"I don’t like comparisons but Babar is currently very close to being in the same class as Kohli, Smith or Root. He is in a zone of his own. He is always pitting himself against other top batsmen like Kohli or Smith."
Pakistan head coach and chief selector Misbah-ul-Haq recently said that Babar Azam is "almost" in the same league of the Fab Four - Virat Kohli, Steven Smith, Kane Williamson and Joe Root - and you can't argue with that. The 26-year-old has kind of carried Pakistan's batting department in the last few years and has produced numbers that are as good as what the Fab Four have accumulated, or even better.
Babar, the current Pakistan limited-overs skipper, has become one of the top batsmen in world cricket ever since he made his international debut on this day in 2015. The elegant right-handed batsman has been a consistent performer for Pakistan and is not far away from being called one of the modern greats of the game. He is the only player in the top five of the rankings across all three formats. As Babar completes five years in international cricket, we take a look back at how he has proven his mettle in all three formats and what makes him a complete player.
ODIs - PAKISTAN'S RUN MACHINE
Two Under-19 World Cups followed by tons of runs in domestic cricket, Babar made his international debut at the age of 20 in an ODI against Zimbabwe in Lahore. The match was washed out but Babar made a solid impression by scoring a 60-ball 54. He got quite a few good starts in his first 15 ODIs but not once he converted it into a century, but when he finally got one, he ended up getting three in a row in the space of six days. All three of these hundreds came against West Indies and that was the arrival of Babar.
Ever since he made his ODI debut, no other Pakistani batsman has scored more runs than Babar. In fact, Mohammad Hafeez who's second on the list is almost 1400 runs behind. He was also the leading run-scorer for Pakistan in the 2019 World Cup. Babar has crafted more centuries than any other Pakistani batsman in this time period and also has the best batting average among batsmen who have scored at least 100 runs in this time frame. He has been an impactful player, considering he averages 85.38 in the matches Pakistan have won, compared to 32.8 in the ones that they have lost.
Babar in particular has been phenomenal against spinners against whom he averages 78.71. If we take a minimum of 1000 runs into consideration, only Shai Hope, Michael Hussey and MS Dhoni have a better average against spinners than Babar. The right-hander has only played 74 ODIs but already has 11 centuries to his name. He got to this landmark in just 71 innings. South Africa's Hashim Amla (64) and Quinton de Kock (65) are the only two batsmen who have achieved this feat quicker than the Pakistani batsman.
Babar scored 1092 runs in ODIs in 2019 and became the first Pakistani batsman in five years to score over 1000 runs in a calendar year. Both Misbah and Hafeez crossed the 1000-run mark in 2013. While doing so, Babar broke the record held by former captain Javed Miandad and became the fastest Pakistan batsman to cross 1000 runs in a year. While Miandad took 21 innings in 1987, Babar achieved the same in just 19.
Babar v the Fab Four (since 2019): Babar has had a terrific run in the 50-over format since the start of 2019. The right-hander has managed over 1000 runs and he has done that at a strike rate of over 92. Babar actually has a better batting average than Kohli, Williamson, Smith and Root in this time frame who themselves did quite well.
T20Is - MR. CONSISTENT
It's not easy to score runs on a consistent basis when it comes to the shortest format of the game but there are few who have still managed to master it, and Babar is one of them. The top-ranked T20I batsman has 13 half-centuries in 38 innings and played a key role in helping Pakistan stay at the top of the T20I rankings for more than two years. Babar is not a power-hitter and accumulates most of his runs via classical shots along the ground. "If I can be No.1 in the world without power hitting, then I don't need power hitting."
Babar (50.72) has the second best batting average after Virat Kohli (50.8) in T20Is, among batsmen with a minimum of 500 runs in this format. His strike rate is slightly on the lower side (128.1) but Babar plays that kind of role for Pakistan. He is someone who holds the innings together and the others simply bat around him. He has an astonishing average of over 85 against spinners even in this format. Babar (15.9%) bats with so much control that he has the second least false shot percentage in T20Is after Scotland's Richie Berrington (15.3%) - minimum 1000 runs.
Babar only made his T20I debut in September 2016, but has become Pakistan's fourth-highest run-scorer in no time. The third on the list is Umar Akmal who has 1690 runs to his name in 84 T20Is, while Babar has only played 38. He was made Pakistan's T20I skipper last year and as a captain, Babar averages over 60 and has a strike rate of 140.3 in five T20I innings. If we are including franchise cricket as well, then no other batsman has managed more runs than Babar (2018) in T20s since the start of 2019.
Babar v the Fab Four (since 2019): Not a single one of them is a big-hitter. All five of them are more technical with their approach and play a similar kind of role for their respective teams. Babar operated at an average of 62.56 in 2018 which has dropped into the 40s since 2019 but his strike rate has gone up from 126.5 to 137.9, They say if the sum of your batting average and strike rate is over 180 in the 20-over format, you are doing extremely well. In this case, only Root fails to make the cut.
TESTS - GETTING BETTER AND BETTER
Unlike in white-ball cricket, it took Babar some time to get the hang of Test cricket. He was constantly getting those fifties but it took him 17 Tests to score his first century in the longest format of the game. He crafted a solid 90* when Pakistan toured New Zealand in 2016 but was found wanting in Australia as he could only manage 68 runs in six innings. His first Test century came against New Zealand at Dubai in November 2018 and since then he has become a different beast altogether. Babar has four centuries and two fifties in his last five Tests.
He didn't score a single century when Pakistan toured South Africa in 2018-19 but played a couple of eye-pleasing knocks. Those drives against Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander were mesmerising. When Pakistan once again played two Tests in Australia in 2019, Babar brushed aside the ghost of 2016-17 and scored a solid century in Brisbane and a 97 in Adelaide.
Pre-2018, Babar was getting out to a lot of deliveries pitched on a fuller length. He was averaging just 20.5 on such deliveries which has now gone up to 114 since the start of 2018. He was also getting dismissed a lot while playing the flick and cover drives but Babar worked on his game and now averages over 100 on such deliveries since 2018.
He has scored 1375 runs at 65.48 since the start of 2018. Apart from him, no other Pakistani batsman has scored over 1000 runs in this time period. Overall as well, Babar has the best batting average among batsmen who have scored at least 1000 runs since 2018 and only Kohli has hit more centuries than him in this time frame. He has completely transformed himself as a Test batsman in these last two years and has become a successful all-format player.
Babar v the Fab Four (since 2019): Both Babar and Smith have unbelievable numbers in red-ball cricket since the start of 2019, while Kohli and Williamson too have pretty good numbers but they still look slightly average because of the standard they have set in the past. Meanwhile, there has been a lot written about Root's form since 2019. The England Test captain hasn't been at his best in the last few months, while his contemporaries are taking their game to the next level.
In the last 18 months, the Pakistani batsman actually has better numbers than Kohli, Williamson, Smith and Root in quite a few departments. All of their respective teams depend a lot on them, but unlike others, Babar doesn't get much support from other batsmen in his side. While Babar, Kohli, Smith and Williamson have been scoring runs in all three formats, Root has struggled to keep up with his competitors. Misbah might feel that Babar is "almost" in the same league as the Fab Four, but the way he has performed in these last two-three years, the 25-year-old should actually be a part of the Fab Four, or the Fab Five.