SIKANDAR Raza believes in giving others a chance.He is a beneficiary of one.
The story of this Pakistani-born Zimbabwe cricketer begins to me around August 2006 when I worked in the media department of Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) for 19 months.
Zimbabwe’s first-class structure has never been weaker and unappealing than it was then. But thanks to the vibrancy of a refreshingly competent ZC commercial department of that time, the revived 50-over National League — contested by clubs — became, during the short period it lasted, hugely popular and by far the most talked about domestic cricket competition in the country.
About 3 000 spectators from all over Harare responded to some astute marketing by ZC in 2007 and paid to watch the final between hosts Takashinga and Old Hararians.
It could simply be the biggest sporting gathering ever seen in the high-density suburb of Highfield away from Gwanzura Stadium. Quite certainly it was the biggest cricket crowd outside the main venues of Harare Sports Club and Queens Sports Club since top South African Currie Cup sides used to attract multitudes at Police Grounds decades ago.
For us ZC in-house reporters, it was an unforgettable National League too — but for one thing. The respected cricket website, Cricinfo, which carries the most reliable database for players across the cricketing world, does not however, keep records for the game at club level.
So, part of my responsibilities at ZC, alongside fellow media officer Blessing Maulgue, was to keep and update players’ National League stats every week — some 120 odd players across eight teams.
With no software to carry out such a mammoth task, it had to be done manually, one of the most unwanted tasks in my entire working life. Runs, batting averages, wickets, bowling averages, strike rate, economy rate: week-in-week-out the entire season.
The tiny office I shared with Maulgue thus became popular with players, coaches, and selectors — who constantly dropped by to enquire on records.
The most regular visitor was Raza, a 21-year-old Alexandra Sports Club batsman, then still unknown outside the club circles, but with a growing reputation of unrestrained aggression in league cricket.
Punjab-born Raza had come to Zimbabwe to join his family members, via university in Scotland, and had a dream only himself seemed to believe in — to play for his adopted country.
He could give the ball a real whack, an entertainer no doubt; but few saw him, at the time, as having either the technique nor temperament to play international cricket.
But a man with a dream is very hard to stop. Raza, now at the mature age of 31, has been playing for Zimbabwe since 2013. He has three ODI hundreds to his name in 63 games, and his average of 31.03 is better than that of Hamilton Masakadza and Elton Chigumbura, much more experienced internationals in the Zimbabwe squad.
It’s an opportunity he was desperately grateful for, to carve out a career in his hobby, in a game he had last played as a little boy in Pakistan. If it was not cricket, he had wanted to earn a living as a fighter pilot in the Pakistan Air Force. Last year, Raza took a leap of faith to play cricket in war-torn Afghanistan after he was signed to play in that country’s domestic Twenty20 competition.
Raza will return this year for the Afghan T20 League, accompanied by fellow Zimbabwe internationals Hamilton Masakadza, Sean Williams and Solomon Mire.
Players from other countries have spurned the opportunity to go to Afghanistan and earn a bit of money as freelance T20 cricketers, fearful of the security situation in the volatile country.
But apart from the lure of quick extra cash, Raza, in particular, might feel he has an obligation towards someone with a dream. Just like him 10 years ago.
Cricket-mad Afghanistan have applied for Test status and a decision is due at the International Cricket Council soon. To many broken souls in conflict-ridden Afghanistan, cricket is seen as a catalyst for peace. They reckon the security situation in the country could improve if foreign teams and players tour there. The country’s T20 competition, also known as the Shpageeza Cricket League (SCL), is part of the Afghans’ charm offensive, in pursuit of that dream.
Raza and his four compatriots are contracted by ZC, but they are free to make personal choices to play in tournaments such as the one in Afghanistan.
ZC can only apply the National Objection Certificate if the tournament clashes with national duty, as stipulated in the player’s contract, or if the association prohibits the player on basis of injury or rehab.
As things stand, only a decision by the Sports and Recreation Commission, based on evaluation by the Foreign Affairs ministry on the security situation in Afghanistan, will stop the players from going.
ZC seems hamstrung in this matter. Making a decision on behalf of the players appears a grey area for them. Zimbabwe’s cricket association also benefited immensely from the support of the existing full member countries at the time in its quest for Test status, which was finally granted in the early 1990s following years of unsuccessful lobbying dating back to the mid-1980s.
“There is a lot of political manoeuvring happening,” says an influential figure in the game in Zimbabwe.
“This thing is so important to them (Afghanistan) and there is a lot of goodwill between their cricket board and ours. We have to be careful what we say, that is with regards to the situation in Afghanistan, and what we do, with regards to stopping our players from going there.”
The players, too, are keen on going.
“I played at the event last year and have good memories,” Raza, who was signed for US$10 000 by the Mis Ainak Knights for this year’s edition, told Afghan media about his experience last year.
But that does not solve the dilemma for Zimbabwe. It is not only the Zimbabwean board that supports Afghanistan’s application for Test status. Others also do, but their players are not travelling to the SCL.
Furthermore, Afghanistan’s support comes mainly from the Asian bloc and such members as Zimbabwe. But only Bangladesh, of the Asians, has players who are going to the SCL. India, who hosts Afghanistan’s home games, do not allow their players to play in foreign T20 tournaments.
Last week, the Pakistan Cricket Board announced that the country’s players would not join the SCL after Afghan cricket authorities ended all ties with Pakistan over a terror attack in Kabul that killed over 100 people.
While the reasons for not going might vary for these other countries, questions will be asked whether it is wise for Zimbabwe to put matters of bilateral relations first where the threat of terrorism is so real.
It is a catch-22 situation.