Stephen Curry is 34. Lebron James is 37, and is almost having a never-ending peak. The comparisons are going to ruffle many but Curry is different, he isn’t fazed about these constant comparisons and all he cares about is improving himself.
Now let us put this analogy into cricketing context, Babar Azam is 27, Virat Kohli is 33 but the constant comparison between the two hasn’t fazed Babar one bit. In fact, the Pakistani batter feels privileged to be in the same sentence as the likes of Kohli, Kane Williamson and Joe Root.
In short, that is Babar Azam, he is not only carrying out a humongous task of stomping his authority and creating a legacy in Pakistan cricket but is also likeable in the process. Cricket has evolved as a sport over the years, so much so that criticism has become severe and at a multi-fold rate.
Babar is different. The mighty Australians acknowledged his efforts and clapped over their head during the Test series, the Sri Lankans applauded his humongous effort that led to Pakistan winning a crucial Test at Galle. If you think that was it, Babar is out there on social media supporting Kohli, one who plays for a country that is Pakistan’s arch-rivals.
The Pakistani skipper is perhaps the idealist that the sport once was envisioned for, he is perhaps that one cricketer who is beyond the boundaries.
So why is he till date still in the shadows of some of the greatest cricketers?
Babar’s white-ball legacy
The comparison with Kohli perhaps is one of the biggest compliments that you could give to Babar. And just like his Indian counterpart, Babar has carried the weight and the flag of his country on his shoulder. The 27-year-old is almost flawless against the white-ball, he knows how to handle the pressure of being the flag-bearer and most definitely, knows how to go about his innings to awe people.
But there was a catch that you skipped: in white-ball formats.
Since his debut in 2015, only two players have edged past him in terms of ODI numbers: Kohli and Rohit Sharma. Babar converts 47% of his half-centuries into centuries, showing how he is always keen on making it big once he has a look-in.
In the T20I format, the debate never existed, Babar was in a league of his own. In 69 innings since his debut, no batter has scored more runs than the Pakistani opener in the shortest format, with 2686 runs, averaging a staggering 45.33 as an opener. Ireland’s Paul Stirling and India’s Rohit are close but still 500 runs separate the two from Babar.
“This was an allegation in my U-19 days. Yeh tv wala player nahi hai!” (He is not a TV player). Live matches mey perform nahi karega. (Won’t perform in games broadcasted live). Meaning? “That bada match ka player nahi hai (not a big-game player). I took it positively, how to correct it. How can I prove them wrong? Only with my performance.”
If you have watched any of Babar’s innings, you would instantly recognize how he is a big-match player but during his formative years, there was an element of doubt, one that Babar has now buried.
So, why wasn’t he in the Fab four?
The red-ball Test
In ODIs, it took Babar 15 innings before getting his first three-figure score in the format. But in Tests, it took him 31 innings, where his highest score was 99 and only thrice crossed the 70-run mark in an innings. For a prodigal talent like Babar, the inability to convert a fifty into a hundred certainly put him under the scanner. However, his biggest supporter, Mickey Arthur had other plans.
Six years and seven hundreds later, Babar is slowly turning a page for himself in international cricket. In fact, he is now rightfully knocking the door, which he first started in 2019, when he performed on tough surfaces against South Africa and later, against Australia. Over the next three years, the right-hander averaged 58.03, the most for any batter with a minimum of 20 Tests.
Jump to 2022, 506 is the target, Pakistan are put into needing a monumental run-chase in a crucial series. Even though it is at home, Australia have put the Asian side on the mat. At 21/2, Pakistan are reeling but skipper Babar leads by example. It was the first time that the right-hander put on a marathon effort against the red-ball.
Over the next 603 minutes or ten hours, Babar stood like a wall, played like a lion and kept the hosts in the game. While he might not have got to his 200, getting out on 196, it was perhaps the first time the right-hander showed his worth in the longest format. And when he walked back, the whole cricketing world stood and took notice.
But it was at home. Could he do it away from home?
Galle and the changing perception
Babar’s year or 2022, as others call it is when things have completely changed for the Pakistani batter. If the Karachi knock showed his determined efforts, his technique against a gritty Australian attack, his knock in Galle was perhaps the biggest reminder of his talent, and his attitude in world cricket.
In an interview with Ramiz Raja back in 2021, Babar clearly stated the need for the batters to be more aggressive and take the game by the collar. In Galle, it was exactly what the Pakistani skipper did despite losing a plethora of wickets around him.
Yet another occasion, where he walked out at 21/2, Babar stood against the test of the Sri Lankan bowlers, being part of eight partnerships, scoring a get-out-of-jail century for Pakistan. During that knock, the right-hander scored a century, built two partnerships worth 106 runs for the visitors in an innings that they had no business winning.
But there is a pattern already, isn’t it? Babar is great against spin, like other Asian batters but the ultimate test….
How about SENA countries?
A real test for any Asian batter is playing well in the SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) countries. While the sample size is very low, his numbers in Asia and the other countries are staggeringly different. Back in 2019, against South Africa, he showed signs of being a top-level Test batter against a threatening Proteas attack.
Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Duanne Olivier up against Babar. Babar scored a terrific 72 in the second innings, perhaps even one of his best knocks ever in whites. It was that knock that really changed the perception about the Pakistani batter, one which he has time and again mentioned across all interviews.
In Asia, Babar averages 60.46, where he has scored six out of his seven hundreds. The only century that he has scored outside Asia has come in Australia, where he scored 104. That has really been the real test for Asian batters, one which has given the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Kohli the ultimate seal of approval.
With these numbers away from home, should Babar be considered part of the Fab four? In reality, Pakistan haven’t played a lot of games away from Asia but with the WTC in play, the legacy of Babar, the batter and the captain will only be defined by his performance in the coming years.
*Note: "Babar Azam's Resurgence in Tests" table has been updated