Match Analysis

Raza embodies Zimbabwe's mission to make the Super 12s

Allrounder is in the form of his life with the bat, and thriving with a new bowling action, too

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
"I won't be celebrating this victory," Sikandar Raza told Ian Bishop immediately after Zimbabwe beat Ireland in their T20 World Cup opener. Except he did.
Fifteen minutes before the match ended, Raza completed the catch that gave Zimbabwe the ninth Irish wicket and Blessing Muzarabani, his third. Raza was at backward point when Mark Adair created too much room for himself to properly hit a slower ball on fourth stump and tamely lobbed it to the fielder instead. The catch was fairly routine but the Irish lower order was delaying a Zimbabwe triumph and Raza roared in relief before being surrounded by his smiling team-mates.
Their celebration provided a reminder that this Zimbabwe side has learnt to have fun again, even though they're taking the first round of the T20 World Cup entirely seriously. They didn't travel to Australia to play just three matches and everyone from coach Dave Houghton to captain Craig Ervine and now Raza has emphasised that they'll only consider themselves part of the tournament if they get to the Super 12s. And on the evidence of the first game, they have the ingredients, and at least one very special one, that can help them get there.
Raza has emerged as their superstar and is having the kind of year cricketing dreams are made of. He has scored three hundreds in six ODI innings and five fifties in nine T20I innings which puts him sixth on this year's highest run-scorers' list, with the second-highest strike rate among the top 10 - 154.52.
He has been an international cricketer for nearly 10 years and he is batting like it, with authority and control. But also there's an ebullience to his strokeplay which can be traced back to the new coach. "He [Houghton] has given us freedom. He has allowed us to bloom and play with responsibility and freedom," Raza said.
But not at all costs.
"We enjoy that freedom but it comes with accountability as well and we want that. We don't have to have that freedom that turns over towards reckless[ness]. We've taken it upon ourselves as senior guys and said as much as Dave has given us freedom, we will take accountability for that freedom as well."
Houghton has cultivated a "DavBall", if you will, style of play which encourages his batters to play expansively and without fear that a mistake could get them dropped from the side. This is why they never took a backwards step against Ireland, whose plan to bounce out the opposition backfired.
According to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, Raza scored exactly half his runs - 41 - with the pull shot. Zimbabwe's line-up as a whole scored 77 runs off the pull, and 111 off the pull and cut combined. "It's a risk-reward thing," Raza said. And some of those risks brought handsome rewards.
When Raza hit the innings' first six, he sent a Curtis Campher short ball to square leg. There was a fielder stationed there but he backed himself to clear him and he did. Later in the same over, Raza hit a Campher offcutter wide of deep backward square. A fielder ran around but couldn't get to it.
Raza's ability to time the ball well enough for it to reach the boundary, even on big outfields, and his strength in clearing the rope hasn't come about by accident. "A lot of these things we speak about happen behind the scenes. It's how I train and what mindset I have when I go into the nets," he said. "What we see in the match - that's showtime. A lot of the planning, the work, and what is required during the match is done behind the scenes in the nets. If I have to put it down to something, it's how I train that allows me to play my game slightly better."
An even better example of the work Raza is doing is not to be found in his batting but his other skillset: his bowling. After undergoing surgery to remove a malignant tumour from the bone marrow in his shoulder, he was faced with a choice: give up bowling, or change his action. That classical offspinner's action.
Raza knew it would take a lot of time - 18 months - and a lot of effort. He put it all in and is now almost unrecognisable. His run-up is more front on. And he starts with the ball behind his back, keeping his arm fairly straight throughout his delivery stride. If this reminds you a little of Sunil Narine, it's because the West Indian played a key role in the Raza redesign.
"I don't think I have any other option," Raza said. "After those two surgeries, I lost a lot of strength in my shoulder. I couldn't really get my hand up and when I did, I felt like there was not a lot of zip on the ball. The ball wasn't coming out at a pace I wanted. Sunil has played a huge role. I was at CPL and I was watching him very closely and bugging him, asking him a lot of questions."
Apart from ensuring he can contribute in both disciplines, which is what Raza wants to do, the other advantage of changing his action is that it allows him to hide the ball - which comes in quite handy now because he bowls a lot more than just offbreaks. Raza bowled three overs in Hobart and claimed the key wicket of George Dockrell with a ball that he flicked from the front of the hand, like a carrom ball.
"Just being an offspinner without any variation is quite hard to survive white-ball cricket. That thought led to the variations and again Sunil has played a huge role as well," he said. "I met him at BPL and had a very good chat with him. And now to see some of the variations coming out of the hand really nicely is quite pleasing."
Just before picking up his wicket, Raza had been off the field, tending to some cramp. "The body is just breaking up," he said, and then quickly found reasons other than age for the discomfort he was in. "I was a bit ill-disciplined with hydrating."
Monday was just the start for Zimbabwe. "When we qualified as much as we were happy to be here, we knew our journey is not done," Raza told Bishop and the host broadcaster. "The goal we have is to get into the Super 12s and take on some of the big teams and see where we go."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent