Sikandar Raza jubilant as gripping one-run win against Pakistan makes the case for cricket’s marginalised teams
On the eve of his first match at Perth’s Optus Stadium, known as a paradise for quicks, Zimbabwe allrounder Sikandar Raza was pensive.
He struggled to get to sleep, as his thoughts wandered towards curbing Pakistan’s menacing pace attack led by speedster Haris Rauf who was seemingly tailormade for the bounce and pace conjured from the ground’s green-tinged pitch.
“I made a few notes and I was reading them and I was going over it again and again and again,” Raza said about his restlessness. “This is my first game at Perth, so a lot of my learning and a lot of Zimbabwe’s learning is actually on the day of the game.
“We don’t get to play top nations a lot,” he noted. The last of Zimbabwe’s five previous visits to Perth, an ODI against India in 2003-04, had come just months after Matthew Hayden whacked them for a world-record 380 at the WACA.
Raza’s apprehension was seemingly justified when he was roughed up during an initiation at the crease by Rauf before being bounced out by a slower ball from Mohammad Wasim, whose inclusion at that stage appeared a masterstroke from a pace-heavy Pakistan.
Zimbabwe scrambled to 130 for 8, which they knew was under par but there was quiet confidence within a team which had impressively emerged from the first round in Hobart.
“I personally thought...we were 15 or 20 runs short,” Raza said. “But I really truly believe in this group. We knew if we could field well, take all our chances and cut those important twos, we could really win this game.”
His confidence was justified when Zimbabwe’s quicks tore through Pakistan’s top order to leave them at 36 for 3 in the eighth over. But Shan Masood and Shadab Khan steadied the ship with a half-century partnership as Pakistan appeared to be cruising to a bounce-back victory after their MCG heartbreak against India.
Perth’s 60,000-seat stadium hosted a small crowd of 8,000, but even some of those had started to scurry home as the clock ticked towards 10pm on a working night. But Zimbabwe knew that a single wicket could expose Pakistan’s susceptible middle-lower order after they had left out Asif Ali for Wasim, and perhaps prod at scars still raw from four days ago.
So in the 14th over, with Pakistan needing just 51 runs, they turned back to their talisman, albeit that Raza’s previous two overs - 0 for 11 - had been negotiated without incident to help cement the ground’s tough reputation for spinners.
Sure enough, his third legal delivery, an overpitched carrom ball, was launched down the ground for six by Shadab, and with 45 now needed from 39 balls with seven wickets in hand, the end of the ball game appeared in sight.
But an overconfident Shadab tried to repeat the dose only to hole out one ball later, and Zimbabwe knew they were back with a fighting chance.
A pumped-up Raza then immediately trapped Haider Ali plumb lbw, briefly delayed by the batter reviewing in a Hail Mary, and he added another in his next over with the key wicket of Masood, who was brilliantly stumped by keeper Regis Chakabva.
“I try to work hard on batting and bowling,” Raza said. “If one department doesn’t fire, it doesn’t really bring me down. It kind of gives me that extra push that I have to make sure my other department fires.”
But with his match-turning spell over, the wickets dried up and Pakistan inched closer with Mohammad Nawaz attempting to go from villain to hero. Two overs suddenly remained and Pakistan needed 22 runs off 12 balls with four wickets in hand.
Zimbabwe captain Craig Ervine wasn’t sure who to turn for the crucial penultimate over - Richard Ngarava, the spearhead who had overcome an ankle injury sustained against South Africa in Hobart’s wet conditions, or Brad Evans, who had been included in the team for just his fifth T20I.
Ervine sought Raza’s advice. “My opinion was we should try and kill the game,” Raza said. “Ngarava had been bowling exceptionally well. If he can leave 15, 16 runs in the last over (for) Brad...the more runs we can leave for the youngster, the better.”
But Nawaz appeared destined for redemption when he capitalised on a rare Ngarava misfire with a six in a momentum shift, as Pakistan’s target was down to 11 off the final over.
It was left to 25-year-old Evans, but he leaked seven runs off the first two deliveries, and that appeared to be that. But, of course, there had to be a final twist to continue this tournament’s absurdity.
With three runs needed off the final two balls, Nawaz attempted to go for glory over mid-off but only hit it straight to Ervine as a crestfallen Wasim went down on his haunches for about 20 seconds. The dreaded realisation was sinking in for Pakistan, who couldn’t quite believe this horror show was repeating.
There was, however, still one ball left. And more mayhem to ensue with Shaheen Afridi driving to long on as the batters scampered for two to try and force the Super Over.
But Raza - who else, really - charged in, ready to cut off the two, and his one-bounce throw landed at Chakabva’s feet, who in a moment of panic fumbled before recovering for the run-out to seal one of Zimbabwe’s most famous victories.
“I just thought the way he [Evans] bowled...he held his nerve,” Raza said. “Credit to him. Credit to the whole group to be honest.”
It triggered scenes of jubilation with Zimbabwe’s players jumping into each other’s arms, while others rolled on the turf in disbelief. Wasim and Shaheen, meanwhile, were on their knees not quite knowing what had transpired.
Having once dreamed of being a fighter pilot in the Pakistan Air Force, Raza savoured his team’s finest moment as he repeatedly bearhugged Ervine while captain skipper Babar Azam attempted to put on a brave face during the post-match presentation.
For a cricket nation having gone through so much tumult, while being too often shunned by the power countries - a point underlined by Zimbabwe’s lack of fixtures against Australia, India and England in the 2023-27 Future Tours Programme (FTP) - it was quite something for them to celebrate such a triumph on Australian soil.
“We have a lot of youngsters now picking up this sport back home,” Raza said. “I personally feel that this group has an added responsibility to make sure cricket grows in Zimbabwe.
“We want to make sure that this group can actually encourage and achieve something where... everybody can truly believe that there’s a future in the sport.”
After such a famous triumph, an implausible semi-final berth is suddenly within their reach. –Cricinfo