Babar Azam: The Calm in the Pakistan Cricket Storm
Calmness, consistency & conventionality is not Pakistan’s forte, yet these adjectives embody Babar Azam perfectly.
Pakistan was born out of and thrives in chaos. Its borders were shaped by the uprooting of a civilization from their homes in the name of faith. Thus, it is only fitting that Pakistan’s recreational religion is cricket, the most chaotically complex of major sports. Parsing through the country’s cricketing history, indescribable chaos seems to be the common denominator, from holding the West Indies of Headley, Walcott, and Weekes to a draw at Bagh-e-Jinnah in 1948 to leap towards Test status, to blowing away archrivals and cricketing behemoth India in the Champions Trophy final in 2017, while cycling through intoxicating highs, shameful lows, and countless captains.
A calm, consistent, and conventional style is clearly not Pakistan’s forte. And yet, it is precisely these adjectives that are embodied by Babar Azam as a batter and captain. He was earmarked as a potential superstar as early as when he played for Pakistan U15s, and while his cousins, the ever-mercurial Akmal brothers, seemed to be playing hot potato with Pakistan’s wicketkeeping spot amongst each other, Babar steadily rose through the age-group teams, top scoring for Pakistan U19s in two World Cups, while captaining the side in the second tournament. Emerging into international cricket during Zimbabwe’s historic tour of Pakistan in 2015, his arrival heralded a new era, which saw not only the return of international teams to the country but the advent of the Pakistan Super League and the blossoming of multiple world-class players, Shaheen Afridi and Shadab Khan completing the tip of the iceberg headed by Babar.
In the annals of Pakistani batting, it is nigh on impossible to find someone with such a persistent hunger for runs and such a technically perfect way of making them as Babar. Younis Khan seemed to waltz his way through every innings while Babar serenades the ball through the covers. Javed Miandad plucked gaps in between any two fielders he wanted, while Babar makes fielders into mere admirers. Even Mohammad Yousuf’s lazy elegance, with his Lara-esque backlift, seems lowly in front of Babar’s drives, punctuated with a high elbow. Perhaps only Hanif Mohammad would be a worthy comparison. Tragically, his batting lives on only in written tales and the memories of the few lucky enough to see him bat.
It began with a half-century in front of his home crowd, a privilege denied to the generation that came before him, a generation that fizzled out in the shadows cast by the desert sun on empty blue seats in Dubai. Some flashes of chaotic brilliance aside, those were painful years for Pakistani fans. Few of those who witnessed that knock in Lahore, however, sensed that that anguish was to be overshadowed by what was to come.
A few solid half-centuries and some shuffling up and down the order later came a pivotal moment in Babar’s career, in the shape of Mickey Arthur’s appointment as Pakistan’s Head Coach. Arthur, who had coached South Africa as they dominated Test cricket and was far removed from the toxic political atmosphere that permeated the Pakistan ecosystem, clearly saw the potential on offer. He made sure to back the sophomore Babar to the hilt. A tour of England featured some more promising knocks, and Babar’s growing confidence culminated in a stunning display against the West Indies, with three hundreds in the 3-match ODI series in the UAE, followed in early 2017 by a century in Australia, historically the most elusive frontier for Pakistani batters. In the Pakistan Super League that followed, Arthur, coincidentally also the head coach of Babar’s franchise, Karachi Kings, promoted him to open in T20s.
In Test cricket, the rise up the ranks wasn’t so smooth. An early, testing tour of New Zealand and Australia had to be faced from number 3 in the order, but Babar would subsequently make the number 4 spot his own following Younis Khan’s retirement. A middling record in the first phase of his red-ball career was overcome with trademark composure at the crease and Arthur’s invaluable backing. A mountain of white-ball runs certainly didn’t hurt. The fruits were reaped fully after Test cricket returned to Pakistan in late 2019, almost as if Babar needed a taste of home soil to blossom, his average skyrocketing from the high 20s to nearly touching 50 in the three years that followed. An iconic takedown of Dale Steyn in the 2018 Boxing Day Test in Centurion encapsulated his ascent, each ball that was calmly caressed to the boundary a more brutal blow than the previous one.
Records began to tumble, cover drive after cover drive. Joint-fastest to 1000 ODI runs (a record later broken by Fakhar Zaman), fastest Pakistani to 10 ODI hundreds, most consecutive fifties in international innings, and more. The 2019 World Cup was when the cricketing world truly took notice, as Babar made the most runs ever by a Pakistani in a World Cup, a back-to-the-wall century against New Zealand in an incandescent atmosphere at Edgbaston perhaps his best international innings to date. Even as Pakistan exited the tournament in heartbreaking fashion in the group stage, Babar’s star had never shone brighter. Shortly after the World Cup, he was handed the captaincy of the ODI and T20I teams, taking the reins in Test cricket a year later. His gluttony for runs only seemed to increase while captain, as his ODI average ludicrously neared 60.
October 24th, 2021, is a date that will remain etched in the memory of every Pakistani fan. After decades of World Cup humiliations at India’s hands, Pakistan hit back. An evening that began with Shaheen Afridi weaving a magical spell ended with a perfect victory without losing a wicket. Babar Azam was the captain that finally defeated India in a World Cup. Throughout the chase of 152, he looked as unflappable as ever, unfazed by the momentous occasion and the largely hostile Dubai crowd. In the second over of the chase, he caressed a length ball outside off through the covers, off the back foot. Nervousness seemed a concept alien to his batting. As the chase ebbed and flowed, not for a second did he lose control, ever ready to find a boundary. When the Indian spinners erred in length, Babar promptly hit them over midwicket without a hint of premeditation. Bumrah was nonchalantly lofted over the offside. Throughout his innings, the Pakistan captain looked authoritative while never seeming aggressive. He was a calming contrast to his frenetic opening partner, Mohammad Rizwan. As the latter hoicked away at the target, Babar was happy to coolly shepherd his team to victory. He let out a roar of delight after the winning runs were hit but seemed overcome with calm rather than ecstasy afterward.
5 years and a few days earlier, an emirate away in Sharjah, in an ODI against the West Indies that seemed destined to be forgotten to history, Babar Azam punched a length ball by Sunil Narine through the covers to reach a hundred, his first in international cricket. As he took in the applause of the crowd, he removed his helmet and embraced his batting partner, none other than Mohammad Rizwan. He then raised his bat to the spectators lucky enough to witness history, with a slight smile on his face. Rather than ecstasy, he seemed overcome with calm.
The opinions expressed solely belong to the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Grassroots Cricket.