Sikandar Raza: The Pakistan-born cricketer who rules Zimbabwean hearts

A delayed plunge into the game has not curbed Raza’s enthusiasm to be one of the greatest ever cricketers from Zimbabwe, his adopted homeland.

Zimbabwe's Sikandar Raza
Sikandar Raza has turned himself into one of the leading T20 cricketers in the world and the poster boy of Zimbabwe cricket [File: Ishara S Kodikara/AFP]

Harare, Zimbabwe – Sikandar Raza, Zimbabwe’s Pakistan-born cricketer, has been on a fairytale run since 2022.

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

Since January 2022, Raza has scored almost 2,500 runs, including four centuries in one-day internationals (ODIs) and T20Is at an average of more than 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 sportsperson in his adopted homeland, a country where football rules the roost.

It is not just his numbers that sing his praise. The adoration of crowds at Zimbabwe’s sold-out international cricket matches in the last two years is what completes the story.

“Monya”, a popular chant originally composed for a revered former captain of Zimbabwe’s biggest football club, has now been turned into an anthem for Raza when he is on song. The nickname for Dynamos FC’s former captain Murape Murape is replaced by “Raza” when the special rendition reverberates around cricket stadiums in Harare or Bulawayo.

The rest of the lyrics of this simple tune remain the same, melodically declaring that their hero is not only wonderful – just like a delightful local brand of coffee creamer – but also so good it is like his whole body is coated in this tasty powdered milk that they just 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 past two decades and he now leads the country in T20Is.

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

“My early life in Pakistan was studies, studies and studies,” Raza told Al Jazeera. “Street cricket was a big part of my early life. We used to enjoy our street cricket with taped tennis ball and that’s how cricket started for me.”

How an ‘ordinary player’ became Zimbabwe’s best

Raza moved from Pakistan to Zimbabwe in 2003 with his parents. He was soon off to Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in software engineering.

Little would those singing his praise at the grounds know that Raza’s talents might never have been savoured so earnestly had he not chosen to put his studies on hold for a career in cricket. He stumbled upon the sport and realised later that he was actually good at it.

“I didn’t really think cricket would be my true calling because I only had one year, in 2009, to make up my mind,” Raza recalled.

“Had cricket not worked out that year, I was going back to Scotland for my master’s degree in software engineering. I took a gap year and tried cricket. I got lucky, I guess, and cricket worked out so I didn’t have to go back to do my master’s.”

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

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

“Raza was simply an ordinary player when he started club cricket,” former Zimbabwe coach Stephen Mangongo said. “But what struck me was his energy, unquenchable appetite for training and keenness to learn.”

Raza nods in agreement.

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

Raza won’t admit it but the sudden urge to play international cricket for Zimbabwe was sparked by a realisation that if he actually applied himself, not a lot of players in the country during that period were better than him.

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

“I first watched him bat in a league match for Alexandra Sports Club,” Maulgue recalled.

“He didn’t make a lot of runs, but he was very aggressive and smashed a few boundaries. We spoke after the match and Raza said he played just for fun.

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

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

Fast-forward 11 years, 240 matches and more than 7,000 runs across formats, respect and admiration towards Raza is huge among his teammates, as Sean Williams testifies.

“It’s very hard to put words together on how Raz has developed into this type of cricketer,” Williams told Al Jazeera.

“He has turned into one hell of a player. Watching him when he first came on, he was exciting to watch, he was fearless and that’s what the game is all about.”

‘A seriously good human being’

It is not just the runs and the wickets that win him praise and love from those around him.

“Raza has not only developed on the cricket field – he is a seriously good human being,” Williams said.

“What has helped him [while playing] international and franchise cricket around the world is his faith. He keeps his faith above everything. There are a lot of things that people don’t see about Raza. Things he does – cancer foundations, orphanages, all those things that are unseen. He gives up his free time for that.

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

A quick look at outfits that Raza has turned up for during his career and it is clear why he does not get to spend much time at home. He has played more than 220 domestic T20s and almost 250 List A matches, representing more than 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 that he is able to fund his philanthropy activities with his earnings from the T20 leagues around the world. With the cricket calendar filled up by the many T20 leagues, cricketers stand to earn a decent amount.

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

“We do travel a lot in franchise cricket. We are jumping from one plane to another, especially if you’re playing international cricket as well,” added Raza.

“It is tough on the body at times. People do think it’s a pampered lifestyle. It is pampered. We are blessed. The hotels are nice, the food is nice, the quality of the cricket is nice. The perks that come with playing franchise cricket are nice. It looks like a glamorous life, but trust me it is not as glamorous as it looks from outside.”

Flying the chevron flag

With improved performances came the captain’s armband for the T20 side. However, under his captaincy, Zimbabwe failed to qualify for this year’s T20 World Cup, the second time the side has not made it to a major global event since 2019.

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

He does not have a lot of years left on the cricket pitch.

Australia’s two-time World Cup-winning captain Ricky Ponting heaped praise on Raza during his breakout year in 2022.

“He plays with a youthful exuberance – it 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 that want the big stage and when they get there, they are not going to let it slip. He’s been leading from the front.”

Indications are that Raza will be retained as captain. With Zimbabwe’s team in transition, ZC hopes that Raza continues to be part of the side 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 franchise T20 cricket.

But even when he is 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 export in recent years and perhaps its red five-pointed star on the flag too.

Source: Al Jazeera