The 27th of June this year, a random Tuesday that seems so long ago now, didn’t mark anything particularly noteworthy in the history of Zimbabwean cricket. History and the events to come were of paramount importance.
The men’s national team qualified for the World Cup after defeating Nepal, the Netherlands, the West Indies, and the United States. They were certain to beat Oman two days later. If they were to win their last two matches against Sri Lanka and Scotland, they would qualify for the World Cup of white-ball cricket. How bad could it get?
Zimbabwe triumphed against Oman, but they were defeated by the polished Sri Lankans and the improving Scots. Neither the 2019 nor the 2023 World Cups will be accessible to them. In retrospect, June 27 seems like a Brigadoonian bubble, a horribly liminal region where just enough good things were happening to fool people into thinking they will continue happening. Back then, opening paragraphs may go something like this:
Zimbabwe Sikandar Raza on a cricket pitch? Better call a halt. He is entertaining to watch whether he is hitting sixes down the ground, taking wickets with his aggressive off-spin, catching near to the bat, or fielding brilliantly deep. There aren’t many athletes who are as constantly exciting to watch.
A day or two after Raza made himself available for an interview, that was written. Zimbabwe’s campaign had relocated from Harare Sports Club to Bulawayo, where he was. Attempts to meet with him in person in Harare yielded no answers, so these questions were sent instead. He went into superfluous detail on how he intended to “totally disconnect” in Harare by saying, “I just wanted to spend some time with the kids, do the fatherly duties, forget who I am and what is expected, just totally disconnect.”
Raza would not have been human seven days later as he looked glumly out of the players’ balcony at Queens Sports Club following the loss to Scotland, his eyes dark with dashed dreams, his face ashen with the difference between what might have been and what was.
Craig Ervine is the same age as Raza, 37. The year has passed Sean Williams by. Tendai Chatara, Nyasha Mayavo, and Innocent Kaia have all reached their thirtieth year. As co-hosts alongside South Africa and Namibia, Zimbabwe won’t have to worry about qualifying for the 2027 World Cup. Some people won’t be present. Raza sat there with the expression of a guy who has already decided which side of the queue he was on.
That is what people usually mean when they talk about failure. If the Zimbabweans had been successful, they would have looked and acted differently. What does it even imply, however, when David Houghton has assembled perhaps the best Hungwe squad in history? And when they have the overwhelming backing of Zimbabweans who may not have considered cricket a sport for them before? So how is it not a triumph?
“I don’t want to take anything away from the golden generation that put Zimbabwe on the map,” remarked Raza. I’m not suggesting that history should be forgotten, especially because people still discuss them. They merit our esteem, but history will remember us for what we’ve accomplished. That’s where the attention of the current generation lies. It’s a good thing we have Dave. The other day he was bragging about how this Zimbabwean team is the finest he’s ever coached.
They are refined thanks to life experience, something that usually happens around the age of 30. Very significant, but there’s also the matter of Craig. To us, he is more than simply a captain; he is a friend, a leader, and a steadying influence. He keeps his cool under pressure, which is useful.
Houghton is the conductor. We’re not concerned that this may be our final game, that we could lose our starting positions, or that we might not even make the team. Dave has carried with him the confidence of knowing you are present. He supports us covertly and advocates on our behalf. For the last seven or eight series, we’ve had a somewhat consistent roster. Men are confident in their places and their choices, and we never leave the house worrying that today could be a poor one. It’s all about saying to yourself, “Today, I’m going to have a great day and score as many points as possible for my team.”
Other components of a cohesive and positive locker room have been brought into the light. “We have little spaces available in the changing room where I go and pray,” said Raza, a devout Muslim who uses the facilities to worship. If I ever forget when it’s time to pray, my teammates are quick to remind me. If I’ve prayed yet, or if I’m even religious. These are the kind of little adjustments that make a huge difference. They respect you and your beliefs, and once you have them talking like that, you want to go to battle with them.
Zimbabwe A lot of these developments occurred naturally under Dave and Craig’s leadership. No one needed to be convinced. Everyone is respectful of the fact that there are people of at least three different ethnicities and, by extension, three or four different faiths using the same locker room. You contribute your convictions, your heritage, your very self. And we will use it to our advantage. Everyone is united in this common experience.
To bowl well against Afghanistan in a Test series played in Abu Dhabi in March 2021, Raza battled with increasing soreness in his right arm. A biopsy suggested cancer, but testing found diseased bone marrow instead. Had he really thought he may die?
“Yes, and the second thought was, ‘If I remain alive, how am I going to cope with only one arm?’ Because if the cancer had spread to my bone marrow, I would have no choice but to have a limb amputated. My mind was racing with several ideas. Those weeks were quite trying.
As he skipped towards the wickets, instead of cocking his bowling arm, Raza kept his hand and the ball behind his back until he reached the crease, giving the impression that he was a different spinner than before.
I was at the CPL with Sunil Narine before my operation, and I remember seeing him play. I lost the ability to bowl with my own movement after surgery. I was unable to raise my arm over my shoulder. I finally decided to bowl using this motion. Whether or if others approve is of no concern to me.
Some of the other bowlers may have already quit. For instance, Faf du Plessis could rotate his legs well. However, because to an ongoing issue with his shoulder, he hasn’t planned out a run since March of 2015. Raza said, “I don’t want to play for Zimbabwe just as a batter, so I have to bowl.” Dave and Craig probably wouldn’t have selected me as a batter if I’d been the only option.
It’s hard for me to believe that. Over the previous two years, no Zimbabwean player has scored more runs than Raza (1,881 runs, 4 centuries, 9 50s in 51 innings). More likely, he just can’t stand to be anywhere other than in the centre of all the excitement. Is there any way to prevent him from playing?
“If you’re the captain and you don’t want to give the ball,” Raza added jokingly. Every game, it’s him and me. It’s great to be able to switch gears and contribute to the team in a variety of ways. He elaborated on his joke later, saying, “It’s just a shame I have very bad company, but the rest is going pretty well.” I have Craig Ervine here with me right now.
Belief is essential for such mentality. How did Raza get his? It stems from my education and religious upbringing. When I pray before a game, I am able to accept the outcome with grace. That helps me relax a bit. The fact that we all get along well in practise and can hear each other well contributes to our sense of assurance. Similarly beneficial have been franchise competitions. All of this adds up to a lot.
Raza has also been a standout on the international stage, both for Zimbabwe and in the IPL, BPL, CPL, PSL, and LPL. Since his April 1986 birth in Sialkot, he has travelled a circuitous route that has taken him to Zimbabwe with his family. Tell me about your experience of entering a whole new world.
“I came here for no other reason than to spend time with my dad. He spent the most of his life doing business in Japan. Previously, we’d only seen him every three years. Thus, I could care less about the location. It was important to me to have all of my loved ones together. To hell with everything else.
After attending school in Pakistan and studying software engineering in Scotland, he found settling in to be rather easy since he now lived in perhaps the most welcoming culture in the world. I was met with open arms everywhere I went. As a Zimbabwean, I have many of admirers. I belong to them and they to me. I don’t think of myself as a foreigner or an immigrant. It was hassle-free, relaxing, and speedy. Cricket connected me more deeply to my family, my friends, my nation, and the world. Can he get close enough to retire in Zimbabwe? “Yes. But I’m going to be absent for a while; I need a break.
Those kind sentiments were great to hear on June 27. Now there are omens galore. Unlike fellow 37-year-old great cricketer Stuart Broad, who is also retiring to pursue a lucrative commentary career, Raza has no plans to leave the game altogether. In contrast to Broad, Raza needs a serious occupation. Thanks to his wide range of life experiences, he should have little trouble finding respectable employment. And do it, too, by having trust.