Zimbabwe Cricket has been through a lot in the last 3-4 years. From the heartbreak of missing out on a chance of playing in the 2019 World Cup to being banned from participating in the T20 World Cup Qualifier in 2019 and now finally living in the ecstasy of playing the upcoming T20 World Cup, Sikandar Raza, who made his debut in 2013, has ridden the highs and the lows but his hunger to perform and do his best for the team has never died down.
He was their star performer in the T20 World Qualifiers a few months ago with 228 runs at 57 to go with a strike-rate of 176.74 and was his side’s top performer with the ball as well, having picked up five wickets at an economy rate of under seven.
Till the start of the qualifiers, there was not much to boast about his batting credentials, he had managed just one fifty in 47 innings and averaged an underwhelming average of 14.89 and a strike-rate of 110.48.
However, since then, he has turned a corner. He has been given a fixed role of batting at four or five, and that clarity has helped him put in match-winning performances for Zimbabwe. In the eight innings since the start of the Qualifiers, Raza has plundered 355 runs at 59.16 (Strike-Rate 169.85) and has struck four fifties as well.
With the ball in hand, he has been less of a wicket-taker and more of someone, who could keep things extremely tight, thus creating an opportunity for others, but played a vital role in the Qualifiers final against the Dutch registering career-best figures of 4 for 8.
Performances in the shortest format have given him a huge boost, and with the same confidence, he has switched into the 50-over format with absolute ease. Zimbabwe had already lost the ODI series against Sri Lanka and Afghanistan this year and had their backs against the wall when it came to the Bangladesh ODIs. However, despite having to chase stiff targets in the first two ODIs and with the team in trouble, Raza played a vital role in seeing his side home.
He walked in at 62 for 3 in the 14th over, chasing 304 in the first game and stayed out there till the winning runs were hit. His unbeaten 135 off just 109 is perhaps one of the best innings in a run chase in the recent past. There’s no way he could better that, could he?
Once again, with his side in trouble at 27 for 3 and later reduced to 49 for 4 in pursuit of 291, Raza, along with Regis Chakabva, put on 201 for the fifth wicket, with the all-rounder this time remaining unbeaten on 117.
At no point at any of the two run-chases did it look like Raza broke any sweat. His composure, combined with his ability to take calculated risks, had paid off. His partners, too, seemed to thrive with his presence, putting on 192 with Innocent Kaia in the first game and over 200 with Chakabva in the second.
Things did not go according to plan for Zimbabwe before the Qualifiers. They had lost an ODI series against Sri Lanka to start with, and then that was followed by a 3-0 whitewash in the ODI and T20I series by Afghanistan. Sandwiched between all this was also a T20I series defeat at the hands of Namibia – the first time the Eagles had won a series of any format against a full-member side.
Given these series of events, it looked as though Zimbabwe would once again tank it in the Qualifier, but what followed was a series of five continuous wins that saw them win the tournament, beating the 2019 champions Netherlands in the final.
Thankfully, their winning mentality continued in the Bangladesh series as well. As he was in the Qualifiers, Raza was once again the engine of this team
As the senior-most figure in the dressing room, Raza, at 36, could very well be at the final leg of his career. And it’s clear that he is determined to make the most of it. Maybe take Zimbabwe back to the era of the Flowers, Campbells, Streaks and others – a team that was unpredictable yet more than capable of taking down strong units on their day.
Contributions from Wesley Madhevere, Craig Ervine, Sean Williams, Luke Jongwe, Tendai Chatara and others too should not be brushed under the carpet. They have played an excellent role with bat and ball to support Raza, who without a doubt has been instrumental in ensuring that all their efforts do not go in vain.
Players like Blessing Muzarabani, Madhevere, Richard Ngarava, Milton Shumba and a few others who were just about getting into the team when Zimbabwe missed out on qualifying for the 2019 World Cup now have more experience, and as things stand, they have had four years of good experience and have made Zimbabwe only stronger.
"It was tricky to miss out on the last 50-over World Cup. It was disheartening and painful not to be playing the last T20 World Cup as well. I think the senior players were more relieved than happy [to qualify for this year's World Cup],” Raza had said in an interview with Espncricinfo.
Perhaps the only thing that did not fall into place for Raza since the start of the Qualifiers last month was him getting out the first ball on his ODI captaincy debut in the dead rubber ODI against Bangladesh. Around Raza revolves an entire nation whose only desire is to emerge out of oblivion and carve a new story for themselves.
As they say, “The comeback is always stronger than the setback.” An entire cricket-loving nation will hold their breath in the hope the Chevrons rise once again.
With a series against India, Australia and then the T20 World Cup to follow, Raza and Zimbabwe would know that they barely have any time to breathe. Honestly, given what they’ve been through, they’d be the last ones to complain.