Every team needs a player for a crisis. For Zimbabwe, Sikandar Raza has often been that player. He bats anywhere from 1 to 7, is as electric and energetic at short cover as he is at deep midwicket and, against West Indies in Bulawayo on Friday, he even opened the bowling, playing an all-round hand in one of Zimbabwean cricket's finest come-from-behind wins.
Raza seems to score a lot of his runs when others haven't, and thrives on pressure. His first international innings of note was an 82 against India in 2013. No one else reached fifty that day. His third ODI ton, against New Zealand in August last year, rescued the team from 68 for 5, with Raza all the way down at No. 7, becoming the only Zimbabwe batsman to score a hundred from that position. Two months later, his busy 60 not out with Nos. 9 and 10 for company marshalled Zimbabwe to a nervous, narrow two-wicket win over Ireland in Harare.
Two weeks after that, he was at it again, against Afghanistan. Batting at No. 6, he entered in the 15th over with Zimbabwe rudderless at 45 for 4. He weathered some determined bowling, and a withering blow to the groin, to make 86 when no other batsman reached 30.
He has modestly summed up his batting technique as "see ball, hit ball, and try to survive", and though he is actually blessed with natural flair, some of his best knocks have been his ugliest, when he has had to restrain the inner fighter pilot - a position he was training for in Pakistan before an eye condition compelled him to make a switch to cricket - and fly a figurative Cessna 172 instead. With Zimbabwe slipping to 89 for 7 against West Indies, today was one of those days, as he ground his way to 76 not out from 103 deliveries, with just three fours.
"There's nothing wrong with saying it was an ugly innings - it may have been - but I think that's exactly what we needed," Raza said after Zimbabwe's win. "The flair will remain there. But you also have to show some responsibility when you've played 60 one-day internationals. I was the only senior guy out there, so in my head all I was thinking was that as long as I'm out there with these guys, I can help them to maybe build an innings, and we'll see what happens in the end. As long as we stay out there, we can give ourselves a fighting chance to win the game."
That very thing - a fighting chance to win the game - is something Raza seems to carry with him, whether he is slugging it out with the bat, twirling the ball down, or patrolling extra cover with his magnetic hands. His bowling, which involves as much bluff and belief as it does skill, was not quite as fluent as it could have been against West Indies, but if you were only watching the bowler you'd swear every delivery should have brought a wicket. Sharing the new ball with Tendai Chisoro, Raza leaked nine runs in his first over. His second, a maiden full of fizz and vim, was completed in under two minutes.
In his body language, one finds further clues to his singular enjoyment in the game, whatever the situation. In the field, he holds his head slightly forward, craning his neck as if to wedge himself right into the moment. He can rarely be found standing still. His habit is to take every drink, whether he is holding a bat, or in the field, down on one bended knee. Every achievement and milestone is acknowledged devoutly, with a glance into the heavens.
At a sodden Queens Sports Club against West Indies, there were a couple of one-kneed drinks breaks during his record 91-run stand for the 9th wicket with Chisoro. That partnership was the bedrock upon which was built a victory that ranks as one of Zimbabwe's unlikeliest. They've been in tight spots before, and come back from them. But one struggles to think of another occasion when they have sunk quite so deep into the mire, and managed to resurface in this fashion, rain and all, against a major cricketing nation. When Chisoro was named Man of the Match at the presentation ceremony, Raza was at the front of the Zimbabwe posse, clapping and cheering louder than anyone else. Despite his own top-scoring innings, he insisted that "credit goes to TC [Tendai Chisoro] for how he batted out there. He deserves all the credit."
That's another feature of his cricket: he backs his team-mates and revels in their successes, even the minor ones. During the tie against West Indies last weekend, he ran 20 or 30 metres in from his position at long off to shout congratulations and encouragement at Elton Chigumbura, on the other side of the field at deep midwicket, after a good stop.
He is also beloved by the fans. When he was placed at deep midwicket during Chris Mpofu's spell on Friday afternoon, the all-singing, all-dancing supporters there welcomed him with chants of "Raza, Raza, Raza!" With a smile and a wave, he acknowledged their warmth.
His family loves him too, and likewise there is a clear sense of Raza's devotion to them. "I've been short of runs for a long time," he admits. "What [this innings and the fifty last weekend] does for me, is maybe give me a bit of confidence. But what really matters is the joy that it brings to others. After all the sleepless nights that mom and dad had, and all those times they were up late at night just to pray for me, because I was going through a rough patch. I can tell you that now they can have early nights at times, and they don't have to worry too much."
As long as they have got a player like Raza in their XI, whatever crises and collapses come their way, Zimbabwe should not worry too much either.
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town