“The crowd support in Pakistan was awesome”

A key member of the Zimbabwe squad that toured Pakistan, 29-year old Sikandar Raza became an instant hit with the local crowds not only due to his friendly demeanor but also due to an excellent 100 off just 84 deliveries which he scored in the second One-Day International (ODI). In a sense, his innings in front of a huge crowd in Lahore was no great surprise as it was built upon an ODI career which consists of 30 matches in which he has scored 839 runs. He has also been called upon to bowl spin for his side in ODIs where he now has eight wickets and a very respectable economy rate of 5.58.

In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Sikandar Raza spoke about his connections with Pakistan, the controversy behind payments made to Zimbabwe players for their tour of Pakistan, his abiding memories of the tour of Pakistan and why he recently referred to Shoaib Malik as his teacher.

Excerpts from an interview:

PakPassion (PP): Why did you leave Pakistan and chose to play for Zimbabwe? 
Sikandar Raza (SR): This question gets asked a lot of times, so let me make this as clear as possible for everyone. I never played any serious cricket during my stay in Pakistan and cricket was the last thing on my mind at that point in my life. I wanted to concentrate on my studies. In fact, I wanted to be a fighter pilot! So any stories or suggestions that the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) did something wrong to me or neglected me or I became disillusioned with Pakistan or its cricket is simply untrue. There is nothing owed by the PCB nor do I owe anything to PCB in that regard. I did not play any club cricket in Pakistan and I had no aspirations to play for Pakistan at all. I resent these stories made up by some people for reasons best known to them. The truth is that my family migrated to Zimbabwe and that’s how I arrived in the country, and with the Almighty’s help, have found a place in the Zimbabwe team.

PP: Considering the examples of Imran Tahir and Fawad Ahmed, do you think the concept of playing for the country of your birth is now more of a romantic notion in today’s world? 
SR: Regardless of why Imran Tahir and Fawad Ahmed chose to leave Pakistan, the fact is that Allah had a plan for them. Imran and Fawad are abused for leaving Pakistan, but why cannot we accept that in the higher scheme of things, that they weren’t meant to play for Pakistan? Why are there such negative connotations associated with this whole subject? I am very good friends with Tahir, but he’s never spoken to me on this subject as it’s just not important. Was the Pakistan cricket setup harsh on Imran? I would not know, but what we do know is that he is where he is and he is happy. It is very common to hear terms like “Pakistan-born Zimbabwean batsman” or “Pakistan-born South African leg-spinner” being mentioned and in a strange way, one must admit that this has brought some fame for Pakistan, so it’s not all negative.

PP: In terms of your style of play, do you draw inspiration from any particular cricketer or personality? 
SR: To be honest, I fell in love with the game. So basically, I didn’t start to play cricket because of a cricketer but I started to play the game because of my interest in cricket itself. It’s not about following personalities. If a tailender plays a good shot, then I will walk up to him and ask him how he played it or did he do anything different to get that result. If there is one person that I do draw inspiration from then that’s got to be my grandfather who taught me a lot about life which helps me in cricket as well.

PP: Hashim Amla and Moeen Ali are two well-known Muslim cricketers whose religious affiliation is no secret. Do you feel that your religion has a role to play in your game as well? 
SR: Let me say that I am from a family with a deep religious background and my religious beliefs not only play a role in my game but more importantly in my life as well. However, let me also say that one cannot judge players’ religious beliefs by their outward appearance or actions, or how they appear in public or celebrate on the field. We are no one to judge any one like that. For myself, I know that religion has made me a better person all-round and then all other things in life, including cricket are the natural by-products of this belief.

PP: The Pakistan tour seems to have been a bit of a career turn around for you. How do you feel about that? 
SR: To be completely honest, before going to Pakistan my career was at a point where I could have easily been out of the team. Coach Dav Whatmore and our selectors put their necks on the line when they backed me for inclusion on this tour. They could have easily walked away but they decided to back me up for which I will always be very grateful. In fact I am grateful to all the people who worked to help me and indebted to all who prayed for my success which includes my family.

PP: How did you feel when you walked onto the field at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore? 
SR: The feeling was amazing. The love and support we were getting from the crowd was simply unbelievable. There was a time during the games that the whole crowd was shouting “Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe” which is really something you would not expect in a foreign land. It was beautiful to see so much support while you are away from home. When I was walking by the stands, the crowd would stand up and clap for you or there would be some eager fans wanting to say hello. It was just fantastic and I thought to myself, wow, what an amazing reception we are getting here. Seeing this type of enthusiasm, I started to interact with the people a little more like clapping with them or even play with them for fun. All this was due to the love and support we got and I will say again, the Pakistan crowds were simply fantastic.

PP: Tell us about what transpired after the incident during the 2nd ODI? How did the team feel and what persuaded the team to continue with the tour?
SR: The fact is we weren’t sure about what had happened. We were initially told that it was a gas cylinder which had exploded but regardless of the actual reason and given the recent history of such incidents in Pakistan, we were quite close to coming back to Zimbabwe. But then we sat down together as a team and considered the fact that there were thousands of people in the stadium and a huge number of Army personnel guarding the area. The blast took place about two km away from us which is the start of the “red zone”. Did we really want to overreact and walk away from this? We were here to build relations with our Pakistan brothers and also encourage more tours between our countries; did we want to throw that away? Believe me, the unanimous answer was “no”! We decided to honour our commitment and play the final ODI and finish the tour as planned. There was no further discussion or doubts expressed after that point.

PP: There’s been some criticism of the PCB paying Zimbabwe players $12,500 each as a “sweetener” for this tour. Is this true? 
SR: To be fair, no one has the right to know how much someone gets paid. These are all confidential matters. The only person who knows what the exact payments are my father and I; this is how confidential this is, but is it really anyone’s business?

All that is of concern is that the player is earning a good livelihood and he is safe wherever he is. That is all that matters. Having said that, you can assume that whatever we were paid or not, Pakistan Cricket Board would make a profit from gate receipts and TV rights and sponsors — that is a given. I think this is a win-win situation for the players, the boards and the fans. I am not sure why this issue has been raised in the media. No one should begrudge players for earning their livelihood. If people are so interested in knowing about these payments then why do they have no interest in our match fees which are pretty low? No one seems to take that on as an issue! All that matters is that we play cricket for Zimbabwe for whatever compensation we get and people should leave it at that.

Let me also add that what really interested us about this tour was the fact that we would be further enhancing our friendly relationship with Pakistan and we will also see Pakistan tour Zimbabwe. So we will possibly play 20 extra games against top cricket playing nations this year when we would have none. This could well happen as we don’t face security issues and are not limited to holding more games on the tours. More cricket for us means that we will get better at it and will get more recognition internationally. In the past we have been playing 10 ODIs and two Test matches in the year. Which team can improve if they play such little amount of international cricket?

PP: Given your experience of touring Pakistan, would you be willing to recommend this to other foreign teams? 
SR: Without taking away the credit from my fellow team members, when we were voting about going on tour to Pakistan then it is quite safe to say that what I said made a big difference in the final decision. If I had said I don’t want to go to Pakistan then the others would have said, “Look this guy is from Pakistan and he doesn’t want to go so why should we risk it?” So my view on this matter is clear. Simply put, I cannot really speak for others but if I am given another opportunity to tour Pakistan with the Zimbabwe team in the future, then I will be the first one to raise my hand and say to my team members that, yes, I am going there but the decision is ultimately yours.

PP: Looking back at the tour of Pakistan, were you pleasantly surprised in the way Zimbabwe competed with Pakistan in their own backyard? 
SR: To be honest, I am disappointed that we came away without a win against the hosts. If you look at the quality of cricket since Dav has come in to coach Zimbabwe, we have started to play better. We are competing a lot better than what he had done in the past. I suppose because we haven’t won that many games in the past, we lack the killer instinct that the other teams have. We will come close to winning the game but since we aren’t used to winning, we will make a small mistake and end up losing that game. If you look at the recent games against Pakistan, we lead for almost 80-90% of the time, yet we could not win a game. Hopefully, now that we are playing more games, we will start getting better at our cricket. When we get to that stage, we will start to learn to win games and develop that killer instinct. We will get to know what it feels like to win games and then the only way is up from that point, Inshallah.

PP: The Pakistan bowling came under a lot of criticism for giving away runs against one of the “weaker” sides in international cricket. Does that surprise you? 
SR: Gaddafi Stadium has a very flat pitch. On top of that cricket was being played in May when the temperatures were in the 40-plus C region. You could literally water the pitch an hour before the game and the moisture would have evaporated in quick time due to the temperature. On top of that, when the lights come on it gets even warmer. People are quick to criticize but remember that this bowling has won Pakistan many games in the past. Why are fans so quick to forget the history of Pakistan cricket and just home in one or two performance, even when Pakistan won all the games on this tour?

PP: What has the journey been like to get to a stage where you now have an ODI hundred under your belt? 
SR: I am a firm believer that there is a time and place for everything. These things happen due to the Almighty’s will. Having said that, no one really knows what was going through in my head before this hundred. The hard work I did to get to this stage is something only I know. All I am praying for now is that Allah rewards me more for my hard work in the future. Going back to the memory of that hundred, the feeling of walking back to the dressing room with all these people cheering, with team mates standing and clapping and the number of messages of congratulations I received was simply brilliant and an emotional time for me. It was almost that my hundred meant more for all the people who had supported me and prayed for my success, than it meant for me.

PP: What is the one abiding memory of your tour to Pakistan that you will cherish forever? 
SR: I have to admit that it’s difficult to pick one such moment. For example, walking around the hotel, there would be people coming up to shake your hands and wishing you the best of luck. Every single person I bumped into wished me luck which was an awesome feeling. Every person I spoke to would encourage me and say things like, “Razabhai, today’s the day you will get a hundred!” Such gestures and moments really stand out in my memory as does the way the crowd was getting behind me whilst on the field.

PP: You mentioned Shoaib Malik in one of your tweets and praised him as a “teacher”. What was that about? 
SR: I don’t know Shoaib Malik that well, although I have more than a few friends in the Pakistan team. The reason I said that was because I was humbled by his remarks where he said he enjoyed my batting. So here is a player who has played at the highest level for almost 16 years but he has time to appreciate the batting of a junior player is something I find incredible. On top of that, I watched him score a hundred against us in the 1st ODI which, I must admit, was painful as he took the game away from us. However, when I was batting in the 2nd ODI, I did have his innings in mind. There was a lot I picked from that innings and subconsciously it helped me in playing for my hundred. That is what I meant by my reference to Shoaib Malik as my teacher.


(Amir Husain is Senior Editor at PakPassion, where the article first appeared)