Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town
IRE v AFG (2)
Women's Hundred (1)
RL Cup (6)
Men's Hundred (1)
WI v NZ (1)
ENG v SA (1)
BDESH-A in WI (1)
CWC League 2 (1)
Before today, Zimbabwe hadn't won an international match in 13 attempts. Their last victory came against UAE at the World Cup. Prior to that, they'd gone 10 games without success since their historic upset of Australia almost a year ago in Harare. Off-field distractions and a background of racial tension might easily have knocked them off their game today. Something had to give. This was Zimbabwe's line in the sand.
"I think we were coming to a stage, and I've said out loud a couple of times as well, that there's a time where it has to come to an end," said Sikandar Raza, Zimbabwe's stand-in captain. "We're quite sick and tired of just competing every time against better nations. Today was one of those days where we just said 'this has to come to an end'."
Elton Chigumbura's injury meant that Raza led Zimbabwe today, and he wasn't given much time to prepare for the promotion. Only as late as the pre-match warm-up did it become clear that Chigumbura might have a problem with his hamstring.
Yet Raza brought a palpable energy and change in body language that seemed to spread through the entire team. He was constantly in the thick of things, in animated consultation with his bowlers and senior players during every over, and fine-tuning his field with precision. He also brought himself on to bowl at a crucial stage of the match, with India needing 45 from 36 with five wickets in hand. His two overs went for just nine runs, and he might have had a wicket too had Graeme Cremer held a diving catch at extra cover.
There's talk among the coaching staff that Raza could be a future captain and the difference he made to the team today suggests he could be an excellent choice. But such is his character that he point blank refused to take credit.
"Brother, you say I led the side, I didn't," Raza insisted. "I'll be honest with you, I didn't. My job was made easier by ten other blokes who were on the park with me. Everybody wants to win. When you've got ten other guys trying to pull in one direction, and if you're one guy and you're low on energy, there is so much energy around you, and a positive attitude around you, that it's difficult to fall into a bad place. It was quite nice that everyone was buzzing.
"Sean Williams is another guy who's got a lot of energy. Cremer has been bowling brilliantly. Suddenly then things start to happen. Even though after the first six overs they were 59 or 60, we believed we could get the job done. Our heads didn't dip down. For me that was the turning point. Everybody, even after six overs for 60 runs and one wicket knew that we're going to give these guys a tough time.
"One man can't do anything. It was all eleven of us. It took all eleven of us to win the game. So as much as it might look like it was me, it wasn't. I'll tell you I was the last guy. It was my team that actually got the job done for me."
Raza's performance as captain was all the more remarkable because he's done it very rarely in the past - a handful of games at the helm of Mashonaland Eagles in 2012, and for a Zimbabwe Cricket Chairman's XI last year. He looks a natural, and clearly puts his team ahead of personal ambitions.
"I enjoy playing for Zimbabwe and that's what it is,'' Raza said. ''If the captaincy comes with it then so be it, but as far as I know and as far as I care Elton is our national captain, and he has not just my support, he's got the full squad's support. But if I can contribute more, apart from the batting, the bowling and the fielding, then I'm happy to do that as well. But Elton stays, that's all I care [to say]."
Given the news that's emerged from Zimbabwe overnight, this might have been a very awkward day for Prosper Utseya. Yet if there was any tension within the team, it didn't show and there was nothing abnormal in the reception he got from the crowd when he walked out to bat. Utseya greeted non-striker Malcolm Waller with a friendly fist-bump and a tap on the rump with his bat, and everyone just got on with it. And as far as Raza was concerned, Zimbabwe had put any potential for scandal far out of their minds.
"To be honest, if there was any news that was bothering players I think we wouldn't have won the game. We didn't care what the news was. Some of us didn't even know what the news was to be honest. All we wanted to do was just go out there and prove a point, and that is that we can win a game. We were just competing for far too long, and it's time that comes to an end. It's time we start winning."
There have been times in the recent past when tensions had pulled Zimbabwe's team environment as taut as a drum. But today, they became an XI, and gave a glimpse of what was possible when each man played for the other, and for the team.
"As a team I think that's it," Raza said. "We have to move forward now. I said in the morning as well, this may be a spark that we needed. It's not just me. It's not just one guy out there. It's actually all 20 of us in the changing room including the technical staff that wants to put an end and wants to help get the best out of us so that we can win more games as a country."
Raza was asked what tasting victory after so long felt like: "I can't answer that," he said. "I think it's something that you need to see for yourself in the changing room. Our changing room, after a long time, is now bubbly and jumping, with joy and pictures and cameras. It's difficult to put feelings into words. Now that we have tasted that, I think the boys will remember this feeling. And they want to make sure they get that feeling again and again and again. And that would help us, as a team, to grow, and also for Zimbabwe to grow as well.
"It's up to us now to change. It's difficult to predict too much, but it has to change and that will start by winning one game. Because you can't win five at a time. For me, brother, now I'm just going to sit back and enjoy the moment with my team. Personally, and as a team as well, we're going to enjoy this as much as we possibly can for today."
As the sun set, with the ground darkening and emptying, Raza walked around the outfield alone, stopping first to talk to a child sitting alone at deep midwicket. He walked on, lingering at Castle Corner, the rowdy epicentre of crowd support at this match, where 10 or so well-watered fans were still cheering the win. They took some pictures, an autograph or two and a chat. As he walked back towards the change room, still alone, he stopped to talk to anyone who wanted his time, shaking hands and thanking the fans for their support. Before he'd left the field, a member of the ground staff rushed on to give him a bear hug. Bob Marley's Zimbabwe rang out around the ground across the PA. The words to its verses could not have been more apt.