If you’ve got a heart, you’ll feel deeply for Sanju Samson. On Sunday, the 20-year old finally made his international debut. At the fag end of his second tour (he served drinks in England, 2014).
For the first half of the match here in Harare, the wicketkeeper-batsman didn’t keep wickets. Robin Uthappa did. And in the second half of the game, it looked like Uthappa would deny him a chance with the bat too.
At one point in the chase of 146 runs, Uthappa had scored 40 out of the team total of 57, with the easy assistance of nine brutal boundaries.
If you’ve got a heart, you’ll feel deeply for Zimbabwe too. After having come so close to winning the first ODI of this tour, they found themselves four defeats down very, very quickly. And the crisis in their squad had just taken a racist turn on Sunday after it was revealed that Prosper Utseya had accused former cricketer and current managing director of Zimbabwe Cricket of favouritism by colour.
So plenty of hearts thumped harder than they usually do on a cricket field when Samson walked out to the middle at number seven, after Zimbabwe’s spinners and some sharp fielding had blindsided India.
The favourites had just lost four wickets for just 12 runs, going from 57/1 to 69/5 in the space 18 balls.
Now, Samson had his chance to prove why he’s worth playing. And Zim had their chance at finally snapping their losing streak. Only one of them, however, would hold their nerve and dip their beak in this golden stream called ‘chance’. And that wasn’t Samson.
With 28 runs to win off 20 balls, Samson proved yet again that IPL experience counts only in the IPL and holed out at long-on. And a few minutes later, a new-look Zimbabwe, led by first-timer Sikandar Raza, had snatched a 10-run win. It’s incredible how things turn out sometimes. Just one win and they found themselves sharing the T20 trophy with India.
The crowd at the Harare Sports Club knew what they’d rather remember from the series. Drunk on their first sip of success, the wooden stands rattled with chants of ‘Zimbabwaaaaay Way Zimbabwe’ and ‘Raza Raza Raza Razaaaaaa’. A team divided by colour had found a captain who represented neither race. And they joyously rallied around him.
“We were just sick of losing. Sick of just competing. That’s all it was. So we took this opportunity to pick ourselves up and went out buzzing,” Raza said at the press conference. Even Ajinkya Rahane, the losing captain, agreed that the body language of the opposition was very different from what it was earlier in the series.
“That energy only got better as they got quick wickets in the middle,” Rahane said. “Credit must go to their captain for turning it around.”
When Raza woke up this morning, he was just another cricketer who hadn’t led any side of relevance (three matches for Mash Eagles, four years back). Then, Zimbabwe’s regular skipper Elton Chigumbura pulled a hamstring, leaving a team already rocked by the Utseya scandal without a leader.
Someone in the team management thought of giving the reins to Raza. And will they be glad they did.
Raza walked out to the toss and bared his soul by revealing all his team’s problems in the series. He must have done the same in the dressing room. Then he ushered in change right from the get go by choosing to bat first. Right through the series, Zim had only chased. Everything about the hosts was already starting to look different.
Okay, not everything. It was Chamu Chibhabha, Zimbabwe’s form batsman, who led the team through the initial doldrums. When Zimbabwe lost Hamilton Masakadza and Raza early, Chibhabha locked away the expansive strokes and forged a strong stand with Sean Williams for the third wicket.
By the time he was bowled in the penultimate over, Chibhabha had already constructed his finest and highest T20 innings of 67. Without that effort, Zim perhaps wouldn’t have come anywhere close to posting 145.
It didn’t seem enough, though, when Uthappa was on song. The last time he had scored a fifty (his only fifty in T20 cricket), Uthappa was a novice playing at the inaugural World T20 in South Africa. Today, a lot older and a lot more experienced, he seemed in a tearing hurry to raise his bat again.
It took him all of six balls to get going. Taurai Muzarabani, the debutant from the first T20 on Friday, missed his length in the second over and Uthappa drove him with style over mid-off’s head for four.
And he was off. The pacer went full again next ball and this time Uthappa picked it from outside off and deposited the ball at the midwicket fence.
Raza thought he could slow him down with spin. But Prosper Utseya got the same treatment in the next over. Christopher Mpofu thrice in the one after that. Bang, bang, bang. And two more bangs to the fence in Chamu Chibhabha’s over after that. Murali Vijay, standing 22 yards away, was as casual a bystander as any of the spectators around this field.
In the eighth over, Raza tossed the ball to his leggie, Cremer. First ball, Cremer ripped one on Vijay’s middle stump and he played around it. The top of his off-stick was pegged back. Not much of a problem, you’d think, as Manish Pandey walked in. But it was. Three balls later, he was gone, LBW to Cremer’s googly, for zero. 58/1 was now 58/3.
But no real alarm bells went off. Uthappa was still around. Raza, though, was plotting and scheming.
Noticing that the Indian line-up has no left-handed threats (just one, Axar Patel) and inspired by the turn Cremer purchased off this slow wicket, the Zim captain introduced his orthodox, Williams in the next over. Different arm but same away-turn from the right handers.
It worked, of course, after he forced Uthappa to spoon a return catch with his third ball. The game was wide open now but Raza was intent on closing the door.
He was a livewire — screaming at his fielders, patting their backs after saved runs and was always found at the top of the bowler’s run-up at the start of every ball, consulting them before setting the field.
For example, before the start of the ninth over, Cremer wanted Muzarabani at a widish midwicket position. By the end of the ninth over, Muzarabani had run Kedar Jadhav out from his widish midwicket position.
When debutant Samson walked in at 69/5, he seemed acutely aware of the occasion. So much so that he was extremely cautious from the start to not throw it away. That worked for him, but not for India in this particular situation.
Samson’s caution allowed the asking rate to balloon. He tried to make up for it, all in one go in the 18th over, by getting under an Mpofu ball. But Samson only managed to sky his hit as far as Malcolm Waller at long-on.
As he walked back, though, not too many hearts broke for Samson in Harare. Zim were on the very brink of an emotional win.