It’s Eid, and Sikandar Raza doesn’t have a moment to spare. His sardine can of a schedule on Saturday entails a visit to Al Abbas, the community mosque in Ridgeview, Harare. And there’s also a required drop-in at the butcher’s to procure chicken for the biryani. That’s not just it.
Raza has also allotted his afternoon for a round of golf at the Harare Golf Club, the evening for his friends and the night for dinner (the said biryani) with his family.
Sometime in the middle of all of that, Raza receives a call for an interview. “Eid Mubarak,” he says over the phone.
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“But I have one question, why would you want to interview me? I haven’t performed in the series, if anything I have cost my country a few games. I should be the last guy on your list, brother.”
I tell him I want to talk about Pakistan. And he immediately punches a hole in his overwhelming schedule for it.
“That’s possibly a good thing to do on Eid,” he says. “I’ll be there in an hour.” Sharp on the clock and looking sharp in his golf outfit, Raza arrives at the Harare Sports Club and digs a tunnel to whence he came from.
Twenty nine years ago, Raza was born in Sialkot to Punjabi speaking parents. Today, he talks with a Scottish lilt (having studied software engineering in Glasgow) and a hint of the Hararean twang. “My accent is pretty messed up. You don’t have to be nice about it,” he says. But get behind the accent and scratch the surface, and the Pakistani in him comes oozing out.
“It was fantastic to go back there in May for the cricket tour. Oh, the range of emotions and love I felt in Lahore. Unbelievable,” he says. “But you know something funny, it was my first visit to the Gaddafi Stadium. Or any ground in Pakistan for that matter. Believe me, I had no interest in going to watch a cricket match as a boy.”
Despite growing up in Pakistan and despite how life turned out, cricket was never Raza’s passion. A career in it happened purely by accident. “But I did want to represent my country, by becoming a fighter pilot in the Pakistan Air Force,” he says. “I was nine or ten when I told my family I wanted to be in the PAF. It was a desire that came from within, unlike cricket, which was never on my agenda. I wanted that life real bad, man. The thrill, the speed, the emotions. I did strive bloody hard for it.”
The striving didn’t work, unfortunately. Raza even cleared the exam to make the Air Force College, one of only 50 to make the cut from ‘thousands and thousands who took the test.’ “Anyway, in my third year, I was declared medically unfit to fly. Some problem with the eyesight,” he says.
So it’s that when cricket happened? “No. Like I said, cricket was never my ambition or goal,” says the man with 33 ODIs, eight T20Is and four Test matches under his belt, a few more internationals than his cricket crazy friends from Sialkot. “It’s funny how things work out in life sometimes, no? When flying was taken away from me, I switched over to computing and graduated from a university in Glasgow. But I was honest enough to tell myself and my family that I wasn’t cut out for that world.”
That’s when it happened. And it was all down to him surprising himself with how well he could hit a ball. “I asked my parents if I could take a year out and find something useful to do. They were fine with it and to cut a long story short, I got to the UK, found a club and started playing some part-time cricket. Nothing serious. But I realised I could bat. A bit,” Raza says, laughing. “God always has plans for us, brother, as long as we work hard and stop being afraid to try new things.”
Year over, Raza followed his parents to their new home, Zimbabwe, to find himself a job. A franchise, the Mashonaland Eagles, recruited him instead. “The journey started by sheer luck. This was not what I was meant to do,” he says. His papers were sorted by Zimbabwe Cricket by 2013 and Raza had his first red jersey soon after. Fast forward a couple of more years and Raza was travelling back home. As an away player.
“I have a lot of family and friends around the world who were never meant to be family and friends. But Pakistan, that’s where I am from and what I am. It was pretty damn emotional,” he says, as memories of May come gushing back. “Our first practice session before the first one-dayer, it was house-full. It was when I realised their pain of being deserted from international cricket. I’m not talking goosebumps here. I’m talking tears, a real need to hold yourself together.”
There were reasons to wipe those tears away soon after, though. In the second one-dayer in Lahore, Raza scored only his second ODI century (100*) and third score above fifty. The fans, his country-men, gave him a rousing ovation.
No wild celebrations
“Let’s not go there. I’ve already forgotten about it,” he says, rather quizzically. “I haven’t scored a century since so there’s no point talking about the last one.” But surely he was happy to register it in such emotional circumstances?
“Maybe, but it’s just a memory. Just like any other. Thinking about it doesn’t put food on my table. I like to start every game like it’s the last game of my career. And make my family proud every time I walk out to bat. That’s all.”
There were no wild celebrations after the ton in Lahore either. Zimbabwe had lost the match and more importantly, the security situation in Pakistan ensured that none of the players could leave the fortress of a team hotel. Hence, even the ‘local’ spent his return to his soil in a room, cooped up.
It must have been difficult to not step outside, I say. He shrugs. “Had I gone out and had something happened to me, even a little scratch, a 180 million people would be denied further cricket because of the stupidity or ego of one man. I couldn’t get myself to jeapordise their future. No, not worth it,” Raza says. “But I did get my family from Sialkot to come and live in the hotel in Lahore.”
Talking about Pakistan, Raza feels a pang of homesickness. “It’s difficult man, my grandparents are still there. Though we fully well understand why we can’t stay under one roof, it gets difficult on festive days like today, when we all can’t be together,” he says, breaking for a pause. “But don’t get me wrong, I love talking about it. It reminds you of where you came from. And sometimes, even tells you where you’re going.”