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Sikandar Raza: 'Mentally, we are in a better place at the moment than some big teams are'

The Zimbabwe allrounder believes his side's fearless, team-first brand has them well-placed to upset more calculations at the T20 World Cup

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Sikandar Raza has been front and centre of everything good about Zimbabwe cricket of late  •  AFP/Getty Images

Sikandar Raza has been front and centre of everything good about Zimbabwe cricket of late  •  AFP/Getty Images

The first thing you notice is the despair, and how oddly familiar it looks. Sikandar Raza has just played a loose shot to a Josh Davey short ball, nicking off to the wicketkeeper. Just half an hour later, he will be named Player of the Match; he's registered bowling figures of 4-0-20-1, and his 23-ball 40 has put Zimbabwe on the brink of Super 12 qualification.
But his look, and that persistent anguished visage, doesn't just represent disappointment, it reveals trauma. He got out at a comparable stage of a game in a vital World Cup qualifier, against the UAE in Harare, mistiming a shot he knew he should have put away. On that occasion, Zimbabwe ended up falling short by three runs and missing out on the 2019 World Cup.
It is a memory that left psychological scars seared deep in the minds of all Zimbabwean players involved that day, and in Hobart, Raza's reaction showed how quickly they can again be brought to the surface.
"The demons came back straightaway as soon as I got out," Raza tells ESPNcricinfo. "I had Craig on the other end. In that game, I had Sean on the other end. The first thing that went through my head was 'not now, not again'. The second thing I was annoyed about was it wasn't a ball I should have gotten out to. I should have executed slightly better."
We're sat in his hotel lobby in Hobart. It's barely 36 hours since Raza was a picture of despair, but it's a bright and warm afternoon, and those emotions seem to have melted away into the deep past now that a balm has finally been applied to an open wound from four years ago. The chief selector, several of his teammates, and, of course, Dave Houghton walk past on a few occasions, their faces breaking out into contented grins as they walk past him.
Houghton drops by at one point and asks about a neck scan he's just returned from after an impact injury in the game against Scotland. They have a convivial chat, share a joke and a laugh, and Raza sits back down. It doesn't come off as a tense, formal interaction between an austere 65-year-old former policeman from Bulawayo and a man born to a businessman in Sialkot three decades later. They're chatting less like a coach and a pupil, and more as friends.
"If your team's needs come before your personal needs, you will find your needs being looked after anyway. The problem will start when a culture becomes slightly selfish and people are looking after their own needs, rather than thinking about what the country needs"
The change in Zimbabwe's outlook and form since Houghton's arrival is quite something to behold. In a game where statistical edges through exhaustive, Moneyball-style analytical research has become something of a trade secret, neither Houghton nor any of his players pretend anything as complicated explains Zimbabwe's uptick in fortune.
"That obvious change [of coach] is the answer [to explain our success]. The fact that we've got Dave Houghton now makes such a huge difference," Raza says. "We had some top-quality cricketers that are not here and you cannot take that away from them. But I feel that in this World Cup we are a lot more united than we ever have in the previous World Cups. That is our strength."
"All I've done up until now is basically said to them that I want them to play fearless cricket," Houghton had told ESPNcricinfo earlier this year. "There will be no recriminations if they make mistakes. Making mistakes is a good way of learning. But I want them to go out and play with their skills because we'll never know how good we are until we actually put our skills on the table. I think that has been the turning point."
In the few months since, people have begun to find out how good they are, with wins against Bangladesh, Australia and, of course, Pakistan marking a dramatic turnaround since Houghton's arrival.
With the team's success, the players have begun to pull together. "When it comes to the national team, it is never about me," Raza says. "We have bought into a team plan and my job is to win the game for the country.
"I learned something through T20 franchise cricket and I'm a big believer in it. If your team's needs come before your personal needs, you will find your needs being looked after anyway. The problem will start when a culture becomes slightly selfish and people are looking after their own needs, rather than thinking about what the country needs, which is what needs to be done whether you have bat or ball in hand. If you are constantly thinking about what my team needs of me and you're constantly trying to achieve that, you'll be fine."
While keeping things simple has paid dividends for Raza, and Zimbabwe, he doesn't pretend that diversity of viewpoints surrounding the nous of an all-out attack doesn't exist altogether. In Zimbabwe's first-round game against West Indies, Zimbabwe got their chase off to a flying start, but with the rate dropping down below seven, they continued with a high-risk approach that belied the modest nature of the target. When Raza fell, playing arguably the flashiest shot of the lot, there were no specialist batters to follow, and Zimbabwe fell to 64 for 5, and subsequently to a big defeat.
"We have a pretty simple plan. We don't complicate cricket. Coach Davie has asked us to play a certain way. And I went to him and I said, 'Coach, I just want to understand your plan better. We all can't play one way. If the team is 30 for 3, I cannot be playing a role that I should be playing when we're 120 for 2. I feel like the years that I've served cricket for, I'm good enough to play any role my team wants or demands of me. So I can assure you it's not like I want to move away from your plan. But I can guarantee you whatever my team needs will always come first.'
"So sometimes you go ultra-aggressive. But it's not just about hitting every ball or seeing the ball and hitting it. You kind of have an idea where the bowler is looking to get you out. It's not just about close your eyes and we'll see what happens."
"When we left Zimbabwe, our dream wasn't just to qualify, it was just stage one. Stage two of this plan was that we're going to roll some big teams. We're not going in there to just merely exist"
By all accounts, Raza is one of the leaders in that Zimbabwe dressing room and, at 36, is looking in the form of his life at the tournament that might end up defining his legacy. In five matches at this World Cup, he's the fourth-highest wicket-taker with nine scalps, his economy rate of 6.60 superior to all three men above him on the list. In addition, he also has 145 runs at a strike rate of 145.00, the fifth-highest tally of the tournament. He is, currently, far and away the most prolific T20 allrounder at his World Cup, and all at a time when many cricketers turn their thoughts to post-retirement plans.
He doesn't want to talk about those, though, one of the few subjects the otherwise garrulous Raza is reluctant to broach. "My goals and my dreams will remain with me," he says, suddenly a picture of solemnity. "You will just find out one day. I don't like to share what I'm going to do, what my goals are, what I want to achieve when I'm going to leave cricket. But that is something I've written. And I look at it and I read those notes that I've made. There are targets and goals that I've set for the immediate and long-term future. But that is for me and me only."
The T20 needle has shifted overwhelmingly towards match-up analysis, where certain bowlers target particular batters based on their record and ability against that particular skill, and vice versa. Bowling and batting plans have become so bespoke that Scotland bowler Mark Watt carried a strategy cheat sheet with him during his Player-of-the-Match performance against West Indies.
Raza, however, questions how long this ultra-individualised tactic will survive in T20 cricket. "I do buy into that, but in two to three years' time, a lot more of these match-ups will disappear and it will be skill versus skill. If you're good enough to bowl to a rightie as well as a leftie, then both of them become your match-ups. For me, cricket is skill versus skill. I bring my skill to the table against the leftie or the rightie, and if you're good enough, you're good enough. If somebody takes you apart, then you go back to the nets. You say, 'This is how he batted. This is where my skill lacked. I'm going to work on this skill so the next time he doesn't do that.' This game will always be about skill versus skill. Whoever brings his skill to the table better than the opposition will win."
It's perhaps fair to wonder if his view is shaped by his team's requirement for him to be almost everything against everybody, bat and bowl wherever and whenever the team needs. Because the obvious counterpoint is it's unrealistic to expect that in three years, every T20 player ends up well-rounded enough to eliminate the need for individual match-up analysis, even if Raza himself has aspired to get himself to that stage.
"A lot of improvement must come in the nets, with a clear plan of how somebody is getting me out. I don't think I had a great record against left-arm spinners a few years ago. I even went into a few meetings and I said I want to have an analysis done on me. How would the opposition look to get me out? Instead of just improving against a left-hander, I just said that if I have skills, then I'll be good enough against all bowling. I just have to improve my skills. So my whole mindset shifted."
The jury's out on whether it works for less gifted cricketers, but for him, and Zimbabwe, Raza's form has been like manna from heaven. His bowling performance to help secure victory against Pakistan put Zimbabwe in realistic semi-final contention, and even though he was speaking a few days before that win, it's evident his ambitions didn't just end with the Super 12s qualification.
"My job isn't to have my name shining. If my country's name shines, my name will shine automatically. So for me, I buy into a team plan, and what needs to be done for my team to win the game. And if it happens to be me on that day, then so be it.
"When we left Zimbabwe, our dream wasn't just to qualify, it was just stage one. Stage two of this plan was that we're going to roll some big teams. We're not going in there to merely exist. I actually think people are happy watching Zimbabwe now, the brand of cricket we play. Not just with a bat or ball in hand. Fielding, energy, passion. Whatever they see, they're liking it, I feel. So we're going to bring our brand of cricket tomorrow and see what happens. Mentally, we are in a lot better place at the moment than some of the big teams are."
A week on, it's impossible not to notice how prescient those words in that Hobart hotel lobby have turned out to be. Like the man, Raza's thoughts appear to be aging impressively well.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000