Zimbabwe: Sikandar Raza fits neither of the two storylines that an athlete might be experiencing at age 37—dreading a tap on the shoulder or knowing they can no longer do what they once did.
When does a player transition from one who is merely experiencing a purple patch to one who demonstrates that their class is enduring?
All-rounder Raza continues to represent Zimbabwe with class, putting his name back in the spotlight, on trophies, and franchise squad lists while advancing his nation towards another international competition.
Raza is both a result and an embodiment of Zimbabwe's resurgence, a team that is currently on the verge of qualifying for the Cricket World Cup later in the year. Raza is bludgeoning with the bat, cunning with the ball and a livewire in the field.
There are many positive aspects of Zimbabwe right now. The team was unable to compete for a berth in the T20 World Cup 2021 during their ban from the ICC, which only served to increase their disappointment in missing out on the 2019 competition. Similar turmoil has caused several teams and regulating organisations from the history of the sport to fall. Despite being in the freezing depths, the Chevrons maintained their poise.
With Dave Houghton as coach, the team has been revitalised. The team's batting is loaded with talent, and their Super League victories over opponents like Pakistan and Australia demonstrate how seriously they take the finest in the game. Raza completes the team by batting and adding spin variations.
The crowd then starts to sing and dance once more, to the point where Raza referred to them as the "11th man" of the team.
“I think they made it onto the park with us in their spirits to field with us, they lifted us,” he added after their spellbinding win over the West Indies.
Zimbabwe, one of the bright spots of the T20 World Cup in Australia last year, is now displaying the same skills in the other white-ball format. However, in a team of 11 performers and in front of an audience, Raza still manages to stand out.
Raza has won 11 Player of the Match awards in the past year while representing Zimbabwe in the two white-ball formats.
All except one played in Super League ODIs, Qualifier games, or worldwide tournament matches. At the T20 World Cup, he won three Player of the Match accolades, one of which was given to Pakistan, the country of his birth.
"He just seems to know exactly what to do, when to do it," Ricky Ponting, one of the game’s sharpest minds, observed during the T20 World Cup last year.
“Talking about World Cups, players’ names and reputations are forged on how you perform in big games.
“He’s standing up in pressure moments.”
Ponting made these remarks before Raza's performance against Pakistan, in which he took 3/25 from four overs and ran out Shaheen Afridi to secure the memorable victory on the game's final ball, preventing a run to equalise the score.
Raza on reflection after the win was fuelled by the comments.
“For me, I had goosebumps – one of the greats of the game talking about Zimbabwe and in particular me.
“Not that I need an extra kick, but if I needed one that clip did the job for me. I wanted to stay calm but also pumped up for this game.”
The transition to the longer white-ball format only serves to highlight Raza's strengths. The all-rounder has maintained his outstanding Super League performance from last year, which included a 95-ball 115 against India to give him three tonnes in six ODI innings.
In ODI matches since the beginning of last year, Raza has amassed 971 runs at 51.10, striking at 98.37, three fifty-sevens, and a fourth century. In 23 bowling attempts, he has contributed 22 wickets at an economy of 5.13 and an average of 37.36.
The most recent MRF Tyres ODI Player Rankings also take into account his performance. Raza climbed into the top 30 in the batting rankings after starting the season with 102* against the Netherlands, followed by 68 from the West Indies and 48 against the USA.
The century against the Dutch was the quickest by a Zimbabwean in an ODI (54 balls), and his eight wickets make him the only player to rank in the top six of both the tournament's runs and wicket totals.
Raza currently holds the third-place spot among ODI all-rounders, trailing only Shakib Al Hasan and Mohammad Nabi.
In 108 ODIs prior to 2022, Raza's batting average was barely 34.60; with the weight of recent scores, that number has increased to 37.56.
In T20Is, Raza's average increased even more dramatically, rising from 13.43 to 20.98, while his bowling average decreased from 43.92 to 26.65.
Though coach Houghton emphasises that it is his words that best compliment the class he provides to the club, the 37-year-old certainly leads by example.
"The players look up to Raz," Houghton said.
"Not just on the field in terms of what he can do with both bat and ball, but he speaks wise words to the lads, particularly to the youngsters, and they listen.
"He's had an outstanding year. And it's culminated in him playing franchise cricket around the world."
The all-rounder is advancing Zimbabwe's game as the first player from that nation to take an IPL wicket and win a Player of the Match award in the competition.
He inspires confidence in youngsters like Wessly Madhevere, a brilliant 22-year-old who is one of the players coming up through the Zimbabwean system and who confirms Houghton's remarks.
"The guy is a genius," Madhevere said.
"The things he has done for Zimbabwe cricket over the years, it will take something special to replace it.
The Chevrons are in prime position to qualify for the showcase event in India after winning their group in the Qualifier and taking the most carry-over points to the Super Six stage. If their net run rate stays high against Scotland, Oman, and Sri Lanka, two victories should be plenty.
A Player of the Tournament award might be given to Raza, as it was for T20 World Cup Qualifier B at this time last year, but eight years after their previous appearance, qualifying for a Cricket World Cup is the real prize.
With such loyalty from the crowd, securing a spot for India 2023 is the bare minimum.
“The least I can do for this country is to represent them with everything I have and with all those emotions and the fight within me and the fire in my belly for Zimbabwe, all those emotions is what you call passion," Raza said.
“There’s nothing in my priority list apart from that. It is just one thing, and that is to make sure, Inshallah, we qualify for the World Cup in India."