unchanged squad and unchanged results. The visitors bowled out hosts Zimbabwe cheaply for an excruciating 126, winning by eight wickets on a cold, cloudy day in Harare.

The morning of 15th June happened to be the third and final ODI contest to be played between the two nations and was the day Faiz Fazal had been waiting for ever since he started playing cricket.

"I dreamt of this day ever since I was a young boy, it is actually a dream of many, but I have been blessed to be the 214th player to represent India in ODIs," said the composed Fazal when we briefly caught up with him after the match.

And what a day it was for him as he hit a 58-ball half-century, remaining unbeaten on 55, displaying effortless yet cleverly crafted strokes. This, along with the performances of KL Rahul and Bumrah outplayed the hosts yet again, beating them by 10 wickets to complete the series whitewash.

Jasprit Bumrah (right, back to camera) was outstanding in the ODI series

Jasprit Bumrah (right, back to camera) was outstanding in the ODI series
©REUTERS / Action Images

The rape controversy

The celebrations of the whitewash were short-lived, however, as an arrest was made on 17th June at the Meikles hotel in Harare, where the Indian team was lodging, hours before the first T20 match.

Rumours started making the rounds that an Indian cricket player had been arrested by local police for allegedly raping a local woman. And the news spread like wildfire, as grim media reports started erupting from all parts of the world, some even naming the probable accused - based on nothing more than speculation.

An inexplicit statement made by Zimbabwe Police Commissioner Mrs. Charity Chiramba further added fuel to the rumour mills when she said: "An Indian national has been arrested and I cannot confirm whether it’s a player or team official as I am bound by law."

However, it was later confirmed by local authorities that none of the Indian cricketers were being investigated and the misleading reports arose as a result of the hotel staff and Zimbabwe Republic Police’s lack of familiarity with the Indian team.

The Indian side heaved a sigh of relief upon this affirmation, as the identities of those facing charges were confirmed. Some of the players were fuming at irresponsible media reports, complaining how badly they had been stressed trying to tackle questions from family, friends and fans.

One Indian cricketer, told me, on condition of anonymity: "Such news, whether true or not, brings shame to the entire squad. It’s shocking how some people can indulge in lies for small benefits at the cost of defaming others."

The T20 thrillers

The mortifying controversy was partially forgotten when Zimbabwe enumerated its first victory over the visitors in the first T20I, beating the world's second best T20 side by two runs in a nail-biting, final-ball decider thriller.

1st T20I: Zimbabwe 170-6 (Chigumbura 54no) beat India 168-6 (Chibhaba 2-13) by two runs

2nd T20I: India 103-0 (Mandeep Singh 52no) beat Zimbabwe 99-9 (Sran 4-10) by 10 wickets

3rd T20I: India 138-6 (Jadhav 58) beat Zimbabwe 135-6 by three runs

With just eight required off the last over, and with Dhoni still at the crease, who would have thought that it was going to be the 'Zimbab-way'? But Neville Madziva held his nerve and bowled a "brilliant" last ball, as Dhoni would say later, allowing him just one run, clinching victory.

This match saw Mandeep Singh announcing himself to the world of international cricket by scoring 31 runs, and Rishi Dhawan, Jaydev Unadkat, and KL Rahul along with Chahal also made their T20 debuts, as India attempted to test its bench strength in the first of the three-match series.

It was the first time that India fielded five debutants in a single T20 match, and it seemed as if the experiment didn’t quite work for them. A disappointed Dhoni blamed the middle order batsman, who hardly spent any time at the crease and he agreed that his side did not "play to potential."

He further added that it is a completely different ball game playing for the national side, and no matter how good you perform domestically, the real pressure comes when the stage is set at international level.

Dhoni’s pep-talk on how one should never underestimate the opponent, along with the realization of how big an opportunity it was, seemed to work, as the young Indian side pressed the refresh button, and crushed the hosts with a 10-wicket victory in the second T20 match.

One-match old Mandeep posted his maiden 50 in T20Is (52 not out off 40 balls) but the real heroic performance that day came in from the young seamer Barinder Sran, who became the first Indian bowler to bag four wickets on debut, and also achieved the second best bowling figures on debut in T20 internationals. The debutant was unsurprisingly named man of the match for his memorable performance (4-10).

Next day was an official break day and an optional practice day for both team, saw full attendance of the players at the Harare Sports Club, as both teams strived to make a lasting impression on the series decider in the third and final game to be played the next day.

Fresh from the recent IPL, the Indian side had more than enough match practice to provide them the edge over the hosts, who had been facing various predicaments recently.

The surprising and untimely move by Zimbabwe Cricket to sack head coach Dav Whatmore and captain Hamilton Masakadza days before the crucial limited over series against India, along with injuries to a few key players and the expulsion of seniors Luke Jongwe and Tendai Chisoro on disciplinary grounds, contributed to making the hosts an unsettled side.  

Despite the chaotic background, against all the odds Zimbabwe managed to put up a decent fight on the day of the final game, and once again, the match went down to the final over to decide the series winner.

With 21 runs required off just six deliveries, the game was already in India’s favour. A six on the first ball, followed by a wide and then a four off a no-ball with a free hit - 12 runs off one legal delivery - changed that.

The Zimbabwe fans were awe-struck, and tension was building up as Sran ran in to bowl the next deliveries. No runs were conceded as two back-to-back Yorkers were bowled. Four runs were needed off the last ball but Elton Chigumbura only managed to squeeze a single, falling short by three runs.

Dhoni and company went on to lift the Prayag T20 Cup for India, with the captain leading India for a 324th international game, equaling Ricky Ponting’s record.

MS Dhoni may be 'Captain Cool' but here he had to get a move on to make his ground!

MS Dhoni may be 'Captain Cool' but here he had to get a move on to make his ground!
©REUTERS / Action Images

Happy endings for team India

The Indian selectors who were touring with the team were "very happy" with the series and said they could see a few of the youngsters occupying permanent spots in the national side.

Sanjay Bangar, the Indian coach, was also full of praise for his young men and in the post-match press conference said: "Each one who got an opportunity, created an impact. They made an impression and I think this experience will really stand them well going ahead."

It comes as no surprise that most of these young players have been named as part of the India A squad that visits Australia in August for a four-nation one-day tournament. We can’t wait to see the boys in action again as it would be interesting to see how some of them who thrived in Zimbabwe perform against more competitive teams.

Bringing back Zimbab-way

As for Zimbabwe, there is a lot of homework that needs to be done before they play host yet again, this time in a two-Test series against New Zealand starting next month.

Zimbabwe won the first T20I but still have plenty of work to do to challenge the very best teams in the world

Zimbabwe won the first T20I but still have plenty of work to do to challenge the very best teams in the world
©REUTERS / Action Images

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