SIKANDAR Raza’s shriek from the middle as soon as Tony Munyonga struck the winning runs in the second ODI cricket match on Sunday pierced through the din at the Harare Sports Club. His excitement was understandable.
Raza had just led Zimbabwe to their first ODI series win against Bangladesh in nine years, nailing two tough chases in the space of three days. It was Raza’s weekend and his month, as he enjoyed the sort of batting form rarely seen in Zimbabwe.
In just four weeks, Raza has scored 607 runs across formats at an average of 101.16, with two centuries and four fifties, coupled with 11 wickets at 22.18 apiece. Along the way, he was part of two record partnerships, bagged figures of 4 for 8 in the final of the T20 World Cup qualifiers, and took some key catches.
Simply put, Raza has been the main reason for Zimbabwe’s transformation from a side that suffered shattering defeats against Afghanistan and Namibia earlier this year to one that has beaten Bangladesh in both T20Is and ODIs. He was the Player of the Tournament in the T20 World Cup qualifiers, the Player of the Series for the T20Is against Bangladesh, and must be the frontrunner for the award in the ODIs too.
When Raza was playing a T20 tournament in Rajshahi, in Bangladesh, this June, little did he know how much his life would change in the coming months. At the time, qualifying for the T20 World Cup was his only concern. He fretted thinking about the heartbreak of 2019. At the age of 36, this was his make-or-break moment. And how he has pulled it off will likely become part of Zimbabwe cricket folklore.
After his unbeaten 135 ensured Zimbabwe chased down 304 in the opening ODI against Bangladesh, Raza raised his game in the second match. Along with the new captain Regis Chakabva, he took Zimbabwe from 49 for 4 in the 15th over to a win with 15 balls to spare on Sunday. Raza had earlier taken 3 for 56 to restrict Bangladesh in the death overs.
The big crowds in Harare and Bulawayo witnessed Raza’s heroics in the last four weeks. He started with a 40-ball 87 against Singapore in a T20I and his last knock was 117 not out on Sunday. A bowling attack strengthened by left-arm spin couldn’t stop him. He methodically took apart the Bangladesh attack – going after the best bowler of the day Hasan Mahmud – and rotated the strike consistently to ensure his partners never got stuck at one end.
In all these recent matches, Raza helped Zimbabwe stay ahead in the game, giving the impression that a big over was just around the corner. That threat made opposition captains and bowlers think, rethink, and overthink their plans against him. Luck, too, played its part. Raza survived chances in the 40s in both ODIs against Bangladesh but as the saying goes, fortune favors the brave. And Raza has been brave.
What has made this success sweeter for Raza is how it has helped his team, and how he has overcome personal difficulties. Last year, Raza had a bone marrow infection in his right shoulder that was suspected to be cancerous. His return three months later was fraught with doubt because he wasn’t sure whether he could bowl or even throw properly. Raza changed his bowling action to accommodate the problem, and he has recovered to a great degree.
Now, he is in line to win his third successive Player-of-the-Series/Tournament award. If he does, he will become only the third Zimbabwean to win four series awards, after Heath Streak and Andy Flower. In a recent interview, Raza said he never compares himself to those legends, including Brendan Taylor, but his performances do warrant some comparison.
Flower’s 540 runs against India in the 2000-01 Test series certainly comes to mind. He rose to No. 1 in the ICC Test rankings later that year, and is considered Zimbabwe’s greatest batter of all time. Taylor’s two centuries in the 2015 ODI World Cup, averaging over 72 in the tournament, were celebrated, while Neil Johnson had a dreamy 1999 World Cup campaign. Current coach Dave Houghton played historic knocks, so did Duncan Fletcher way back in 1983.
Zimbabwe’s struggles in the last 15 years add more sheen to Raza’s runs and wickets. They don’t play a lot of high-profile cricket: they haven’t toured England since 2003, and Australia are hosting them for the first time this year since 2004. The ICC had even suspended Zimbabwe briefly. They failed to qualify for the 2019 World Cup and the 2021 T20 World Cup.
Raza is now giving Zimbabwe cricket fans something to cheer about, and his form bodes well ahead of tougher assignments against India and Australia later this month, but breaking Bangladesh’s run of five straight ODI series wins is an achievement too. Raza did it without most of Zimbabwe’s senior players around him but his form helped the other batters: Innocent Kaia and Chakabva both scored their maiden ODI tons in this series.
Raza’s personal success is a fine example of perseverance and self-belief shining through. But his success has led to success for Zimbabwe. And that’s perhaps the biggest deal. — ESPNCricinfo.