Pakistan’s recent history in the One-day format makes for some pretty sad reading for a team which once boasted magnificent match-winners in its roll call. The likes of Javed Miandad, Saeed Anwar, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Salim Malik along with the all-round brilliance of Imran Khan, Waqar Younis, Abdul Razzaq and Wasim Akram made Pakistan the team to beat.
With the retirements and sidelining of some of the aforementioned great names has come a period where Pakistan find themselves falling behind in the ICC rankings to the point that they are now positioned eighth and even struggling to stay in contention for direct qualification for the ICC World Cup in 2019.
It is in this context that the emergence of the 22-year-old Babar Azam represents a huge development for a team which has been suffering from a dearth of dependable top-order batsmen.
Babar debuted in May 2015 for Pakistan in a much-publicized home series against Zimbabwe but since then has continued to make his presence felt in all three formats of the game. His calm demeanour and ability to perform under pressure has already earned him many admirers across the globe.
His phenomenal rise as one of Pakistan’s most gifted batsmen was underlined by his recent accomplishment where he became the second fastest cricketer to score five ODI centuries after South Africa’s Quinton de Kock. He also holds the honour of scoring the second-most ODI runs after the first 25 innings. In doing so, he surpassed the likes of the West Indian great Sir Vivian Richards and England’s Kevin Pietersen who had also excelled in their initial 25 ODI innings.
It is almost an established tradition now that a young subcontinental player who shows promise at the international level is duly compared to any number of greats who have come before him or to contemporaries who are enjoying success at the highest level.
In Babar Azam’s case, a casual remark by the Pakistan Head Coach Mickey Arthur before the rather disappointin
g tour of Australia in December 2016 where he felt that the Pakistan batsman reminded him of Virat Kohli at the same age, sparked off a mild controversy.
To many who had followed Kohli’s career and his exploits for the Indian team which saw them at the top of the heap in almost all formats of the game, the comparison was optimistic to say the least and delusional at the extreme.
In Arthur’s defense, what he was alluding to was Babar’s penchant for constructing composed innings under pressure and putting up big scores which had some semblance to Kohli’s batting career. But this is where the comparison must end.
Virat Kohli’s abilities with the bat are a matter of record. To score 7755 runs in ODIs in 179 games at a strike rate of 90.76 is not what any batsman can do with ease. To succeed at the international level under conditions where most batsman would fail to deliver is an art which simple statistics cannot reveal.
Thus, the Kohli performance against Pakistan in the low scoring Twenty20 game at the Asia Cup in 2016 when it appeared that Mohammad Amir would run through the Indian line-up is something only he could conjure up. The strength of character that one must have to persevere when the opposition knows you are the key wicket is an art that Kohli has mastered over the years.
Babar Azam knows well that mere well-meaning words from a coach who would do anything to encourage his own players is not enough to turn him into the Pakistani version of Kohli. If an example of this folly was ever needed, it would be one of Babar's cousin Umar Akmal who was once regarded as having the potential to become another version of Kohli, but now finds himself discarded and embarrassed.
Regardless of the records he has broken so far, Babar Azam has been found wanting and unable to convert some good starts to innings of substance whilst keeping up good strike-rates which are crucial in the limited-overs game. The series against Australia was a prime example of this where he just could not step on the pedal after good starts and gave away his wicket at crucial moments.
If Babar Azam is to be Pakistan’s answer to India’s Virat Kohli, then just swagger and aggression will not do the job. Babar will need to learn from the Indian batsman’s ability to take the game to the opposition with a mixture of controlled aggression and good defensive technique which has made him the darling of audiences around the world.
It remains to be seen how long Babar Azam can serve Pakistan and what additional qualities he can bring to the fore in the long run. He is young yet mature and seems to have ambition to succeed with 1322 runs in ODIs at 55.08 and an impressive strike rate of 90.23 to show for his efforts so far.
However, with the crucial upcoming Champions Trophy clash against India on 4 June in mind, all that will be expected of him will be to hold the middle order together and to provide the impetus to the innings that has been sorely missing in recent Pakistan games against their arch-rivals.
It is early days in his career, but it could be possible that Babar Azam will be able to emulate some of Virat Kohli's achievements in the coming years and justify any comparisons with the Indian great. However, for the moment, all that Pakistan cricket and its fans will want from Babar is a performance which will defy its ICC ODI ranking and help Pakistan outsmart a robust Indian ODI side at Edgbaston.