Cape Town — 17 January 2022.
Zubayr Hamza is called aside to take a routine drugs test. He has performed this action numerous times during his career. Nothing seems out of the ordinary.
But yet it is. Two months later upon the release of the results it emerges that Hamza has tested positive for a prohibited substance under the ICC's anti-doping code.
How was it even possible? Was it recreational? Was it performance enhancing?
These were the questions floating around while Hamza’s career was at a crossroads. The stylish batter had only just returned to the Proteas squad, having played a Test in New Zealand after also striking a maiden half-century on his ODI debut a couple of months earlier.
Everything was seemingly on the rise again, but suddenly it seemed like his entire world was imploding.
Hamza’s forward defence was that it was an unintentional act. He had simply taken the wrong medication. It was discovered later that Furosemide — a drug prescribed for the treatment of high blood pressure and edema (fluid retention; excess fluid held in body tissues) — was found in his bloodstream.
Unfortunately for Hamza, it is also a masking agent on the World Anti-Doping (Wada) list of prohibited substances, and he would still have to serve a ban. Hamza’s suspension was ultimately reduced to nine months from the prescribed two-year sentence.
It was still an arduous long time with a home Test series against Bangladesh and a blue-chip tour to England that he would now miss. Hamza, who had played six Tests since his debut against Pakistan in 2019, was not allowed to pick up a bat from March 22, 2022, until his return to competitive cricket three days before Christmas last year.
During this period Hamza was uncontactable. A likeable, social individual, he became reclusive. Rumours circulated that the Protea may not even return to the game at all.
“There was a lot of self doubt. Dark times, so to speak,” Hamza exclusively told IOL Sport this week at Newlands, Cape Town. “A lot of retrospection. A lot of answers to questions I needed to answer.
“It was by no means an easy period in my life, and not just my career. I learnt a lot of lessons about myself. During that period there were definitely doubts, and some tough questions whether I would make it back.”
But while Hamza shut out the rest of the world, he leaned heavily on those closest to him. And that’s how he began his rehabilitation process.
From being spotted on the golf course to attending Cape Town City FC matches, Hamza was slowly emerging from seclusion. It also helped that his introspection was starting to take shape.
“I have always kept my circle small and close. People that I trust, who always want the best for me. During that time those people played a massive role in keeping my mind off things at that point. There are also a few close teammates that I have played with for a very long time who know me better than I know myself,” Hamza said.
“In terms of how I was going to go about my career, and what I still wanted to achieve, fortunately I found the answers to those things. The goals would always remain simple. As out of this world it might be, it is something that I enjoy challenging myself with. I am where I am now (because of the process), and to be honest, I’ve slightly enjoyed the process.”
The next step was his reintegration into the Western Province dressing room. In his absence, Tony de Zorzi had taken over the mantle as the team’s premier batter, which included a historic triple century at Newlands and was now actually pushing for Hamza’s Proteas Test spot higher up, while Kyle Verreynne had taken over the leadership reins.
But the peripherals were not Hamza’s focus. He just wanted to get back out on the turf and feel the sun on his skin again. That opportunity finally came on December 23 — one day after his ban ended — against the Rocks at Boland Park in a Cricket SA 1-Day Cup clash.
“With every game comes nerves, and the pressure of consistency, so there was always going to be that pressure and nerves, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.” he said.
“Just to be out on the park again. I didn’t score runs in the game, but I certainly enjoyed being out there, the chatter that happens between colleagues. I enjoy the WP squad and the relationships that have been built up.”
For all the camaraderie and the appreciation of being able to enjoy playing the game he loves again, Hamza is a professional that knows the currency of a batter is runs. And they were not coming. His duck in the CSA 1-Day Cup final against the Lions was particularly galling, especially as it was WP’s first domestic final in eight years.
Therefore, the return to the Wanderers after a couple of months of feeling bat on ball again out in the middle was extra special, particularly when he struck his first century since the suspension. A couple of half-centuries against the Warriors in the final game of the season have since followed the 129, which seemingly suggests Hamza is approaching his best form again.
“It was emotional and extremely joyous at the same time. These are things that if you want to achieve the goals that you set for yourself, then at some point it has to become an obsession. When you have nine months of doing nothing, then you start to obsess a little. I really enjoyed that moment,” Hamza said.
“From a preparation point of view, I thought I put in the hours. I think there might have been the difference between training in the nets and competing at a professional level, especially with the high stakes of a trophy on the line.
“But it feels good now. It has been a good experience. Unfortunately I’ve just started to get going now, and scoring some runs, and it's the end of the season.”
The path ahead is unclear for Hamza, now 27 years old, but he admits that “I would be lying” if thoughts about returning to Shukri Conrad’s Proteas Test squad have not entered his mind.
Coincidentally, they also don’t play for another nine months. And as Hamza can attest to, that can be life-changing.