Sikandar Raza: The Pakistani-born cricketer ruling the hearts of Zimbabwe | Cricket

Harare, Zimbabwe – Pakistan-born Zimbabwean cricketer Sikandar Raza has been on a fairytale career since 2022.

The 37-year-old has been nominated twice in a row for the ICC Twenty20 International Player of the Year award, as well as becoming the first player to score five consecutive T20 International (T20I) half-centuries.

Since January 2022, Raza has scored nearly 2,500 runs, including four centuries in One Day Internationals (ODIs) and T20Is at an average of over 40. He has also taken 71 wickets in the same period.

Raza has almost single-handedly rekindled Zimbabwe's interest in cricket and is easily the most admired sportsman in his adopted homeland, a country where football rules the roost.

It's not just his numbers that praise him. The adoration of the crowds at sold-out Zimbabwe international cricket matches over the past two years is what completes the story.

“Monya”, a folk song originally composed for a revered former captain of Zimbabwe's biggest football club, has now become an anthem for Raza when he sings. Former Dynamos FC captain Murape Murape's nickname is replaced with “Raza” when the special performance resonates in the cricket stadiums of Harare or Bulawayo.

The rest of the lyrics of this simple tune remain the same, melodically declaring that their hero is not only wonderful, like a delicious local brand of coffee creamer, but also so good that it's as if his entire body is covered in this tasty milk powder. that they simply love so much.

The once shy part-time Pakistani cricketer is now proud to call himself a Zimbabwean. It is a place he has called home for the last two decades and now leads the country in T20Is.

The all-rounder was born in Sialkot, a city renowned as Pakistan's sporting goods manufacturing hub in the northeast of the country, and has fond memories of growing up there.

“My first years in Pakistan were studies, studies, studies,” Raza told Al Jazeera. “Street cricket was a big part of my early life. “We used to enjoy street cricket with tennis balls hit and that was how cricket started for me.”

How an 'ordinary player' became Zimbabwe's best

Raza moved from Pakistan to Zimbabwe in 2003 with his parents. She soon went to Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, where she graduated with a bachelor's degree in software engineering.

Those who praise him in the stadium would not know that Raza's talents would never have been so intensely savored if he had not decided to suspend his studies to pursue a career in cricket. He stumbled upon the sport and later realized that he was actually good at it.

“I didn't really think that cricket would be my true calling because I only had one year, in 2009, to make a decision,” Raza recalled.

“If cricket hadn't worked out that year, I would return to Scotland to do my master's degree in software engineering. I took a gap year and tried cricket. “I guess I was lucky and cricket worked out so I didn’t have to go back to do my masters.”

Raza used to play club cricket while studying in Scotland and on holiday in Zimbabwe. But he had a carefree approach to the game. Understandably so for someone focused on a different career path.

Many who saw him play in those days did not see the characteristics of a professional cricketer.

“Raza was just an ordinary player when he started in club cricket,” said former Zimbabwe coach Stephen Mangongo. “But what caught my attention was his energy, his insatiable appetite for training and his desire to learn.”

Raza nods his head.

“I didn't think I was going to be an international cricketer either,” he admits. “For me, cricket was just about enjoying life. You need an activity, a healthy hobby. Instead of staying in bed and doing nothing. “Cricket has always been a passion for me, a source of happiness.”

Raza doesn't admit it, but the sudden urge to play international cricket for Zimbabwe was brought about by the realization that if he really tried, not many players in the country during that period were better than him.

Sports journalist Blessing Maulgue, a former Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) official, witnessed the early stages of Raza's career.

“The first time I saw him bat was in an Alexandra Sports Club league match,” Maulgue recalled.

“He didn't make a lot of runs, but he was very aggressive and pushed some limits. We talked after the game and Raza said that he played just for fun.

After becoming a citizen of Zimbabwe, Raza made his international debut in 2013. From an aspiring fighter pilot and an underrated club cricketer, he managed to transform himself into one of the best white-ball cricketers in the world.

“The idea was just to see who was in front of me. “The determination was always to be the best in the country.”

It has been 11 years, 240 games and more than 7,000 races in all formats, and the respect and admiration for Raza is enormous among his teammates, as Sean Williams testifies.

“It's very difficult to put into words how Raz has become this type of cricketer,” Williams told Al Jazeera.

“He has become a great player. Watching him when he first came in was exciting, he was fearless and that's what the game is about.”

“A really good human being”

It's not just the races and grounds that earn him praise and love from those around him.

“Raza hasn't just developed on the cricket field – he's a really good human being,” Williams said.

“What has helped you? [while playing] International and franchise cricket around the world is his faith. He keeps his faith above all. There are many things that people don't see about Raza. Things he does: cancer foundations, orphanages, all those things that are not seen. To do this he gives up his free time.

“When he comes home to see his family, he will only be home for two or three days. He goes to see these children who are sick, children who have nothing, and he gives them something. He spends his time with them. For me that is priceless, it says a lot about him as a human being.”

A quick look at the outfits Raza has worn during her career and it's clear why she doesn't spend much time at home. He has played over 220 domestic T20s and almost 250 List A matches, representing over 25 teams and franchises.

While franchise cricket gives him ample opportunity to play the game he loves amid Zimbabwe's limited international outings, there is another reason why he loves plying his trade around the world.

Raza is grateful to be able to fund his philanthropic activities with profits from T20 leagues around the world. With the cricket calendar filled with many T20 leagues, cricketers can earn a decent amount.

The money is good and life on the road is fun. But it does take a physical toll on the players.

“We travel a lot in franchise cricket. We are jumping from one plane to another, especially if you also play international cricket,” Raza added.

“Sometimes it's hard on the body. People think it's a pampered lifestyle. He is spoiled. We are blessed. The hotels are nice, the food is good and the quality of cricket is good. The advantages that come with playing franchise cricket are nice. It seems like a glamorous life, but believe me, it is not as glamorous as it seems from the outside.”

Flying the Chevron flag

With better performances came the captain's armband of the T20 team. However, under his captaincy, Zimbabwe failed to qualify for this year's T20 World Cup, the second time the team has failed to reach a major global event since 2019.

Raza was not a teenage sensation and was closer to 30 when he made his debut.

He doesn't have many years left on the cricket field.

Two-time World Cup-winning Australia captain Ricky Ponting praised Raza during his breakthrough year in 2022.

“He plays with a youthful exuberance; he looks like he's 26 again,” Ponting said in an interview with the ICC during the 2022 T20 World Cup.

“[He is] One of those players who want the big stage and when they get there they are not going to let him escape. He has been leading from the front.”

Everything indicates that Raza will continue to be the captain. With the Zimbabwe team in transition, ZC hopes that Raza will continue to be part of the team to inspire the next generation, possibly until the 2027 ODI World Cup. Along the way, Zimbabwe will miss Raza in some games as he remains one of the most sought after all-rounders in T20 cricket franchise.

But even when he's not playing for Zimbabwe, his ardent fans follow his journey as he flies the Chevron flag on the international stage. After all, he is the country's biggest cricket exporter in recent years and perhaps also its red five-pointed star on the flag.

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