Cricket in Zimbabwe is looking up. Bangladesh and India are set to tour the country before they head to Australia for the T20 World Cup. Zimbabwe will be there too; a dominant performance in the global qualifiers has ensured that.
The moment was four years in the making. They had missed out on the last two global events, having suffered the heartbreak of missing the 2019 World Cup after a narrow loss in the qualifiers at home. Understandably, then, Sikandar Raza, and others, are “more relieved than happy” at this point.
It was a difficult period, with many of their senior players unsure about their future. Raza was one of them. In the recent qualifiers, he had figures of 4 for 8 against Netherlands in the final.
Each time he took a wicket, the Bulawayo crowd went wild. Qualification for the World Cup, of course, had been ensured for both teams once they won their semi-finals.
“It is nice to be playing one more World Cup before I hang up my boots,” Raza told ESPNcricinfo.
“It was tricky to miss out on the last 50-overs World Cup. It was disheartening and painful not to be playing the last T20 World Cup as well. I think the senior players were more relieved than happy [to qualify for this year’s World Cup].
“There was a lot on our shoulders. There was a lot that was to be done by the core group of players. To see all of us achieve that is the most satisfying part of going to Australia.”
Raza said the target has been to do more than just qualify. They wanted to be the best among the teams in the qualifiers in order to be ready for bigger things.
Much of that also came from the big crowds that turned up to watch them get back where they believe they belong.
“We would have never settled for only qualification,” he said. “Our first target was to qualify, but we targeted winning five out of five games.
“Without a question, we wanted to win the final. It was very important for us to become champions. It is a different feeling to be champions of some tournament. It was amazing.
“The crowd on the weekend has always been brilliant in Bulawayo and Harare. Hands down, this was the biggest and loudest crowd I have experienced in Bulawayo.
“Every time we took a wicket, the crowd just erupted. It was unbelievable.”
The satisfaction also brought back memories of a similar time four years ago when Zimbabwe missed out on qualification.
Raza was in the thick of things back then too.
“Those emotions were always there. We couldn’t go to the World Cup by a margin of two [three] runs,” he recalled.
“The nightmare of not being able to make it through the last qualifiers were always at the back of the head. The guys who were there in the previous qualifiers and now in the core group, tried to stay in the present.
“We tried to prevent those feelings from affecting us. Those feelings were there. We didn’t deny its presence. We just had to find a way to deal with them.
Everybody had different ways to deal with them. The fact that we could do that and ended up qualifying, is relieving.”
Some of those who played in 2018 have settled into bigger roles within the Zimbabwe team.
Fast bowler Blessing Muzarabani is knocking on plenty of doors in the T20 arena, while young Wessly Madhevere graduated to the senior side within a month of their Under-19 World Cup campaign in 2020.
“It was tricky to miss out on the last 50-overs World Cup. It was disheartening and painful not to be playing the last T20 World Cup as well. I think the senior players were more relieved than happy [to qualify for this year’s World Cup].”
“He [Muzarabani] came from very humble beginnings. He has tasted success but he is still a very humble boy,” Raza said. “He is very respectful. He will get better and better, and I believe he will be rewarded because he is such an honest worker.
“Richard Ngarava had a few setbacks due to injuries, but I believe he will follow Blessing Muzarabani sooner or later. He has good work ethic. He will be exposed to different T20 competitions.
“Wessly Madhevere is rising. Performances go up and down but I genuinely believe that he is growing as a cricketer. He will take Zimbabwe cricket forward. He will take it in the right direction. He is a very good kid. I will also mention Milton Shumba, a smart cricketer. He will have a role to play in the future.”
Zimbabwe also have a strong group of experienced cricketers in the mix, thanks to Craig Ervine, Sean Williams, Regis Chakabva and Tendai Chatara, who is sidelined because of a shoulder injury, apart from Raza.
“Chatara has been the spearhead of the bowling department,” he said. “Unfortunately, he has broken his collarbone but we are praying that he is fit for the World Cup. Regis Chakabva is a senior guy as well. Very calm guy. We need him.
“We are happy to have Sean Williams back in the team. Craig is a silent soldier. He is calm and composed, a team man.”
Zimbabwe also have a new entrant in their coaching setup. Dave Houghton has returned to coach Zimbabwe and Raza said that he was already gelling with the team.
“My first experience with Dave has been brilliant,” he said.
“He has a lot of trust towards his players. He has confidence in our abilities. Zulu [Lance Klusener, batting consultant] has been brilliant with us throughout. It is great to have him back.
“He has made a lot of difference in my career. Shepherd [Makunura, fielding coach] and Stuart [Matsikenyeri, assistant coach] are fantastic too.”
Raza himself has done well over the last few years. A bone-marrow infection last year meant that he had to resort to a new bowling action. Luckily for him, it clicked.
“I thought with my old action it was slightly difficult to bowl variations,” he said.
“I figured out that I lost a lot of strength in my shoulder following the surgery. Maybe it is a blessing in disguise.
“I hope I have better control of my variations in a year’s time. I also realise that my career economy in T20s and T20Is have come down.”
For now, Raza is looking forward to a busier phase for Zimbabwe. They first play Bangladesh – an opposition that has got the wood on them in recent times – in three T20Is starting July 30 followed by as many ODIs. India will be there too.
“It is a very exciting because now we are looking forward to something,” Raza said.
“Everything we do now is a build-up to Australia. We want to be in the main tournament. We want to cause a few upsets.
“We are trying to beat all these teams so that we can form a culture, so that when we get to Australia, we have a winning changing room. It was lovely to see all the senior guys there [in the qualifier].”