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We have to give 15 million people something to cheer about - Raza

During their nail-biting victory against Afghanistan, Zimbabwe were lifted by the strong support from a huge crowd in Bulawayo, especially when their spirits were down

"Was that stressful?" Zimbabwe captain Graeme Cremer joked to the wide-eyed gaggle of local journalists after his team's nerve wracking two-run win over Afghanistan in Bulawayo.
Queens Sports Club doesn't have the gladiatorial grandeur of Wanderers, the storied history of Lord's, or the spectacle of Eden Gardens, but during Zimbabwe's backs-against-the-wall win the electric atmosphere rivalled any match to have taken place on more hallowed grounds. Zimbabwe's victory wasn't so much about individual performances, as it was the combined efforts of the fielders, bowlers and a broiling, festive crowd of spectators. It was high drama, and at the very end, with the tension rising to almost unbearable levels, Afghanistan blinked first.
"We knew we had a score on the board," Cremer said. "In competitions like this, it doesn't matter how small the target is, if you have runs on the board there's always that pressure.
"It's supposed to get tense, we're playing for our countries - both teams - and it has to get tense," said a breathless Sikandar Raza after the match. "We say that the team that panics first will lose. We just kept our composure. In that last over we thought 'we're right into it, one mistake or one bad shot … ' Let's just drag it into the last over, and if they panic they'll lose."
Defending a sub-par total, in the last over, against a team who are among the tournament favourites, Zimbabwe showed remarkable depth of character. "It's the fact that we have friendship, we have brothers in the team, and we don't let each other down," Raza said. "We fight until the very end, until the game is either lost or won. And today great character was shown."
Afghanistan went into that last over - bowled by Brian Vitori - needing just four runs to win, but with only nos. 9 and 11 to do it. Dawlat Zadran and Shapoor Zadran had shown tenacity to keep Afghanistan clinging on after being 177 for 9. After missing a swipe at the final delivery of the penultimate over, Shapoor had finally let his emotion show, angrily miming the shot he should have played.
When he edged the next ball he faced, Vitori's third in the last over, the floodgates opened, with hundreds of spectators rushing onto the field. The overjoyed masses that ended up in the middle were a vital part of what had just unfolded.
"They played a huge role today," Raza said of a capacity Queens crowd. "When my head was dropping, when Nabi's dropped catch was ringing in my head, and I wasn't getting a breakthrough and there were a few edges that dropped short or went to the boundary, the fans never let me drop my head. And not just me, everyone who went to the ropes today, the fans were cheering them on. They were the real 12th man today."
The energy of the crowd clearly spilled onto the field, and Zimbabwe were noticeably animated - even after Raza dropped a simple chance to give Mohamad Nabi a second life. He went on to make 51 before Raza removed him - of course.
"Nabi was a big fish, and I dropped him, and I kept saying to myself, and the skipper kept saying to me as well: 'You have to get him out now, and you will get him out'," Raza said. "And the fact that the whole team was behind me and motivating me, it gives you a bigger heart to try and get someone out and not bowl too defensively."
Raza kept tossing the ball up, and in his eighth over - the 37th of the innings - he ripped the heart out of Afghanistan's middle order. Nabi, Sharafuddin Ashraf, and Rashid Khan were dismissed in the space of six inspired deliveries. With the third dismissal, Raza sprinted out to deep midwicket, where the crowd was most concentrated, and the team and fans celebrated together.
"We took three chances, and those chances paid off in that over where we got three wickets, which certainly was quite pleasing," Raza said. "And humbling."
"I think that over from Raza, that's what we needed," said Cremer. "Because those guys can bat, and if they had just applied themselves they could have got that score easily. But Raza has been excellent for us. Not only with the bat, but he's turning into the bowler with a golden arm for us. That over was the turning point in the game."'
On a steaming hot late summer's day, Raza's exertions with the bat and in the field resulted in serious cramping, with the physio called onto the field and Raza eventually hobbling off for an over. But wild horses couldn't have stopped him from coming back, still limping, for the thrilling denouement.
"Skipper said to me 'see what you can do, if you can try and spend an over here and see how your body feels, otherwise you can go out', and I said 'I will not leave you here. And we'll see how far we can go.'"
For his 60 runs and three wickets, Raza was named Man of the Match. He was quick to share the glory. "I thought it should have been Blessing or BT (Brendan Taylor) sitting here now with the Man of the Match because I thought those two were the real heroes.
"It wasn't just me, it was everyone together. It was the character. The way the boys showed courage and we held our composure. Most importantly the way we stayed united out there. And that helped us to win the game.
"This victory should feel as sweet to the fans as it does to us. Maybe people from the outside don't realise how many things are hinging on these qualifiers for our families, for our futures. Most importantly, there are 15 million people [in Zimbabwe] looking for something to smile about, looking for something to give them hope, looking for happiness. We've just got to make sure that we give each of those 15 million people something to smile and cheer about."

Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Zimbabwe