Johannesburg is closer to Harare than to Cape Town, but it has been eight years since Zimbabwe last played an ODI in South Africa. The cricket gap is much wider than the geographical gap between these two teams, and the financial realities of modern cricket add an additional restriction. A series against Zimbabwe does not make a lot of money or fill the ground, so limited games in the next two weeks will be played in some of the longest ovals in South Africa.
Beginning with Kimberley, a city built on old mining money in the arid northwest. Zimbabwe coach Lalchand Rajput thinks his team is rough diamonds, but it's South Africa that probably will shine that day. In front of Zimbabwe in each discipline, each member of your squad will be looking for a place at the World Cup in South Africa. South Africa only plays 16 ODI between now and its first match of the World Cup in May. Each game counts as an opportunity to make a good impression, and with Faf du Plessis and Hashim Amla injured, and Quinton by Kock and David Miller rested, these ODI offer a particularly crucial opportunity for South African hitters. There will not be a fourth.
Nor will the ball be lost. The pitch at Kimberley tends to be as flat and hard as the drying country around it, but the local attack is full of pedigree and before the series, South African coach Ottis Gibson joked about his bowlers possibly doing A good job to allow hitters to be proven by doing theirs. Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn and Lungi Ngidi present a frightening prospect, and if the Zimbabweans can somehow sustain the bombing of the new ball, players like Imran Tahir and Tabraiz Shamsi are waiting for them with the old ones.
Zimbabwe, at least, will not have to face all five in the same game, and there is healthy competition for limited spaces in the South African attack. Ngidi seemed to develop particularly fast during South Africa's tour of Sri Lanka, taking 10 fields at 20.10, and Steyn's return is savoring the competitive dynamics in South Africa's fast bowling.
His main order is no less hungry. Dean Elgar has not hidden his ambitions for a day, and a modest Zimbabwean attack could make his hearing quiet. Gibson sees Elgar as a peer-to-peer replacement for Amla, and is also anxious to see if Christiaan Jonker can transfer his T20 skills as Miller did. Heinrich Klaasen hopes he can complicate the eventual return of De Kock, while Reeza Hendricks has the chance to prove that his 100th debut against Sri Lanka was no fluke. Khaya Zondo also marked a brilliant century against Australia A month ago and is pushing for his retirement.
Zimbabwe coach Rajput believes his team will provide a hostile testing ground for South Africa's hitting and bowling options, and Zimbabweans will be driven by the return of several seniors from a hiatus caused by salaries unpaid. Brendan Taylor, Sean Williams and Craig Ervine are back, but Zimbabwe still does not have Graeme Cremer's neat legs and will surely miss the Sikandar Raza talisman. All of the above was missed in his last outing of ODI, when the exhausted Zimbabweans were badly exposed and Pakistan achieved a 5-0 victory.
While Zimbabwe is looking to leave that disaster behind, the eyes of South Africa are already firmly on the way to the World Cup next year. Your preparations begin now.
South Africa LLWWW (last five matches completed, most recent first)
In the limelight
The return of Dale Steyn cue ball is a vital piece in South Africa's plans for the World Cup. Steyn is savoring the challenge of fighting for his place in the XI of a day, and a training against the Zimbabweans could be just enough to prepare him for the trip Down Under in November.
Brendan Taylor is back in the middle order of Zimbabwe, and will be eager to show his team what they missed during their mid-year hiatus. Taylor had fun against the past South African attacks, scoring the best 145 points of his career here in 2010, and is averaging 45.60 with the bat in the last calendar year. The absence of Raza will make your contributions more crucial.
Injuries mean that South Africa enters this series without some big names in their highest order, but their bowling pins are in top form and will still have an impact. Coach Gibson is fond of his choices of all the senses, so Wiaan Mulder and Andile Phehlukwayo must complete the attack. With Hendricks probably playing in his homeland, Zondo can be the hitter to get lost.
South Africa (possible): 1 Dean Elgar, 2 Aiden Markram, 3 Reeza Hendricks, 4 JP Duminy (capt), 5 Heinrich Klaasen, 6 Christiaan Jonker, 7 Wiaan Mulder, 8 Andile Phehlukwayo, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Dale Steyn, 11 Imran Tahir
The trio returning from Zimbabwe should return to their intermediate order, while Rajput coach could well want the ballast of Elton Chigumbura's experience to add batting force to the order of medium low Peter Moor and Ryan Murray will come face to face with the cleaning gloves. While Moor's experience will count for a lot, Murray comes from a good effort in Africa T20, where he averaged 51.
Zimbabwe (possible): 1 Solomon Mire, 2 Hamilton Masakadza (capt), 3 Craig Ervine, 4 Brendan Taylor, 5 Sean Williams, 6 Peter Moor / Ryan Murray, 7 Elton Chigumbura, 8 Wellington Masakadza, 9 Kyle Jarvis, 10 Tendai Chatara, 11 Richard Ngarava.
Land and conditions
It's going to be a warm day in Kimberley, but there should be a bit of wind to keep things bearable. In Kimberley there are often races, and the last three ODIs played here saw four hundred of the first order.
Statistics and trivia
"The first two games in Sri Lanka were exactly the way we want to get closer to the fifty envelope format."
South Africa coach Gibson wants his team to replicate their positive approach while playing with their World Cup formula.
"We had a very good preparatory course for two months and when you prepare yourself well normally the results will be on your side".
Zimbabwe coach Rajput acknowledges that his team is ready for their South African challenge