“Everyone is going to die, but what better way is there?”
Sikandar Raza, the Zimbabwean cricketer, had expressed in an interview with ESPNCricinfo. He was quipping on his friends, martyred during an air crash. The “fighter” attitude and mindset Raza carries is evident from this statement alone.
The Pakistani born Raza had never dreamt of cricket during his childhood days. All he wanted was to fly planes and joined an Air Force Cadet college in Pakistan after being short-listed as one of 60 candidates amongst the 60,000 that applied. But fate had something else in store for Raza. He failed an eye test after his 10th, a medical condition which put a seal on his pilot dreams. Cricket still hadn’t made its way to Raza at that point of time. When he did discover that it held a special place in his heart, Raza went to Zimbabwe where his parents were abiding since 2002.
With Zimbabwean cricket enjoying a lease of fresh air, Raza has transformed himself into a utility cricketer for his side. A handy off-spinner who bats in the middle-order, Raza was rarely used as a bowling option. But at Bulawayo against the West Indies, Zimbabwe needed him to bowl.
They have lost Sean Williams and Kyle Jarvis to injury and needed Raza’s extra overs. He gave them 48 overs and picked up a maiden five-wicket haul, breaking the back of West Indies’ middle-order although a late in the day partnership gave the visitors a huge 122 run lead.
“I still like to think that I’m a batter who can bowl, but being an allrounder it becomes a responsibility that you need to step up whenever you are given an opportunity. We are spending a lot more time as a spinning unit working on our bowling compared to six months ago, so to see the rewards like this is certainly humbling”, Raza had said after his bowling antics.
The 300+ total that Zimbabwe managed in the first innings was in itself owing to a superlative effort from Sikandar Raza. But with 122 runs behind, nobody gave Zimbabwe a chance. After all, they were dismal in the first Test and a sudden turn around seemed rather unlikely. But in Raza, they had a determined, trained fighter. He was cut out to do hefty tasks and this was a scenario he relished batting in.
Raza hung around for 300 minutes to make 89 runs, saving Zimbabwe from a precarious 46/4 and gifting them a draw. That result had looked rather unlikely at the end of day 4. But the more Raza batted, the more Zimbabwe believed. That kind of grit and resilience seeped into Regis Chakabva and Graeme Cremer and the duo spent 270 balls to seal a draw. It was the first time in 11 years that a Test involving Zimbabwe got stuck in a draw. While Chakabva and Cremer deserve praise, it was Raza who initiated the fight and instilled belief in his teammates. He became just the second player after the legendary Jacques Kallis to score successive 80s and take a five-for in the same Test match.
Quite often, in the past, the Zimbabwean had been robbed of glory by his lusterless colleagues. Against Sri Lanka in July, he had resuscitated his side from 23/4 to a more than formidable target of 388 on a wearing Colombo wicket against the wizardry of Rangana Herath. Raza scored 127 then but his bowling mates failed to defend the score.
Two years back, against Pakistan in an ODI in Lahore, Raza made a fighting 84 ball ton only to see Azhar Ali better his feat with a match-winning century. In the same year, he made another valiant hundred from no.7 against New Zealand in Harare but Martin Guptill and Tom Latham went berserk, putting on an unbeaten double-century opening stand to give the visitors a 10 wicket win.
Quite often, the Zimbabwean has been denied glory despite doing his best for the team. This year, he is their highest run-scorer in Tests with 368 runs in 3 matches at an average of 61.33. In ODIs too, Raza has had a profound influence. Batting in the lower middle-order, the all-rounder averages 52.75 and has picked up 8 wickets in as many matches.
At 31, Raza is shouldering the role of a senior player in the Zimbabwean side. He isn’t totally new to responsibility, having stood in as captain for Elton Chigumbura in a T20 against India. By his own admission, he knew that he would be skippering only 50 minutes before the match as the incumbent skipper injured himself. What is even more impressive is that Zimbabwe went on to win the match, albeit against a second string Indian T20 side.
In Raza, Zimbabwe have a fighter who can lift them up when the chips are down. He can bat, bowl or field out of skin to contribute for his team. “I think if Cremer refuses then I’ll pick up the ball and take the first over [in the second innings]”, Raza had commented after the first innings. Although in jest, the intent and ability to step up is something to be admired in this fighter.