The former India opener had just taken over as the head coach of the Zimbabwe men’s team and the next day (July 13, 2018) marked the start of a five-match ODI series against Pakistan.
“A day before the game I was informed by Zimbabwe Cricket that Sean ErvineCraig Williams, Sikandar Raza and Brendan Taylor withdrew due to an ongoing salary dispute with the board. I was clueless,” Rajput narrated the story to PTI as if it happened yesterday.
“Zimbabwe Cricket’s managing director, Givemore Makoni, told me that we cannot cancel the series. We got a patchwork and first game we were all out for 100 (107) and then in the third game for 50 ( 67 all out).happened, I knew I had to stay to change things.
“We couldn’t qualify for 2019 one-day tournament and then got suspended. That was the lowest point. So, I’m proud of this transformation in just four years,” you can gauge the satisfaction in Rajput’s voice.
As Zimbabwe one of his best wins in a T20 World Cup beat Pakistan by one run on Wednesday, no one could have been happier than the national team’s current technical director.
“My dream was to see them qualify for the T20 World Cup in Australia. It’s icing on the cake and I couldn’t be more proud of my boys,” said Rajput, who was also coach of the Indian team when MS Dhoni’s men created history by winning the first edition in 2007.
Rajput was with the team until the qualifiers and then wanted to have some time off with his family during the Diwali season and thus did not travel to Australia.
Everything that had to go wrong, did go wrong
When the Neil Johnsons, Flower brothers, Murray Goodwins, Paul Strangs, Henry Olongas and Heath Streaks left the scene, Zimbabwean cricket was at a standstill.
Blame it on administrative incompetence or decline in players’ quality, poor pay structure, things went from bad to worse when the government suspended the cricket board and the ICC in turn suspended Zimbabwe from international cricket for six months.
The biggest upset of the T20 World Cup
The situation has improved on the administrative front, although players and Rajput themselves are paid directly by the ICC for their services.
Star batsman Sikandar Raza has scored an astonishing five ODI hundreds in 2022 alone and his only 50-plus tons before the 2022 season came back in 2015.
Raza took four wickets with his breakaways on Wednesday and turned the game on its head and finally kept Zimbabwe in the hunt for a semi-final.
“Sikandar is an emotional boy. He is a late bloomer at 36. I remember a few years back when I took charge, I asked him, “Tuney kitne pas bi Zimbabwe ko jeetayein hain.
“He hasn’t scored a century in a long time. He was lucky to get 40s and odd 50s which secured his place in the team.”
Rajput, a former Test opener, then brought out the ‘khadoos’ Mumbaikar in him and had a heart-to-heart with seniors like Williams, Ervine and Raza and captain Regis Chakabva.
“I told them, guys, if you seniors are not going to put your hands up and take more responsibility to win games, then there is no point in playing for Zimbabwe.
“If the team has to lose, I would prefer to pick youngsters and not think about results. It did work as their mindset changed.”
When Afghanistan’s loss was Zimbabwe’s gain
Rajput actually had no plans to coach Zimbabwe as he was happy coaching the Afghanistan team in Greater Noida.
But things took a turn when ACB officials wanted him to come to Kabul to prepare the U-19 national team for the Junior World Cup.
“I specifically told them I would never go to Kabul. So the moment they insisted I resigned. It was covered by the media and then Makoni called me within a week and offered me the head coach’s job on,” said Rajput, who also coached India A.
After Rajput looked after their initial camp and Zimbabwe beat Bangladesh in an away series for the first time in a Test match in over 20 years, he was offered a three-year contract.
“I started watching a lot of local and club cricket. I would be in Harare, Bulawayo, Mutare. That’s how I spotted left-arm pacer Richard Ngarava, who bowled 15 wickets against Pakistan,” he said.
In fact, what makes Rajput’s chest swell with pride is the fact that Pakistan captain Babar Azam has never managed a big score against Zimbabwe’s pace attack comprising of Blessing Muzarabani and Ngarava.
“Pakistan have a world class pace attack but batting is a two man army. Their middle order is below average and only Shadab Khan looks like a skilled player.
“Mohammed Nawaz is good against spinners but will always struggle against a good pace attack. 130 was not a big score but it was a great bowling and fielding effort.”
So will he come to Australia if Zimbabwe make it to the last four stages? “Let’s see. I haven’t decided yet,” he laughed as he signed off.