Durban: Galvanised by the consolatory win in the final Test, a resurgent India will be aiming for their first bilateral ODI series triumph on the South African soil when they take on the Proteas in a six-match rubber, starting on Thursday. With only 14 months to go for the 2019 ODI World Cup, India will also look to kick off their preparations in earnest during the series.
India have a long limited-overs' schedule until their next big Test assignment this year. They play six ODIs and three Twenty20 Internationals here, a T20I tri-series in Sri Lanka and then three ODIs and three T20Is in England and Ireland, with the 2018 IPL season thrown in, before the five-Test series in England later in August.
Such a definitive run of limited-overs' cricket, especially in overseas conditions in South Africa and England, will allow the Indian team management to round up the squad's core for the big tournament in 2019 and fix up certain spots which still need some work.
At the same time, the Men in Blue will be intent on winning their first-ever bilateral ODI series on South African soil.
India have previously lost 5-2 in 1992-93, 4-0 in 2006-07, 3-2 in 2010-11 and 2-0 in 2013-14. They were also part of two triangular series in 1996-97 and 2001-02, featuring Zimbabwe and Kenya respectively, but the Proteas emerged victors on both occasions.
So much so, India's ODI record against South Africa in South Africa is heavily skewered.
In 28 meetings since 1992-93, the Proteas have won 21 matches, while India have only won five. Such a poor record will not sit well with the current team management that is intent on improving India's all-round showing in overseas conditions.
Additionally, India have a very lop-sided ODI record at Durban. In seven ODIs against South Africa at this venue, since 1992-93, they have lost six with one no-result. India did beat England and Kenya here though, during the 2003 ODI World Cup, giving them an overall two wins in nine ODIs at Kingsmead.
At stake, there is also the small matter of achieving the no.1 spot in ICC's ODI rankings. Currently, South Africa sit atop with 120 points while India are second with 119 points.
While the ODI rankings change after every match, a cumulative 4-2 series' win will be enough to help India achieve the no.1 spot.
This should be motivation enough for Virat Kohli and Co., particularly as they will be taking the momentum into this ODI series, having assured themselves of finishing no.1 in the ICC Test rankings by prolonging their unbeaten record at the Wanderers last week.
South Africa won the Test series 2-1, but lost the third Test at Johannesburg by 63 runs on a seam-friendly pitch rated 'poor' by ICC match referee Andy Pycroft.
India also have a proud ODI record to protect. Since losing 4-1 in Australia (January 2016), the Men in Blue haven't lost a single bilateral ODI series, home or away.
In this interim, they have beaten Zimbabwe, New Zealand (twice), England, West Indies, Sri Lanka (twice) and Australia, winning 24 out of 32 bilateral matches.
Their only tournament loss came in the 2017 Champions Trophy (in England), where they lost to Pakistan in the final. As such, the team management will be relying on optimal selection to get this six-match series off to a good start. With the return of Kohli after missing the ODIs/T20Is series against Sri Lanka in December, there is only one middle-order spot to be decided.
Shreyas Iyer gave a good account of himself, scoring two half-centuries in three matches against Sri Lanka, and is a front-runner for the job. But experience could be of greater value herein, with Dinesh Karthik and Manish Pandey also in the running.
On Wednesday, the pitch bore a brownish look ahead of the game, in keeping with the rainfall Durban has received of late.
Showers are forecast for Thursday's game as well. It might have a bearing on how many spinners India go in with. If the visitors play only a lone spinner, Chinaman Kuldeep Yadav could get the nod ahead of both Axar Patel and Yuzvendra Chahal, to counter the threat of big-hitting left-handers David Miller and JP Duminy in the middle-order.
Only one spinner would also mean that Kedar Jadhav is assured of a starting spot, thanks to his part-time bowling. South Africa too, meanwhile, have an eye on the upcoming World Cup. AB de Villiers is set to miss out the first 3 ODIs due to an injured right index finger (sustained during the third Test).
Farhan Behardien is usually their go-to batsman in such situations, but he wasn't called up on this occasion. This is indicative of the Proteas' team management eyeing different combinations.
Durban-born batsman Khayelihle Zondo can expect to make his debut instead. The other option is to open with Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock, and give Aiden Markram another opportunity in the middle-order, wherein he had scored 66 on ODI debut against Bangladesh at East London (October 2017).
The Proteas are expected to go in with only spinner - Imran Tahir.
Teams: India: Virat Kohli (capt), Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Shreyas Iyer, Manish Pandey, Dinesh Karthik, Kedar Jadhav, MS Dhoni (wk), Hardik Pandya, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Axar Patel, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Shardul Thakur.
South Africa: Faf du Plessis (capt), Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock (wk), JP Duminy, Imran Tahir, Aiden Markram, David Miller, Morne Morkel, Chris Morris, Lungisani Ngidi, Andile Phehlukwayo, Kagiso Rabada, Tabraiz Shamsi, Khayelihle Zondo.