IN-DEPTH: The success that lingers after Zimbabwe’s ‘failure’

IN-DEPTH: The success that lingers after Zimbabwe’s ‘failure’

By Cricbuzz

June 27 this year, a random not long ago Tuesday that feels an age away, wasn’t special in the annals of Zimbabwean cricket. What mattered was what had gone before and what would happen in the coming days.

The men’s national team had beaten Nepal, the Netherlands, the West Indies and the United States in the World Cup qualifiers. They would play Oman two days later and surely win. Another victory over Sri Lanka or Scotland and a berth in the white-ball game’s premier international tournament would be theirs. Whatever could go wrong?

Zimbabwe beat Oman but lost to the clinical Lankans and the up-and-coming Scots. There will be no World Cup for them in 2023, just like there wasn’t in 2019. That was not yet true on June 27, which now gleams as a Brigadoonian bubble, a cruelly liminal place where enough was going right to make people believe it would keep going right. It was a time of hope and dreams, and for introductory paragraphs like this:

If you see Sikandar Raza on a cricket ground, stop what you’re doing. Whether he is launching sixes down the ground, snaffling wickets with his aggressive off-spin, or clutching catches close to the bat and fielding fabulously in the deep, he is worth watching. Few players make for such consistently compelling viewing.

That was written a day or so after Raza had availed himself for an interview. He was in Bulawayo, where Zimbabwe’s campaign had moved after starting at Harare Sports Club. The questions were asked from Harare, where attempts to talk to him face-to-face had failed. “In Harare I just wanted to spend some time with the kids, do the fatherly duties, forget about who I am and what’s expected, just totally disconnect,” he explained needlessly.

Seven days later, as Raza peered bleakly out of the players’ balcony at Queens Sports Club in the aftermath of the loss to Scotland, his eyes dark with dashed dreams, his face ashen with the difference between what might have been and what was, he wouldn’t have been human if he wasn’t silently screaming to again “forget about who I am and what’s expected”.

Raza is 37, as is Craig Ervine. Sean Williams is a year behind. Nyasha Mayavo, Innocent Kaia and Tendai Chatara have all passed 30. Some of them should make it to the 2027 World Cup, which Zimbabwe won’t need to qualify for as they will co-host the tournament with South Africa and Namibia. Others won’t be there. Raza’s face as he sat there was of a man who knew which side of that line he was on.

That, convention says, is what failure looks like. Success is winning, and doubtless the Zimbabweans would have looked and behaved differently had they won. But what does that mean when David Houghton has built perhaps a better team than any who have worn the Hungwe? And when they are supported in droves by Zimbabweans who, previously, might not have thought of cricket as a game for them? How is that not success?

“I don’t want to take anything away from the golden generation that put Zimbabwe on the map,” Raza said. “People still talk about them, and I’m not saying people must forget about them. They deserve our respect, but our names must be mentioned long after we’re gone. That’s what this generation is very focused on. Luckily we’ve got Dave. He said the other day that this is the best Zimbabwean side that he’s seen and coached.”

They have been polished by experience, which tends to happen once you reach 30. “That’s very important, but the other factor would have to be Craig. Not just as a captain but as a friend, a leader and as a calming source of energy for us. In pressured moments he remains calm and clear-headed, and that helps.”

The maestro is Houghton. “We’re not worried for our spots, we’re not worried about selection, we’re not worried that this might be our last game. Dave has brought that surety, that knowledge that you are here. He backs us behind the scenes, he fights for us. We’ve had a pretty stable squad for the last seven or eight series. Guys are sure about their roles and their selection, and when we go out there the thought that ‘I might have a bad day’ doesn’t cross our mind. It’s about, ‘I’m going to have a good day and I’m going to score as many as I can for my team.'”

The sunshine has shone on other facets of what it takes to create a united, happy dressing room. “We have little spaces available in the changing room where I go and pray,” Raza, a practising Muslim, said. “My teammates, in case I forget, are very quick to remind me that it’s time for my prayers. Or they ask if I’ve prayed yet. These are little things that go a long way. Once you have your teammates talking like that you want to go to war with them because they respect you and your faith.

“Under Dave and Craig, a lot of these things came about automatically. We didn’t have to convince anybody. Everybody respects the fact that we have three different races in one changing room, which means three to four religions in one changing room. You bring your faith, your culture, your own identity. And we’re going to use that towards our success. It’s brought everybody together.”

Raza’s faith was key to his emergence from the cause of mounting pain in his right arm, which hampered his bowling during a Test series against Afghanistan in Abu Dhabi in March 2021. Cancer was suspected but a biopsy revealed infected bone marrow. Had he feared for his life?

“Yes, and the second thing was, ‘If I stay alive how am I going to manage with just one arm?’ Because if there was cancer in my bone marrow the only option was amputation. A lot of thoughts went through my mind. Those weeks were very tough.”

He returned, after almost four months, with a remodelled bowling action, which made onlookers think of another spinner – instead of cocking his bowling arm as he skipped towards the stumps, Raza kept his hand and the ball behind his back until he reached the crease.

“Before my surgery I was at the CPL and with Sunil Narine, and I was watching him. After my surgery I could not bowl with my own action. My arm couldn’t go above my shoulder. I said that’s it, I’m bowling with this action. I don’t care whether people like it or not.”

Other players might have given up bowling. Faf du Plessis, for instance, was a handy leg spinner. But he hasn’t marked out a run-up since March 2015 because of a chronic shoulder problem. Not bowling wasn’t an option for Raza: “I don’t want to play for Zimbabwe just as a batter. I don’t think Dave and Craig would have picked me as a batter alone.”

That’s difficult to believe. No Zimbabwe player has scored as many runs as Raza, across the formats, in the past two years: 1,881 with four centuries and nine 50s in 51 innings. Closer to the truth, probably, is that he can’t bear not being at the nexus of the action. Was there a way to keep him out of the game?

“If you’re the captain and you don’t want to give the ball,” Raza said with a smile in his voice. “I have to fight him every game… nah. It’s nice to be an allrounder and stay in the thick of things, and try do a job for the team in different roles.” Later in the conversation he elucidated his joke: “It’s just a shame I have very bad company, but the rest is going pretty well. I’ve got Craig Ervine sitting in front of me.”

That kind of attitude requires belief. Where does Raza get his? “From my faith and my training. I do my prayers before the game and I’m at peace, whatever the result we might get. That calms me down. The fact that we train well together as a team and everybody’s clear, that also where the confidence comes from. Franchise tournaments have helped as well. These things all add up.”

Aside from starring for Zimbabwe, Raza has featured in the IPL, BPL, CPL, PSL and the LPL. He’s walked a long and winding road since being born in Sialkot in April 1986, a path that has included moving, with his family, to Zimbabwe in 2002. What was it like going to a starkly different reality?

“All I was coming to do was to be with my father. He was in Japan for most of his life for business. We used to see him once every three years. So I didn’t care about the place. It was about being with my family in one place. Nothing else mattered.”

Having been to school in Pakistan and studied software engineering in Scotland, it helped that he was in perhaps the most accepting society in the world: “Settling in wasn’t tough. Everywhere I went people welcomed me. I’m loved as a Zimbabwean. I’m theirs and they are mine. I’ve never felt like a guy who wasn’t born here. It was easy, comfortable and quick. Cricket brought me closer to the people, the country, the community and everything else.” Close enough for him to stay in Zimbabwe after he retires? “Yes. But I’ll disappear for some time, take a break.”

On June 27 those words landed warmly. Now they brim with portents. Raza’s retirement won’t resemble that of Stuart Broad, another 37-year-old who is set to exchange stardom on the field for a well-paid commentary career. Unlike Broad, Raza will need a proper job. Happily, given the rich and varied experiences of his life, he could land a proper job. And, with faith, succeed in that, too.

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