During the reign of the glorious conqueror Alexander The Great (also known as Sikandar in Urdu), the historical writer Onesicritus helped discover the existence of a nondescript island in the Indian Ocean: Taprobane.
Over time, Taprobane became Ceylon, and then, Sri Lanka.
2300 years later, another Sikandar, along with his companions, laid siege to Sri Lanka – this time not to discover, but to rediscover their own existence.
Cricket has been floundering in Zimbabwe; the nation has been battling financial fragility and political tension. Their ever-changing Test status, being constantly revoked and reinstated, has seen them tumble down with each passing series.
Last week, however, Zimbabwe broke the shackles of mediocrity by claiming a historic series win against Sri Lanka. It was a throwback to their old, fighting self of the late 90s and early 2000s.
Deservedly, it was Sikandar Raza, their man in form, who hopped down the track and sliced Wanindu Hasaranga for a six over his head to complete a nervy chase. That helped them go 3-2 up and win their first bilateral ODI series outside home in 16 years.“Happy, excited and bubbly,” Raza gushed, on being asked about the current mood in the dressing camp. In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, the 31-year-old all-rounder spoke about the momentous series triumph, his own game, and what the future holds for Zimbabwe cricket.
The Zimbabwean side had largely realistic goals when they set foot on the Islands. That was understandable, for they had won no five-match ODI series outside of their home in the previous 16 years.
The idea, in Raza’s words, was “to beat Sri Lanka in a couple of games for sure, but the main focus was to perform well. If Sri Lanka outperformed us to win the game, then so be it”.
They managed to beat a side that had never lost to Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and West Indies in a bilateral ODI series.
There is better news to follow for cricket in the country. While circumstances were dismal when Raza started playing the game in the country, things are set to improve.
“It [things] will be [improve] now with the new Managing Director (Faisal Hasnain),” Raza said. “He has already brought some positive changes and with the return of [Heath] Streak and [Tatenda] Taibu, we can only go forward.”
When Raza set foot in the African country, trouble was brewing – the rebellion had started and key players were walking away from the game. Interestingly however, Raza was nowhere close to playing cricket when he was an 11-year-old. He was in Sialkot, Pakistan, trying to convince his parents of his desire to become a fighter jet pilot.
How did he end up on a cricket field with a bat in hand?
“Destiny, I guess,” he said. “What people don't know is that from a pilot I went on to become a software engineer, and then a cricketer.”
When an eye condition grounded his high-flying hopes, Raza enrolled into Glasgow Caledonian University, taking up the game as an amateur while balancing studies simultaneously.
Now he is Zimbabwe’s batting mainstay, an adventurous batsman who can give the ball a mighty tonk. His wily off-spin is an added asset. Despite his proficiency in both disciplines, his priorities are clear.
“Definitely a batting all-rounder!”, he chuckles.
Also read: Zimbabwean cricket can believe again
It was the same off-spin that swept away the Sri Lankan top-order in the final ODI. Raza’s style perfectly complemented the leg-spin of captain Graeme Cremer, and the home side had no clue.
Raza has played 33 of his 70 ODIs along with Cremer. Their latest partnership together was, perhaps, the most crucial of their career. A rollicking chase had lost its wheels midway, and the two had to put their heads down and play responsible knocks.
“Graeme is a cool-headed guy while I am the total opposite, but we have good trust and friendship between us. We share a lot of ideas on and off the park,” Raza said.
The win sent shockwaves across the cricket world and led to Angelo Mathews’ resignation. But more importantly, it gave the Zimbabwean side belief in themselves, and made them confident to face stronger teams.
They have had to face heavy defeats in the past, but have still managed to soldier on. What kept them going when the chips were down?
“Each other's company, as we have a very close bond between us: faith and belief,” was Raza’s answer.
Raza believes that Zimbabwe aren’t pushovers anymore and are ready to punch above their weight. “We believe so. Hopefully, with consistent cricket, we can prove it again.”
On a personal front, Raza’s game resembles that of a typical T20 all-rounder: he can give the ball a mighty heave, and chip in with his off-breaks. Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi recently hogged the limelight in the T20 format, first in the IPL and later against the West Indies. That could open the gates for players like Raza to showcase their talent at a higher level.
“It would be nice to be part of T20 tournaments all around the world, but we’ll see what happens. If it's meant to be, then it will be,” was Raza’s philosophical take on that.
The series against Sri Lanka has given the team a springboard to reach glorious heights. Perhaps it has also invigorated young Zimbabweans to follow their heroes’ footsteps. Raza’s message will galvanise them further:
“Cricket demands hard work, sacrifice and honesty. If you give that, then this beautiful game will always reward you.”
And his one personal ambition for the future?
“To leave this beautiful sport in a better shape for youngsters than what I found it in.”