When India face South Africa in the ODI series opener in Lucknow on Sunday, they would be taking the field after a 364-day gap in international cricket. South Africa, on the other hand, have had two full limited-overs series - of three ODIs and as many T20Is each, against Pakistan - during this period. Mithali Raj, the India ODI captain who is 85 away from 10,000 runs in international cricket, would herself be turning out in India colours after 487 days. With the next ODI World Cup in 12 months, Raj, 38, is hopeful that both she and the team will be able to get in into "rhythm" quick enough to challenge South Africa, whom they have faced more times than they have any other opponent since the 2017 ODI World Cup.
"I am training the same way I do before any international series. But I am really looking forward to getting more runs. I was in rhythm in the last seriesm against West Indies, in 2019. Hope to do the same here," Raj, senior-most player in the ODI side, said at a virtual press conference on the eve of the first of the ODI in Lucknow.
"This series is very important for two reasons. We have young players, and it is the right platform to give them opportunities in the home conditions. At the same time, it is important to see that the core players get enough game-time to get out there and develop their rhythm, come together and set our standards out there and take it from there," she said.
In the six games between the two sides, played across two-match bilateral series, since the 2017 50-over World Cup, India, runners-up in that edition, lost only once to South Africa, semi-finalists in that competition. But South Africa have the advantage of more game time under their belt since the 2020 T20 World Cup in March last year, several of their players even playing a domestic T20 tournament in December following the Covid-19-enforced cancellation of the national team's England tour. By contrast, the India cricketers have had the four-match Women's T20 Challenge in November as their only opportunity of playing any top-flight competitive cricket in the whole past year.
Raj believes that India's preparations in the lead-up to the series, including the three training sessions they've had in Lucknow over four days since completing a five-day quarantine on March 2 - would hold them in good stead.
"Clearly they've had game time, but we are playing after a gap. Having said that we definitely have put in the efforts, trained ourselves, have these short camps, four days of sessions here," Raj said. "It doesn't look like we are rusty or anything. I think the girls clearly are quite excited to get on the field and start putting our best performances because it's time that we start our campaign for the World Cup, and start playing some cricket.
"The girls have been training in their respective places before coming here. During the lockdown, we have all kept in touch and kept up with our routines via Zoom and other apps. We are communicating with the staff. It's no different in that sense. A lot has gone in the mental set-up because it has been a long gap.
"This series is very important for two reasons. We have young players, and it is the right platform to give them opportunities in the home conditions. At the same time, it is important to see that the core players get enough game-time to get out there and develop their rhythm, come together and set our standards out there and take it from there."
From the start of 2017 until November 6, 2019, when India last played the format, they scored 240 runs or more only nine times out of 22 instances while batting first. Among the top eight-ranked ODI teams, India's tally in this regard is only the fifth-best, with South Africa one place above them.
Raj said that while India would look to put on about 250 runs when batting first on the Ekana pitch, the priority for the home team in the first match would be to regain lost momentum.
"Clearly, coming back into the one-dayers after 15 months, we first look forward to developing a rhythm, a momentum," Raj said. "If it's a good batting track, we definitely look forward to around 240-250. It's something we can start aiming at. But if we get a good start may be, you know, push beyond."
"But again, it all depends on how we take the first game, the wicket. But as on today, the girls seem to be very confident. We've had some very good sessions. So, clearly, I'm looking at a very confident unit to take the field tomorrow.
The South Africa assignment is also the first time since July 2015, when they squared off against New Zealand at home, that India would be playing five ODIs in a bilateral series. Raj said that the length of series might allow her to field the four uncapped players - left-hand batter Yastika Bhatia, legspin-bowling allrounder C Prathyusha, left-arm medium pacer Monica Patel, and wicketkeeper Sweta Verma - named in the 17-member ODI squad.
"[I am] Definitely [considering the possibility of trying them out], because it's a five-ODI series. We have some young players in the side. As captain I would like to give them opportunities to show their talent, so yes, we're definitely looking forward to giving them opportunities in these five ODIs."
She also explained that though 17-year-old Shafali Verma, the batter with the most runs - 163 - for India and the best strike rate - 158 - among those with 50 runs or more across teams in the 2020 T20 World Cup, was picked only for the T20Is against South Africa, a debut in the 50-over format may not be far away.
"She definitely is in the scheme of things, she is on the radar. We need to have a little bit of patience and we will see her very soon," Raj said, smiling.
Additional statistical inputs by Sampath Bandarupalli