Big fish, small pond
"When I left for the ground this morning, I told my family I would hit Shoaib Akhtar for a six today." Not many batsmen in the world would begin their day with such a prophecy and then see it fulfilled, but then not many batsmen are Rizwan Cheema.
The 30-year-old Cheema has taken Canadian cricket by storm - first by smashing West Indies around during the summer, and then demonstrating his immense hitting prowess against Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe in the recently concluded T20 Canada tournament.
Associate countries are rarely blessed with players who have such an immediate impact on the team, but from the moment Cheema dispatched West Indies' Jerome Taylor for his first six in a 61-ball 89 in his second ODI for Canada, there has been an air of expectancy around him.
Canada has no shortage of cricket fans but the vast majority would struggle to name a single player in the national team. Cheema's heroics have gone some way in building a following for Canadian cricket, but at the moment it is almost exclusively tied to his fortunes.
The buzz he creates is similar to that which greets Shahid Afridi when he steps out to bat. It isn't the expectation of a knock laced with deft touches, precision cuts or elegant drives; it is primal: the crowd wants Cheema to smash the ball out of the ground, and in his short career he has rarely disappointed.
In the recently concluded T20 tournament, which also featured two of history's greatest hitters, Afridi and Sanath Jayasuriya, it was Cheema who emerged the home-run king, with ten sixes - the most in the tournament. Cries of "Boom-Boom Cheema" were heard whenever he walked out to bat and the player admits to getting a kick out of it, especially with Afridi around.
Born and raised in Pakistan, Cheema only ever played cricket at club level, which he sought to continue doing after he moved to Canada six years ago. "I love playing cricket, so I just wanted to find a team in Toronto that I could play for recreationally. I didn't think that I'd end up playing for Canada".
It took a couple of years for Cheema to make a name for himself as an allrounder in the Toronto and District Cricket Association league, which besides being the best in Canada is also the biggest league in North America. While his medium-pace bowling was certainly useful, it was his tendency to belt the ball into orbit that really caught the eye of observers around the league.
Following his exploits in international cricket, there are now a number of people in Toronto's cricket circles who claim to have discovered Cheema during his earliest days in the league. But it wasn't until 2005 that he turned in a noteworthy season, scoring 627 runs (with three centuries) in 14 matches at an average just under 50, and taking 24 wickets at 13.12. After a disappointing 2006, Cheema established himself as the league's most dangerous batsman the following year with two big hundreds: 161 off a scarcely believable 61 balls (eight fours, 15 sixes), and an effort of 145 with 15 fours and nine sixes. It was clear that Toronto's amateur weekend cricket league would not be enough for Cheema and at this point he certainly was on Cricket Canada's radar, but eligibility issues stood in the way of an international debut until this summer.
|"By the grace of God I know that I can make ten runs in an over whenever I want"|
Canadian teams of the recent past were overly dependent on John Davison for runs, a tendency which has continued, with the burden now on Cheema. In the seven international matches he has played for Canada, Cheema has scored three half-centuries, all against Full Member countries. In that period no other Canadian player has passed 50 even once. Since his debut Cheema has only had one real failure with the bat, when he was dismissed for 2 runs in the third-place match against Zimbabwe in the T20 tournament. Predictably Canada collapsed, folding for 75 all out. Cheema however is loath to criticise his team-mates. "The players are all good, in my opinion, but I think they just need to be a little more confident."
When pressed if the pressure to do the bulk of the scoring for the team is an annoyance, his reply is typical. "No, not at all. In fact, I always tell my partner at the other end to just be easy and relax and not worry about the runs, I'll handle that. By the grace of God I know that I can make ten runs in an over whenever I want."
It may sound cocky, but Cheema does not come across as arrogant, just someone who believes in his own abilities. And it is this confidence that makes him tick, whether he is muscling Shoaib Akhtar away for a low, flat six or charging out of his crease to clobber Ajantha Mendis out of the park.
Fearless to a fault, Cheema admits that his targeting of big-name bowlers is deliberate. "Anyone can score a single off Shoaib Akhtar, but not everyone can hit him for a six. I like doing things that not everyone can do."
His 43-ball 68, scored off the likes of Dilhara Fernando and Mendis, was also pleasing: "I feel very good about the innings against Sri Lanka. It was amazing. If the team is good you feel better about the runs that you score. I feel happier after I've scored runs off better bowlers."
With Cheema in sparkling form it is unfortunate that personal reasons have kept him out of Canada's squad for the West Indies Regional Tournament in Guyana later this month. Notwithstanding the bounty of international cricket this season in Toronto, playing for Canada ultimately means that opportunities to take on the world's better bowlers are few and far between outside of the World Cup. But maybe not in Cheema's case. There is some talk of IPL interest in him, which is simply astounding for a largely unknown amateur cricketer from an Associate country. If he does make it to India, Rizwan Cheema may not be unknown for much longer.
Faraz Sarwat is the cricket columnist for the Toronto Star and the author of The Cricket World Cup: History, Highlights, Facts and Figures