It has been a tough year for Zimbabwe cricketers, and for Sikandar Raza. The talented batsman, along with teammates, suffered a heartbreak when his country failed to gain qualification for the 2019 World Cup following a three-run defeat to the UAE in the qualifiers in March.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for Raza as he expressed his anguish at the plight of teams like Zimbabwe, plus Associate nations, who won’t get an opportunity to feature in a crucial event like the World Cup.
In an emotional message he delivered while accepting the player of the Qualifiers award, Raza had said: “This trophy is a painful reminder of the dreams that we had, of the 15 million dreams crushed. When I started playing cricket, I thought it was to unite the country, players of different backgrounds. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen.”
To make matters worse, Zimbabwe players were not paid salaries for four months forcing big names like Brendan Taylor and Sean Williams to make themselves unavailable for selection. However, Raza got gametime with Montreal Tigers in Global T20 Canada and after having fruitful discussions with Tigers head coach Tom Moody, rekindled his passion for the game.
But there was more to come. Following the pain of the Qualifiers, Raza had a fallout with Zimbabwe Cricket and lost his national contract.
In September, Raza resolved his dispute with the Zimbabwe board and was included in the squads for the Test and ODI tour of Bangladesh in October-November. Zimbabwe lost the ODI series 3-0 but Raza made fine contributions of 49 and 40, along with a spell of 3-43 with his off-spin. However, it was in Tests that Raza and Zimbabwe truly sizzled as the African side registered their first away Test win in 17 years, with the all-rounder picking up six wickets in the match.
Before that, Raza also enjoyed a satisfying stint with Paktia Panthers in the Afghanistan Premier League in Sharjah in October. The 32-year-old will now turn out for Tshwane Spartans in South Africa’s Mzansi Super League, playing under AB de Villiers. The upcoming PSL draft is also on his radar. Suffice to say, it’s been a roller coaster ride.
While it was an emotional, and at times, a traumatic ride, Raza is simply glad to be part of the Zimbabwe set-up again.
“Walking back into the national team and resolving my matters with Zimbabwe Cricket was the best thing that happened to me in 2018. There were many good people, including players, who went out of their way to get the matter resolved,” Raza told Sport360.
“2018 was tough. Everything changed for me after the Qualifiers. We lost a lot of good people. We will probably have the same team back again. The heartbreak was difficult but the lesson learnt were also very valuable.”
His return had a positive impact as Raza played a crucial role in Zimbabwe’s historic Test win in Sylhet this month.
“We managed to produce some decent performances in Bangladesh. Disappointed we couldn’t pull off an ODI win. A lot was riding on my shoulders, coming back into international cricket after the World Cup Qualifiers. Alhamdulillah, everything went well. When we managed to win the first (away) Test in 17 years, it was a great show,” he said.
However, the calendar for Zimbabwe Cricket is not that very alluring in the absence for World Cup. But Raza is confident things will look up.
“Looking forward, it is a difficult time to play cricket. But Zimbabwe Cricket is trying its best to host games against countries that are not part of the World Cup so that we have something to play for. We have a three-month window when we will finish our domestic season before we are scheduled to play India (in March). There is some cricket coming our way.”
Raza, however, has had a hectic year and will continue to do so. He featured in the Afghanistan Premier League in Sharjah in October, will be travelling to South Africa for the ongoing MSL, and will also be hoping to get picked in the PSL draft on Tuesday. He has already been signed up to return to the Bangladesh Premier League early next year.
“The APL (Afghanistan Premier League) played a huge part in my preparation for the Bangladesh tour and for me to be considered in different leagues. APL was good for me. I managed a few good performances with bat and ball. That was great. Luckily I got retained by Chittagong Vikings so I will be going back to BPL so that is also good news.
“I like to feel optimistic (about PSL) but I like to be realistic. Maybe there is an outside chance (of getting picked). I hope my performances in international cricket and league cricket… you never know who is watching you. Hopefully one team ends up picking you.”
However, the dynamic batsman insists franchise cricket will not take him away national duties, reiterating his passion to represent Zimbabwe first.
“As long as there is international cricket with Zimbabwe, I will not be considering T20 leagues. If you are asking whether I will be prioritising league cricket over Zimbabwe, the answer is no.
“A lot of good people have done a lot of great work behind the scenes for me to come back into the national team and to rectify my contract. Once a lot of people have put faith in you, you don’t want to disappoint them or make the same mistakes. Everything is good, the relation is great.”
PLAYING WITH DE VILLIERS
The next assignment for Raza is in South Africa, where he will be sharing a dressing room with the iconic De Villiers. Raza wants to learn as much as he can from a living legend and enhance his own game.
“I am looking to gain experience and knowledge. I will be sharing dressing room with one of the legends of the game – AB de Villiers. For me it can’t get any better than that. Just to be in that changing room, listening to him and just to chat with him and brainstorm. If you can do well in such leagues, the experience will speak a lot about you and open other doors for you.”
It has been an exacting 2018 for Raza, one which also shook his passion for the sport. But it’s all in the past now. Raza not only wants to give it his all for Zimbabwe, but also wants to ensure that the next crop of cricketers get a good cricketing atmosphere to thrive.
“Just because we don’t have a World Cup (in 2019) doesn’t mean we don’t have a perceivable target. We want to build a team around a core group where we groom youngsters so that when we walk away from the game, we know we have left the game in a better condition.” – Sport 360