Preparation for international cricket's primary event, the 50-over World Cup, continues as Zimbabwe host a hotly anticipated triangular series' with Australia and South Africa.
The series will shake up the world rankings of cricket's 50-over format, offer an insight into the plans of South Africa and Australia and dangle a lucrative opportunity to the hosts to impress on a world stage.
The series will consist of six One Day Internationals (ODIs) and a grand final in Harare on September 7. Each participant has something to gain with the World Cup around the corner and ranking places exceptionally tight. Just four points separate the top four ICC ranked ODI sides according to the Reliance ICC ODI team rankings (as of the August 11, 2014).
Australia have made a number of significant but decisive changes, starting with appointing Michael Clarke as the captain over George Bailey.
Not a week after Phillip Hughes became the first Australian to score a double century in a List A game, he has been overlooked—even with David Warner unavailable.
Although it was a tough decision, Rod Marsh, the chairman of selectors, outlined in IBN that the squad was all-rounder and options heavy, with the selection of Mitchell Marsh, Shane Watson, Steve Smith, James Faulkner and Glenn Maxwell over Hughes.
Simultaneously, they are investing in their Test specialists, with off spinner Nathan Lyon and all-rounder Smith returning to 50-over international cricket after a prolonged break. They have just two ODI caps each, and Lyon has just 29 List A wickets domestically, so he is a major risk. Smith has a more reputable limited overs record, and has matured vastly since his last opportunity.
Moving onto the other heavyweight, South Africa probably have the most riding on this series.
South Africa are looking to regain the No. 1 ODI ranking spot and gain momentum for the World Cup, and this series could be a genuinely important step in their preparation.
As a side, they have been heavily reliant on three batsmen in this format. Since January 1, 2013, 13 out of 16 ODI centuries struck have been struck by AB de Villiers (4), Hashim Amla (4) and Quinton de Kock (5), according to ESPN Cricinfo.
De Villiers has not let his ODI batting average fall below 50 year on year since 2009, and he is No. 1 in the ODI batting rankings—but he can't do it alone.
His appetite for runs is not matched by his team's hunger for wins. They still lag behind India, Australia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand in terms of their win-loss ratio in ODIs since the start of 2013, according to ESPN Cricinfo.
In South Africa's series with Zimbabwe, they will rest Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel and recall them for the triangular series.
They have also called up uncapped batsman Rilee Rossouw and Mthokozisi Shezi. National selection convener of Cricket South Africa (CSA), Andrew Hudson, said how impressed he has been with Rossouw in a post in CricketWorld:
Rilee is coming off a very impressive South Africa A series in Australia in which he scored 337 runs at an average of 48 with a strike rate of 96.
They will be able to rely on their duo of reliable seamers, Steyn and Morkel, and the return to form of Imran Tahir against Sri Lanka also offers another feather in their cap. If runs do not flow, it may be hard to wrap up games, though.
This will be particularly poignant for the Proteas, who are clearly looking for a little more impetus and diversity with the bat in limited-overs cricket.
This series purports to be a golden opportunity for Zimbabwe too, as hosts and underdogs.
They have been under huge financial pressures, leading to strikes, delays in their domestic competition and even an exodus of Zimbabwean talent.
Zimbabwe's administrators see it as a chance to improve their performances within international cricket, and attract larger crowds, according to Wilfred Mukondiwa, the managing director of Zimbabwe Cricket. In an article by Cricket Australia (CA) he had this to say:
We are really excited to have the opportunity to host two strong sides like Australia and South Africa at the same time.
He also outlined the benefits of playing against stronger opposition for both fans and players, which emphasised the entertainment value of this major series for Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe's batting is the main cause for concern though, with only Hamilton Masakadza scoring over 500 runs since the start of 2013 in ODI cricket, according to ESPN Cricinfo.
There have also been just two centuries in that period, which outlines a severe drought in runs and a structural failing that needs to be addressed. They must start being more disciplined with the bat, which ultimately stems from a simple lack of high quality cricket at their disposal.
In addition to veteran Mark Vermeulen, who has been recalled, their training squad comprises of five uncapped players according to Cricket365: Steve Chimhamhiwa, Luke Jongwe, Neville Madziva, Cuthbert Musoko, Taurai Muzarabani and John Nyumbu.
One name to look out for is Nyumbu, who recently became the second Zimbabwean to take a five-wicket haul on his Test debut.
Zimbabwe have less of a vested interest in this series, as they are not in contention for the top of the world rankings, nor are they a serious contender for the World Cup. They basically have a free ticket to try and upset the big sides.
This series should offer a glimpse of a rebuilding South Africa, a confident Australia and a relatively unknown Zimbabwe.
The series will be Zimbabwe's opportunity to put on a show for the world and challenge two heavyweights. Meanwhile, Australia and South Africa will see anything other than a place in the head-to-head final in the seventh game as a failure. Zimbabwe's task is to upset one of these giants and dent their confidence ahead of the 2015 World Cup.
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