"Everyone is going to die, but what better way is there?"
These were the words of Sikander Raza, the Zimbabwean cricketer, in an interview with ESPNCricinfo. He was talking about his friends who were martyred during an aircrash while manoeuvring a flight as fighter pilots.
Raza had never dreamt to be a cricketer. He was an aspiring fighter pilot at the age of 11 and joined an Air Force Cadet college in Pakistan after being shortlisted as one of 60 candidates amongst the 60,000 that applied. However, destiny had other ideas for this fighter. He failed an eye test after 10th, a medical condition which meant he could never realise his dream. Cricket still hadn't influenced him at that point. He went to a university in Glasgow, Scotland where he took up cricket. Finding that he had an aptitude for the sport, Raza went to Zimbabwe where his parents were abiding since 2002.
It would be safe to say that cricket found Raza than the other way around. Whatever the case, Zimbabwean cricket has benefited from a true fighter. The 31-year-old has become a mainstay in Zimbabwe's line-ups across formats. A batsman with some handy off-spinners, Raza has made a profound difference to Zimbabwe's batting in recent times.
The rise from mediocrity
A breeze of fresh air is sweeping Zimbabwean cricket at the moment after they beat Sri Lanka on their home turf (3-2) in the recently concluded One-Day series. That momentum seeped into their game in the one-off Test match as well with Zimbabwe racking up 356 in the first innings courtesy a Craig Ervine ton. Sri Lanka fought back conceding just a 10 run lead before having the visitors on the mat at 23/4.
This wasn't an unfamiliar situation for Zimbabwe to be in. They have struggled against top teams for a decade and have rarely put up a fight. But this time around they had fighters in the side. Sikander Raza, who had largely been a neglected force in Zimbabwe's line-up came to the fore with a maiden hundred in Test cricket. The lower order, inspired by the belief of their batting coach, Lance Klusener, fought towards a considerable lead. Raza was at the centre of it all with his 127 forming the platform for Zimbabwe's 377 in the second innings. That they went on to lose the match is an altogether different story. But the manner in which Zimbabwe fought holds good for their future.
This series has been a coming of age one for Raza. His 67 formed a vital part of Zimbabwe's win in the first ODI. He then produced a match-turning 3/21 before helping chase down 204 with a composed 27.
Ascend to senior player
At 31, Raza is assuming the role of a senior player in the side. He isn't averse to that having stood as captain in a T20 against India. By his own admission, he knew that he would be skippering only 50 minutes before the match as Elton Chigumbura injured himself. The notable point is that Zimbabwe went on to win the match, albeit against a second string Indian T20 side.
Although he was an integral part of Zimbabwe's squads since 2014, Raza hadn't quite punched above his weight to establish his credentials either as a batsman or as a bowler in the team. But fighters have a trait. They come hard at the opposition when the chips are down. They have a swag and a confidence that stems from an undying belief in their own abilities. Raza had that. He had that and more as he put his head down to play the innings of his life in the one-off Test against Sri Lanka. That Zimbabwe were wasting a golden opportunity to win a Test match in Sri Lanka's fort propelled him. He fought, like never before. There was enthusiasm, courage and determination in that knock from Raza.
He was at no time weighed down by the pressure and was visibly upset when Mark Waller played a horrible shot to end their 144 run partnership and rightly so. Zimbabwe had comeback from nowhere into the game and Waller's shot reeked irresponsibility.
All in stats
Although still in his honeymoon period in Test cricket (He has played just 7 Tests), Raza has already shown maturity and composure befitting his age. His average of 39.43 is testimony to his rising reputation in Zimbabwe. Coupled with an ability to bowl off-spinners, Raza is an all-rounder Zimbabwe cannot do without.
In ODIs, he is the only Zimbabwean with more than 1000 runs since the 2015 World Cup. In 43 matches since the event in Australia/New Zealand, Raza has scored 1141 runs at an average of 38.03, including 2 hundreds and seven half-centuries. He also has another hundred in ODI cricket which came prior to the World Cup. 20 sixes, also a Zimbabwean record, and a strike rate above 80 signify his importance to the team.
As Zimbabwe turn the clock back with performances like in the era of the Flower brothers, Raza will be a vital cog in the wheel with an undying fire in his belly and a will to fight till the last.