Living his dream, and his grandfather's - Sikandar Raza. © ICC

Living his dream, and his grandfather’s – Sikandar Raza. © ICC

Rarely have players from the Full Member nations been vocal about the system that hinders the progress of Associates. But Sikandar Raza, the Zimbabwe allrounder, did so with a soul-stirring speech during the World Cup Qualifier in March, and it made the cricketing world sit up and take notice.

Fresh off a much-deserved break at the Dhaka Premier League, Raza took time off to chat with Wisden India about the emotional speech, his evolution as a batsman, the silver lining in Zimbabwe Cricket, and more. Excerpts:

Your bold and emotional remarks at World Cup Qualifier stirred the cricket world.
I’m not an emotional player generally. My emotions always stay in check when I’m on the field. I don’t think in my career so far, you’ve either seen me too excited or too down. I always try not to let my emotions get the better of me. To be honest, I didn’t prepare for that speech. At that time, even I didn’t know what I was going to say. It all came from my heart and I just said it out loud.

I have very good friends in all the countries that were playing the tournament, including the Dutch, Scotland, UAE, Ireland and others. Scotland of course is closer to my heart as I spent nine years there when I was studying. A lot of us players stay in touch and find out how we are doing and keep a track of each others’ performances as well. I didn’t speak to any of them before that speech, there was no need to. The way they performed in the tournament, they all played their hearts out and it’s really unfortunate that most of them are not going to the World Cup.

On living his grandfather’s dream:
My grandfather passed away last December. He became an orphan at a very young age. He had a younger brother and younger sister to look after, and without any education, he was pushed into child labour. He had a very difficult childhood and adult life. The highlight of my career was to fulfil his dream of making a name for my family even after he’s gone. Something which he couldn’t achieve. My highlight has been and will always be the fact that I could fulfil my grandfather’s dream in whatever little way I could.

How did you deal with the disappointment personally?
I completely shut myself out from social media for a few days after the tournament. I was heading to Bangladesh for the Dhaka Premier League, and I knew those couple of DPL games would provide me that escape. I just wanted to get out of Zimbabwe, basically just wanted to be away from everyone. When I finally managed to get back on social media after a few days, there was a lot of positive response [for the speech], something I wasn’t expecting, and neither was I looking for it. All I wanted to do was send a message and tell it out loud.

My dad was in Japan when the qualifier was on, he saw how broken I was and called up home and instructed everyone in the family to not speak a word about cricket. He knew how down I am and didn’t want me to keep thinking about what happened, at home too. I wouldn’t have been anything without their support and prayers.

Following the exit, your tweet about making a “few decisions going forward with cricket” raised a lot questions…
I will be in much better position to answer that once a few issues regarding the direction that Zimbabwe Cricket is going to take in the near future. Once I can see that, that statement could be true in every way you look at it. It could be regarding my international future, it could be regarding my cricketing future or it could be regarding the direction I want to take in life. It just depends on a few things that have to go, not the players, but Zimbabwe Cricket’s way. Once those things are settled, the issues revolving around cricket can be resolved. Once we all are all happy to move forward, I’ll be in a much better position to decide. God forbid if those decisions go against us, of course, it could be anything what you think it is.

Over the last year, you shook off a form slump and have been Zimbabwe’s most valuable player. Did you work on any specific areas?
I think training a lot smartly has definitely helped, improving my physical condition has helped too. At that time we used to curse our trainer [Sean Bell], but he did an exceptional job both individually and collectively as a team as well. Lance Klusener did a fantastic job as well, having one on one chats with him about exploring my options, these are the people who should be credited for my form. All these attributes came together and most importantly our team atmosphere was a great place to be at, everyone got consistent chances. All these things that people usually may not realise, add a lot of value to someone’s career and I think I was just fortunate enough to be there at the right time and with the right people and everything just fell into place.

Could you elaborate on your training methods?
Depending on where we are going and who our opponents are, you prepare accordingly. You also prepare according to the conditions that you might be up against. One can’t really replicate the weather but we try and put ourselves under as much pressure as we can, to train harder and smarter. We cannot replicate day-night conditions like Bangladesh, but we knew that it will turn a lot, especially if there is dew the ball can misbehave a lot. Just to be at peace with whatever the ball will do in those conditions, you’ll be able to deal with those things better. Once you accept that your mind will be at ease and things will eventually work out well.

On how Lance Klusener impacted the Zimbabwe team:
We didn’t do justice to Lance. He’s been phenomenal in training us a batting unit. He’s put his heart and soul in that job. We started buying into his theories, initially we may not have done that. But eventually we did, and got a lot more consistent with our performances. Lance was fantastic with his theories, ideas and roles for the batters. The best part was that, Lance wasn’t big on changing anything in any player, he was very big on trusting and instilling confidence and making the batsmen feel at peace with their conditions.

Did the transition from an opener to a middle-order batsman also help?
Yes, it did. I had two camps at NCA Lahore around 2015-16. When I went for my first camp, I was opening at that time so I practised against the new ball. But I was asked to move to No. 3 by the coaches there. I was told that I’m handling spinners a lot better than I handle the seamers. We had a Bangladesh tour after that, that tour also helped in making my decision. After the Bangladesh tour, we came to India after that for the World T20 and then headed to Dubai – I was consistently batting well in different conditions and that’s when I realised that the transition was indeed helping me. I was able to do a lot better consistently because of the change in order.

There are couple of guys I would like to give credit for it – Grant Flower [Pakistan’s batting coach] and Ijaz Ahmed [NCA coach]. Ijaz was quite influential when I went to NCA in Lahore and had a two-week camp with him. I was fortunate that he came here with Pakistan A team and I managed to spend time with him Zimbabwe as well. He was kind enough to give me tips; he didn’t change anything technically, but just helped me realised how to deal with things a lot better.

As a batting unit, what kind of impact did the one-on-one chats with Klusener have?
Like I said, we didn’t do justice to Lance. He’s been phenomenal in training us a batting unit. He’s put his heart and soul in that job. That Sri Lanka series [in June 2017], was where it all started from. We started buying into his theories, initially we may not have done that. But eventually we did, and got a lot more consistent with our performances. Lance was fantastic with his theories, ideas and roles for the batters. The best part was that, Lance wasn’t big on changing anything in any player, he was very big on trusting and instilling confidence and making the batsmen feel at peace with their conditions.

Beating Sri Lanka at home in an ODI series must have been a different high…
Now when I think of that series, I certainly feel it will go down as one of the best moments of my career as well. [Raza also scored his maiden Test ton in that series] To achieve something like that away from home, I’ll always remember and cherish those memories for a very long time. Even though we won the first match and lost two in between, how the team believed we could win the series was fantastic, it was a feeling that we were never accustomed to in the past.

But you’ve also led Zimbabwe to a memorable T20I win against India.
I think the emphasis is generally put on India, for me the honour was to lead my country, that’s where my focus was. It had nothing much to do with my leading, I just got to know 20 minutes before the game that I’ll be the captain. It was the hunger in the boys that made it happen, I just contributed a little bit. To be honest, it was the other ten guys rallying me instead of the other way around. We play our cricket with a lot of passion, we know that we don’t have a lot of opportunities, so every game that we play, the guys show a lot of character. Hopefully we can continue that with more cricket scheduled to come up in the future.

Lance Klusener was very big on trusting and instilling confidence and making the batsmen feel at peace with their conditions. © Getty Images

Lance Klusener was very big on trusting and instilling confidence and making the batsmen feel at peace with their conditions. © Getty Images

Coming to scheduling, Faisal Hasnain’s [ZC managing director] appointment last year has coincided with a relatively busy period for the national side..
Indeed, Faisal’s appointment has had a huge impact. Had that not happened, I don’t know what could have come Zimbabwe’s way. Faisal has made a huge difference in the last year or so that he has been with us. I just wish and pray that he stays with us until everything is fixed, especially after all that time and struggle that he’s invested in our setup. I hope our country can start reaping the rewards of the struggles that Faisal has had to go through. Along with him, Doc [Tavengwa ]Mukuhlani also did the right thing by bringing Faisal, who in turn brought [Kyle] Jarvis and Brendan Taylor back in the fold. These are all good signs that happened to Zimbabwe cricket in the past year. Faisal has been instrumental in making a huge difference in our setup in a very short space of time, especially knowing the difficulties we’ve had financially and otherwise too.

On his emotional speech after the World Cup Qualifiers:
I completely shut myself out from social media for a few days after the tournament. I was heading to Bangladesh for the Dhaka Premier League, and I knew those couple of DPL games would provide me that escape. I just wanted to get out of Zimbabwe, basically just wanted to be away from everyone. When I finally managed to get back on social media after a few days, there was a lot of positive response, something I wasn’t expecting, and neither was I looking for it. All I wanted to do was send a message and tell it out loud.

Does scheduling also impact your chances of featuring in T20 leagues around the world?
It is not a hidden fact that your international performance speaks a lot for you to be picked up in leagues around the world. Once you are not playing a lot international cricket it also becomes very difficult for you to be a part of these leagues because of not playing consistent cricket. When Zimbabwe weren’t playing cricket, I somehow managed to find gigs here and there. [Raza has played in the Pakistan Super League, the Afghanistan T20 League, the Bangladesh Premier League and the Dhaka Premier League] When you do happen to play cricket after a long break, it is basically like making your debut again. Countries with less international cricket will agree with that and tell you the same story as well.

Hopefully, Zimbabwe can play as consistently as other international teams do. Having said that, leagues may benefit only a couple of individuals in the team, but playing more international cricket benefits the whole system and culture of players involved, who then can be bought into different leagues. These players gain a lot of experience from different players involved in these leagues and bring it all back to their national team. It’s extremely hard to keep yourself busy, train in the nets and gym and just run for four months before you play any cricket.

Finally, what has been the highlight of your career so far?
My grandfather passed away last December. He came from a background where he became an orphan at a very young age. He had a younger brother and younger sister to look after, and without any education, he was pushed into child labour. He had a very difficult childhood and adult life. To summarise, the highlight of my career was to fulfil his dream of making a name for my family even after he’s gone. Something which he couldn’t achieve. My highlight has been and will always be the fact that I could fulfil my grandfather’s dream in whatever little way I could.