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'Want this to be a new beginning for us, a fresh start' - Lalchand Rajput

Zimbabwe coach admits that recent developments have been disturbing for the players, but expects the team to make a big statement in the tri-series in Bangladesh

Mohammad Isam
Mohammad Isam
Lalchand Rajput joined the Zimbabwe team after their failure to qualify for the 2019 World Cup

Lalchand Rajput joined the Zimbabwe team after their failure to qualify for the 2019 World Cup  •  Getty Images

You're the head coach of an international team. You do what you can, within your means and resources, to make the team as good as it can be, but things outside your control lead to the team being suspended from the international game. What do you do then? Lalchand Rajput, the Zimbabwe coach, has what he calls a simple motto: "Be positive, look ahead, and think about what you want to achieve. That's it."
As things stand, the Zimbabwe men's and women's cricket teams are suspended by the ICC. The reason is a spat between Zimbabwe Cricket and the country's Sports and Recreation Commission. The conflict, based on what we know, has been resolved. The ICC decision stands, but if everyone in Zimbabwe plays by the rules, that could change in the not-too-distant future.
The players, of course, have been hit hard, and they have made their displeasure public. Sikandar Raza, the senior allrounder, has been dropped from the squad for the T20I tri-series in Bangladesh - with Afghanistan as the third team - because of disciplinary reasons, while Hamilton Masakadza, the captain, has announced his desire to quit after the series because "with Zimbabwe barred from [ICC T20 World Cup Qualifier in Dubai next month], I feel the time is right to shift the focus to the next generation". It can't be easy under the circumstances, and Rajput admits that it isn't.
"Obviously everyone was worried, because no one knew what was going to happen. The players were disturbed because it came as a surprise. We had just landed in Netherlands [for a white-ball series], and before the first game we got the news. So everybody was worried, understandably," Rajput told ESPNcricinfo. "It was a difficult phase, that tour. But we tried to motivate the players, we tried to … I told the players to leave these things behind, and once at the ground, focus on the job. I think we have overcome that. We want this to be a new beginning for us, I'd say, a fresh start, and I hope we move forward now.
"We will, of course, miss Raza, because he has been one of our better players. But we have to move on, move forward with the players we have. Whatever team we have got, we must utilise to the best potential."
Yes, things have happened back home, but that's not really in our control. But that's why we have to try and be very positive, look ahead. Hopefully, there is a future, because that's what we are here for
Fortunately for the team, their trip to Bangladesh wasn't cancelled, and they now have a chance to make a statement in the T20Is in Dhaka before travelling to Singapore to take on the home side and Nepal in another T20I tri-series.
"A lot of eyes are on Zimbabwe cricket - that's what I have told the players. Everyone is watching us, so we have to make sure we do well; if you do well, things will change," Rajput said. "In cricket, the bottom line is performance. It's a good platform for us, that we are getting to play. We have got a nice mix of young and experienced players, and they are hungry. They want to perform, and this is the best platform. So, hopefully, we do well, and do well in Singapore as well."
It should help. After all, bar a 1-1 Test series in Bangladesh late last year, it's mostly been rough going for Zimbabwe since Rajput's appointment was confirmed, in August 2018. They swept UAE 4-0 in an ODI series at home in April this year, but have lost everything else in the format - in South Africa and Bangladesh last year and in Netherland and Ireland this year. And in T20Is, the record is one win and four losses in six matches.
As things turned pear-shaped, first at home and then in the form of the ICC suspension, everything seemed to be in a state of disarray; emotions among players ran high, with questions about the team's - and their - future uppermost in everyone's mind.
While accepting that the circumstances - "not in our control" - made things tough for him and the players, Rajput, whose last gig before joining Zimbabwe was with the Afghanistan team, said he just shifted to what was his "speciality", man-management.
"Yes, things have happened back home, but that's not really in our control. But that's why we have to try and be very positive, look ahead. Hopefully, there is a future, because that's what we are here for. You can't think about the things that have happened. You do, but you have to look ahead too. We must all think of what we are going to do next. My motto is simple: be positive, look ahead, and think about what I want to achieve.
"In international cricket, the mindset is the main thing. A player is judged by the nine inches above his shoulders. If you have a good head, a strong mind, you can conquer anything. Look at Steven Smith. His technique isn't what coaches teach you, but look at the runs he has scored in England. It's because he is mentally strong. That's all the matters. Technique will take you only so far. After that, it's the mindset. It's the self-belief.
"I said that to the Afghanistan players too, and that's what I am telling the players in Zimbabwe. If you have the self-belief, that I can do it in the middle, then you can. As a coach, my job is to give them the self-belief, the confidence. I can give those inputs, what it requires to perform in the middle. After that, of course, it's over to the players. Whatever the conditions and circumstances, you have to have the courage. If you have the courage, you can conquer anything. No backward steps."
In Bangladesh now, Zimbabwe are the lowest-ranked of the three competing teams: 14th, with the home side at No. 10 and Afghanistan three spots higher. Rajput is, however, targeting a final appearance.
"The pressure is on Afghanistan and Bangladesh. We have nothing to lose, and we have to play fearlessly. We have to give our best in every game, and if we can show some self-belief, we can do anything we want on the ground," Rajput said. "We have to reach the final, that's the main thing. We go one game at a time, take stock after each game, and see what we need to do. In T20s, I believe there are no favourites. You do well on the day, and you win. That's what we have seen in T20 competitions. We are as good as any other team in T20s, and if we play to our potential, we can win matches.
"We have a good bunch of players coming through the ranks now, and we have the regular seniors too. This is a transition period for us, and hopefully, we will overcome it, and you'll see a better Zimbabwe team in the near future."
Rajput has just under two years to go on his contract but Masakadza, who took over as captain across formats in February this year, won't be a part of the remainder of Rajput's time with the side.
"He has served Zimbabwe cricket for a long, long time," Rajput acknowledged. "He has been an ambassador for Zimbabwe cricket, he has done yeomen service for us. His performances are right up there, they speak for his skills and ability. As a coach, I have had a wonderful time working with him, and I hope he leaves on a high note. If we can win the final, that would be a perfect farewell for him. That's what we are hoping for."

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84