Clarity of thought is something that strikes you as Sikandar Raza starts talking cricket. He is sharp, articulate and does not mince his words.
Featuring in the Indian Premier League (IPL) for the first time for the Punjab Kings, the seasoned Zimbabwe all-rounder has made his presence felt with significant contributions in every department.
Amid debates over the Impact Player eventually taking the all-rounders out of the game, the 36-year-old Raza, who shares his birthday with Sachin Tendulkar, bats for the traditional format of the game, and also insists that the all-rounders will never become irrelevant in the game of cricket.
In a conversation with Sportstar at a plush Chandigarh hotel, Raza talks about his stint in the IPL, the comeback story of Zimbabwe cricket and the road ahead…
You have featured in several franchise leagues around the world. What makes the IPL different from the others?
The viewership is the highest. The capacity of the crowd; I have not been to many stadiums that have such capacity. Lucknow has about 70,000 capacity, Ahmedabad can get to 100 thousand people. So, 20,000 is a low-capacity stadium here, whereas in some parts of the world where I have been to, 30,000 has been the maximum. These are the things that make IPL the biggest.
I have sensed and felt the hype of the tournament. Plus, more teams mean the world’s biggest overseas stars come under one roof and make themselves available to play. That makes IPL one of the biggest tournaments.
How did you prepare yourself for the big-ticket tournament? Were the preparations different from what you’d do normally?
Of course, when you come here, you have to be prepared in all ways - not just mentally, but physically and technically as well. What helped me was the fact that about three weeks before the IPL, I featured in the Pakistan Super League, which is also a top-quality tournament. So, that way, I was prepared to play in one of the biggest tournaments in the world, which is IPL. PSL was there for me, so I did not have to go for extra training, nor did I do things differently. When I went home, I had three ODIs with Zimbabwe, so I was playing cricket. And soon after the ODIs got over, the next day, I was on the flight to India for the IPL.
You have been an integral part of the Punjab Kings set-up this year. If you could talk a bit about your role clarity and being a senior cricketer, how did the conversations with the coach and the captain help?
When it comes to the environment, Punjab Kings has a very professional, and very clear environment. So, the coaching staff told me exactly what my role was. Wasim (Jaffer) bhai even rang me when I was playing PSL. He was like, “Yeah, congratulations on the signing. Your role will be pretty much the same that you’re playing at the PSL. So, we will be looking at you as someone who can finish off the game at No.5 or No.6…” So, Wasim bhai told me my role when I wasn’t even here.
When I got here, Sunil (Joshi) bhai and I got together and discussed my role as a bowler.
Above all, Shikhar (Dhawan) bhai spoke to me and I think if I don’t mention him, it will be very unfair. Shikhar bhai just said, “You know what needs to be done. You made it here. We’ll have fun, we will make sure the environment remains professional, calm and happier. When given a chance, you just go out and do your best. Failures will come along anyway and it’s okay. We just keep working hard and keep on having fun,” that’s what Shikhar bhai told me.
How does the team handle success and failures?
I think that’s where the experienced guys come into play a lot more than the younger guys because we have seen the success and failures a lot more than the junior guys. We have seen it and we know how to handle it, or we all have different ways to handle it. So, what we do is, we get arms around some of the newcomers or some of the guys who are struggling to handle a loss. So, we get an arm on their shoulder and we tell them what needs to be done. We try to create some fun activities for them, sit with them, watch a movie, take their mind off cricket and then talk about cricket here and there as well. So these are the things the more senior guys do at Punjab Kings.
But to be honest, we also put our hand around when we win the game. Because that’s also very important to remain humble and take the success and victory with humility as well because it’s just one game and there are so many games to go. The IPL is such a tough tournament, there is no weak or strong team. Everybody is as good as anyone else on the day, so you make sure that everybody is in a happy medium - in a very comfortable place where success doesn’t take us too high up and the loss doesn’t take us too far down.
With the Impact Player coming in, the game has got tougher for all-rounders. Being an all-rounder yourself, how do you handle pressure situations?
Yes. It’s about an extra batter or a bowler now. Being an all-rounder, it is tougher. Either I have to bowl to a better batter or if I am batting, I have to face an extra hard bowler. The Impact Player certainly has made the game tougher.
Do you think that over a period of time, the Impact Player rule will have an impact on the all-rounders and their roles? Also, do you think that the new rule has taken the fun or the excitement out of the game?
I don’t think the Impact Player rule has got anything to do with the fun of the game, so I am on the edge at the moment. I am not sure if the Impact Player is the right way to go forward. Maybe, it should still be best 11 versus best 11.
But what I have noticed is that if I want to improve as a cricketer, then I am bowling to a better batter and if I want to improve as a batter, then I’m facing a better bowler but is it fair? I’m not sure. Maybe, call me old school, but I want 11 best against the 11 best.
So, are you indicating that the Impact Player rule can no way take an all-rounder out of the game and that they will stay relevant despite the new changes?
Being an all-rounder, I don’t think I’ve been taken out of the game. I don’t feel that way because if I’m a good all-rounder, then I can be used as a bowler and used as a batter as well. And if I feel like I’m being taken away from the game, then I will work hard or even harder and come back as a better bowler or as a better batter, so that a team can pick me on any of my skills. That’s how I would look at it.
Selecting an Impact Player could often be tricky. What are the factors that PBKS considers before choosing an Impact Player?
The beauty of this answer is that it has got nothing to do with me (laughs). And I’m very happy with that because it’s still very confusing to me. So, there are people who have been selected to make that decision, and they make that decision. So, I am happy that I don’t have to play any part in that.
What, according to you, is the X-factor of PBKS this season?
The unity and fun. People talk about skills and all that. What we believe is that everybody’s got skills, the unity of this team and the fun we have behind closed doors among ourselves and in the park and in each other’s company. How much we enjoy will remain our X-factor. And if you stop enjoying that, it will get harder for us to win.
You spoke about team bonding. Over the last one month, who has been your 3 am friend in the Punjab Kings set-up?
So, Bhanu (Bhanuka Rajapaksha) and I are close because we have been part of five different leagues together and this is the sixth time we’re part of one league. But only once has he played for a different team. Otherwise, this is the fifth team where we are team-mates, so Bhanu and I are close friends. But I don’t want to call him a 3 am friend because he sleeps a lot (laughs).
So, my 3 am friend would probably be Jitesh Sharma. I can call up Jitu at 3 am and say, “Jitu, order me tea, let’s have it together. And he’ll order it…”
You highlighted the importance of being a happy unit. But in a team where there are so many superstars, is it actually possible for a rookie, uncapped player to walk up to you or a Shikhar Dhawan and strike up a conversation?
Let’s put it this way. About 40 minutes ago, I was having tea with Atharva Taide in his room. So, it’s not like he has to approach a senior guy. Senior guys are also going into junior players’ rooms, making sure they are comfortable because sometimes shyness can take over and they’re not sure if they can approach us in our rooms. So, I think most of the senior guys go to the room of the junior players, so that they understand and know that they’re comfortable to walk up to our rooms anytime they want.
And similarly, anyone can go to Shikhar bhai’s room at any time. That’s not even a question. We all know how Shikhar bhai is and his room is always open for the players.
After four years, the IPL is back in the home and away format. With so much travel, and playing across venues, how have the players handled the situation?
We all love Mohali. We are very happy that we are finally playing at our home ground. Home and away is for everybody, so the team that complains the most will lose its focus. So, we’re not, we don’t worry about home and away and personally, I have enjoyed this format because it has exposed me to different states, different cultures, and different parts of India that I may not get to see again. So, I’m very happy with that. Travelling is something that I’m not enjoying, but I guess there’s pros and cons for both.
But then again, the reason we are not complaining is because the other teams are doing exactly what we are doing as well. So, it’s pretty much fair for everybody. Everybody’s doing equal mileage, as much rest one team is having, the other team is having as well.
Sam Curran and Arshdeep Singh have spearheaded the bowling department, while your presence has given an additional bowling option to the team. When under pressure, how does the bowling unit handle situations, especially at the death?
You mentioned Sam and Arshdeep and how they are pairing up. I think Arshdeep has paired well with Nathan and KG as well. That pace department that we have had so far, with all these guys, have been very good. We have taken wickets in the Powerplay continuously. Sometimes, we have even taken three wickets in the Powerplay, and tell you about the camaraderie that Arshdeep, being a local guy, has had with the overseas players.
That’s something that has been working really well for us and when we get into a huddle, we look at who the batter is, which side we should bowl at and also discuss the match-ups. We haven’t got a certain death bowler, everybody is equally good enough to bowl the 19th over, depending on who’s batting and what are the skill sets that are required.
As the IPL heads towards the mid-way, what are the areas that Punjab Kings need to work on to stay in the hunt for a playoff berth?
Yeah, so every team will have those areas. I think a lot of the teams, not just Punjab, are working on the best combinations. And you’ll see a lot of changes teams are making define that best combination because you want to peak at the right time.
We can bat, bowl, field a lot better in every game. Improvement is something that never stops and why should it!
As the tournament goes, the teams are gonna get better and if we think the way we started our tournament, if we keep the same performances we’ll go through in the tournament that’s not true. So we go out there and improve every game and that will remain our motto anyway. So, instead of picking out one thing, I would say we must improve in all three departments.
Let’s talk a bit about Zimbabwe cricket. Around this time last year, things weren’t quite bright for the team as it suffered a string of defeats and an overhaul was on the cards. But from thereon, the side bounced back incredibly well and went on to beat some of the top teams. If you could take us through this journey?
We defeated Australia in Australia for the first time and also qualified for the T20 World Cup. After more than a decade, we defeated Bangladesh in a limited overs series. So, I always say that if there was a ‘Team of the Year Award’ by ICC, I think the world would have voted for us, especially the time after June when Dave Houghton took over.
Zimbabwe richly deserved the Team of the Year award, but since there wasn’t any, I will give them the Team of the Year Award for how we have played, the brand of cricket we have put on display. Now, even the stadiums are full and our crowds are chanting and singing those songs. It looks good on TV as well and people who come to the ground have started enjoying it as well.
Zimbabwe has done really well in that small period of time, and our ship has turned not just on the park, but off the park as well. Now, we have announced our first-ever T10 domestic tournament, so I’m really looking forward to that as well. So yeah, I think from last June, we have made all the right noises on and off the park.
How challenging was it to make those ‘right noises’?
Dave Houghton sorted everything out. We didn’t have to sort much out because as soon as Houghton was appointed, all the right noises were always going to happen. Especially, when he came in with his own philosophy and how he got us together and how our environment and culture were built. Again that was destroyed previously, and how the camaraderie came back and how the trust came back in the change room. It took him basically two weeks to fix it.
Over the last decade, several players left Zimbabwe to play in County cricket and of course, there have been disputes regarding pay and other issues. Since you have seen that phase from close quarters, how much do you think, has it affected the development of the game?
I can speak for the time I have seen. Making the right noise was tough for us, but like I said Houghton came in and it did not look tough after that. Then we were crying for more matches and I remember, our MD would say, “why would we get more matches when we can’t even compete, forget winning…”
Once we started winning and once we started doing well, more matches came anyway. Everybody wants to play a tough team. Everybody wants to improve the pool of players. So, now with more matches, you could see we have a bigger pool of players. Instead of seeing the same guys again and again, now, we are seeing new guys again. Look at the Test matches, we had six debutants against the West Indies and that’s a tough side to beat. And we had six debutantes. Our pool of players is growing and our Zimbabwe Academy boys were in India recently and our U-19 team is in India currently for a training camp. So, off the park, Zimbabwe is doing everything it can to improve the quality and standard of playing.
Coming to the challenges, when I look back, I realise I was also part of those challenges as well. But what I can tell you now is not one guy is owed anything. So I can easily tell you about what is already well documented about the challenges and things that used to happen in Zimbabwe. But let me tell you what people haven’t really taken note of. Not one of us is owed anything from Zimbabwe Cricket. Everybody gets their salaries on time, match fees on time. You could see there’s a lot of development happening, you can see there’s more cricket. And, more cricket means that Zimbabwe Cricket has to fork out more money to host it because we’re still not in a position where we generate a lot of revenue through hosting. Sometimes, we ended up losing money but Zimbabwe Cricket is willing to do that as long as the cricket is being played.
So a lot of the money is being channeled to the right doors, which is a great positive. Now, we have Pakistan A team arriving very soon for two four-day matches and six one-dayers, prior to the World Cup qualifiers that Zimbabwe is going to host again. So, there are a lot of right things happening for Zimbabwe right now.
And that T10 League that we are about to launch will also help our cricket move in the right direction. It will help us in developing players, creating the pool of players because the senior guys may not have too much time left on their hands as well. So, it is very important that we make sure that before we disappear or before we call it quits, we give Zimbabwe enough pool of quality cricketers that can keep raising the flag high.
I do believe this is the best time to be part of Zimbabwe cricket. And lastly, you said a lot of the guys left, but now a lot of the guys are coming back as well. And that can only happen only if Zimbabwe is doing all the right things, not just in the park. Most importantly, off the park as well. So it’s because of people like Givemore Makoni, who’s our GM and Tavengwa Mukuhlani that a lot of the right things are happening in Zimbabwe cricket.
At Punjab Kings, you are teammates with Sam Curran, who also has a strong Zimbabwe connection. Did you get a chance to strike a conversation with him on Zimbabwe cricket and the road ahead?
Yeah, so Sam’s older brother (Tom) was playing for the same franchise as me back home in Zimbabwe as well. So we had nine or 10 English boys, a couple of Aussie boys. One of the Caribbean boys had come over as an overseas guy for our domestic setup.
We were reliving some of the memories. Sam’s father (late Kevin Curran) was my franchise coach. So we were living some of those memories as well. I was telling him how things are improving. And you can take a Zimbabwean out of Zimbabwe, but I think though he is out of Zimbabwe, he still wishes well for the team and the country. He was saying a lot of nice things about Zimbabwe as well and all Zimbabweans including myself are very happy and proud to see how his career’s gone.
From aspiring to be a pilot to becoming a cricketer, it has been quite a journey for you. Who has been your inspiration?
My grandfather. He taught me a lot about life and life taught me a lot about cricket and everything else that’s there in between.
- ‘Fans can do what they want’ says Pochettino after Chelsea jeers
- Bopanna caps off last Davis Cup match in style after doubles win
- New Zealand’s Fox wins BMW PGA Championship
- Trossard goal seals Arsenal win at Everton
- IND vs SL: Sri Lanka 50 all out, records lowest Asia Cup total in final