Second-string or not, an Indian team made up of three debutants beat a close-to-full-strength Zimbabwe comprehensively in Harare. KL Rahul introduced himself to ODIs with 100 not out off 115 balls at the top of the order; an ideal scenario for a team chasing only 169 and looking to expand their talent pool.
It was the first time in history that an Indian batsman had struck a century on debut and he reached the landmark with a towering six over long-on when there were only two runs to get in the 43rd over. But until the lure of three figures, Rahul’s primary objective had been to occupy the crease for as long as possible and very few of the Zimbabwe bowlers seemed able to persuade him otherwise.
As can be expected in seamer-friendly conditions, he had to get through a few anxious moments at the start of the innings. Most of them, though, were centered around whether or not a quick single was available after opening the face of his bat towards point. The key there was that he was looking for runs and that mentality often allows a batsman to settle quicker at the crease. The feet begin to move both ways. Gaps can be exploited better. And boundary balls can be capitalised on more often than not.
Rahul finished with seven fours and a six and his strike-rate of 86.95 was comfortably the best for any batsman who had played more than one ball on the day. A resounding endorsement for India’s future and vindication for the selectors who chose a very new-look squad for the tour. Of the other debutants, Karun Nair fell for 7 and legspinner Yuzvendra Chahal picked up 1 for 27 in 10 overs.
Inexperience being a weakness is among the few opinions that unite captains, cricket experts and the general public. But it isn’t like a player on debut is a readymade liability. That depends on the amount of pressure the opposition puts on him. Strangling his runs, or upsetting his bowling rhythm, and generally giving him a little more to think about than the basics. Take India’s bowling attack – Dhawal Kulkarni, Jasprit Bumrah and Barinder Sran had 12 ODIs under their belt. They were outstanding on Saturday, but when Zimbabwe had to wait until No. 6 to find their top-scorer and their strongest partnership amounted contributed only 38 runs, it is arguable that they also had it easy.
When the required rate to win a 50-over match is about three an over, India’s batsmen weren’t under pressure either. Tendai Chatara and Taurai Muzarabani were rather short with the new ball.
A measure of how unthreatening that made them was the part-time medium pacer Chamu Chibhabha pitched it up and therefore made it swing it both ways to finish with 8-1-14-0. He beat Ambati Rayudu thrice in one over, but Zimbabwe could not maintain the intensity and Rayudu helped himself to a half-century simply by deciding to not get out. He needed 120 balls to make 62.
All 16 members of the Indian squad have played the IPL. An overwhelming majority were involved in the 2016 edition, which captain MS Dhoni pointed to as one of the mitigating factors. He was leading an inexperienced side, but they were match-ready. Zimbabwe, on the other hand, were reliant on a two-week camp prior to the start of the series to dust off the rust. Their last domestic match of the year was in March.
Having been put in, their batsmen did not move their feet quickly enough, which wasn’t ideal at 9 am. When it is that early in the day, especially in the Harare winter, the new ball tends to jag around.
Sran, the left-arm quick, was eying a wicket off the first ball he bowled on Saturday. An inswinger, full of length and given every opportunity to move through the air, had Chibhabha falling over while he tried to flick it through midwicket. Umpire Russell Tiffin turned that lbw appeal down, but could not deny Sran later in the over when he pinned the other opener Peter Moor in front of the stumps.
Bumrah posed a different threat. His powerful arm action and a tendency to hit the deck contributed to extra bounce, even off a good length. Besides that, as his dismissal of Chibhabha proved, the angle and pace he generates into the right-hander often puts the stumps at risk. He finished with 4 for 28 off 10 overs.
As such, Zimbabwe’s decision to save wickets rather than scour for runs had merit. They consumed 46 dot balls in the Powerplay. But biding time in limited-overs cricket makes sense only if the batsmen to follow can execute their shots.
Vusi Sibanda nicked a short and wide delivery from Bumrah in the 20th over. Craig Ervine picked out deep midwicket when he was presented with a long hop from left-arm spinner Axar Patel in the 24th. Even Sikandar Raza, one of only two batsmen to face more than 50 deliveries, ushered a ball that was there for the drive back onto his stumps.
Zimbabwe limed past 100 and got to 168 through Elton Chigumbura’s 41 off 65 balls. His progress – and the final four wickets lingering on for nearly 15 overs – indicated the pitch had eased out in the afternoon and had Zimbabwe channeled better intent, they might have lived up to their interim coach Makhaya Ntini’s threat of putting second-string teams “under the carpet” a little better.