Harare, June 10: He has mostly led a formidable bunch of limited-overs specialists but it will be a different sort of challenge for Mahendra Singh Dhoni when he captains a new-look Indian cricket team against Zimbabwe in the first ODI of a short series starting here tomorrow (June 11).
Over the years, the series in Zimbabwe has always featured limited-overs matches played post-IPL where the BCCI sends its second-string outfits to test the bench strength.
The second string outfits have, in fact, effected back-to-back whitewashes 5-0 and 3-0 in 2013 and 2015 respectively. (Another milestone beckons Dhoni)
It was supposed to be no different this time around as well. The squad of 15 comprises as many as five uncapped players (including KL Rahul, who is yet to make his limited-overs debut) but it has gained special significance because of Dhoni, who will be playing in the African nation after 11 long years. (Manish aims to establish himself in the team)
The last time when Dhoni played in Zimbabwe back in 2005, his international career was barely six months old and a certain Sourav Ganguly was still in charge of the 'Men In Blue'.
But now the situation is different post his retirement from Test cricket and Virat Kohli's Bradmanesque form in the past six months leading to calls of his removal from captaincy.
While he may not be battling to save his captaincy yet but tours like the one about to start in Zimbabwe are the proverbial 'banana peel' for any top cricketer.
A series win will never be feted as it is something that everyone expects to be accomplished but at the same time any unexpected result will send the kind of shock waves that the Jharkhand dasher just would not fancy at the moment.
With India having a Test heavy home schedule this year with a few ODIs and T20s against New Zealand and England, this is Dhoni's last chance to be in the mix as he won't be playing a lot in the next few months. India will be embarking on a Test tour of the Caribbean after this assignment. (Leading young side will be different: Dhoni)
If one has a look at the team, the gulf between Dhoni and the rest of the squad will stare at anyone who cares. While Dhoni has played a total of 275 ODIs, the rest of the squad cumulatively has 83 matches to their credit.
Also if one takes away Ambati Rayudu (31 matches) and Axar Patel (22)'s participation, the seven others have a total of 30 matches to their names.
More so, save for KL Rahul, none of the other youngsters in this team will be boarding the flight to West Indies for the Test series.
Most of the players selected are by no means in the scheme of things once the first team players come back but someone like Manish Pandey knows that it will be an opportunity for him to stake claim to Suresh Raina's place when India will be playing their real first XI in future.
Ditto for Karun Nair, who will look to translate his decent IPL form into good scores in international games.
For Axar, it is an opportunity to show the critics that he is more than just a one-dimensional spinner while Rayudu will also be itching to regain his lost confidence post the home series against South Africa last year after which he was dropped.
Dhoni has always had a liking for potent left-arm bowlers in his team and the skipper won't mind if Barinder Sran - after a decent IPL - can prove to be at least 35 to 40 per cent of the bowler that Ashish Nehra has been for India in limited overs cricket.
Jaydev Unadkat did not get too many chances in IPL but he would like to show that his is not a surprise selection. Speedster Jasprit Bumrah, who has been Dhoni's 'Go To' bowler in recent T20 Internationals, with his lethal yorkers, is again expected to shoulder the burden of being the strike bowler. Similarly Dhawal Kulkarni will aim to cash in on his IPL form.
The challenge for KL Rahul will be to prove that he can be as effective in shorter versions as he is in the longest format, where he already has two Test tons.
When pint-sized right-hand batsman Kedar Jadhav played his last ODI against the same opposition at the Harare Sports Club ground, he had scored a hundred knowing fully well that the next chance will be hard to come by.
It will be after nearly one year that he is likely to get an opportunity to don the Blue jersey again. Leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal's performance will also be closely monitored after a fantastic IPL as Amit Mishra has not exactly been favoured in the shorter versions. Chahal has a big leg break as well as an effective googly.
A few wickets will not do him any harm considering that India will be playing a lot on spin-friendly wickets during the home stretch at the end of the year.
This brings one to off-spinner Jayant Yadav, left-handed opener Faiz Fazal and right-handed middle-order batsman Mandeep Singh -- all decent domestic performers in their own rights.
It will be interesting to see who among them can catch the skipper's attention and get their maiden India ODI cap. Jayant, with his restrictive off-spin, stands a better chance but will have to slog it out with seam bowling all-rounder Rishi Dhawan for a place in the XI.
Fazal being a specialist opener also can fancy his chances. Mandeep's fight is a tougher one as he would be competing with Kedar, Karun and Manish.
Consistency has been Zimbabwe's real problem over the years, not to forget the dip in the skill level and quality of players that have emerged from the ranks.
Still Vusimuzi Sibanda, Elton Chigumbura, Hamilton Masakadza, Sikandar Raza, Craig Ervine and Sean Williams are some of the familiar names, who have played long enough and can cause a few problems for the rookie Indians.
Chigumbura, in fact, will be the third Zimbabwean player after Flower brothers - Andy (213 ODIs)and Grant (221 ODIs) - to complete a coveted landmark of 200 ODIs for his country.
India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (captain and wicketkeeper), KL Rahul, Faiz Fazal, Manish Pandey, Karun Nair, Ambati Rayudu, Kedar Jadhav, Mandeep Singh, Rishi Dhawan, Jasprit Bumrah, Jayant Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jaydev Unadkat, Dhawal Kulkarni, Axar Patel.
Zimbabwe: Graeme Cremer (captain), Tendai Chatara, Chamu Chibhabha, Elton Chigumbura, Tendai Chisoro, Craig Ervine, Neville Madziva, Timycen Maruma, Hamilton Masakadza, Wellington Masakadza, Peter Moor, Twanada Mupariwa, Richard Mutumbami (wk), Taurai Muzarabani, Vusimuzi Sibanda, Sikandar Raza, Donald Tiripano, Sean Williams.
Match starts 12:30 PM IST (LIVE on TEN Sports 2 TV)
2nd ODI on June 13 (Monday)