October of 1994, Pakistan lost to Australia in an ODI in Lahore. Pakistan’s No 3 at the time was the highest run-scorer in their innings.
In the same October, a boy by the name of Babar Azam was born in Lahore and 23 years later he played only his second international match in the city of his birth. He ended up as Pakistan’s top scorer in both matches versus the World XI.
The second match of the tour saw Pakistan lose a nail-bitter in the last over in front of a proper Lahori crowd. It was loud and colorful, but also a little restless at the same time. People of Lahore are not known for their patience; they are known for their loudness and their love for fast bowling.
On Wednesday they cheered for an opposition batsman hitting a six against a Pakistani fast bowler, an anomaly just like Babar. The biggest complaint Pakistani fans have had over the last decade is not seeing a batsman score tons of runs in limited overs cricket at a decent strike-rate. These fans have craved consistency, they have yearned for an aesthetically pleasing batsman and they have finally found one born right in the heart of Pakistan, Lahore!
Babar isn’t the first man from his family to wear Pakistan’s national jersey. His first cousins are none other than the Akmals, three of whom already made their international debut before Babar did. When the youngest of those three Akmals made his debut in 2009, he was supposed to be Pakistan’s answer to Virat Kohli and Co. Here we are eight years later — that answer has become a question. However, Babar has now become Pakistan’s answer.
In the opening match of the Independence Cup, Babar came into bat in the very first over. While at the other end Ahmed Shehzad struggled to time the ball, he scored boundaries effortlessly. It was as if Babar was playing on a different surface against a different attack. That is what sets him apart from other Pakistani batsmen who make things look difficult at the best of times.
Babar’s 50-over credentials have never been under any doubt, he averages above 50 and already has five hundreds in only 33 matches with a strike-rate touching 90. His 50-over stats are comparable to the likes of Kohli and Steve Smith. However, his ability in T20 cricket has been doubted due to his strike-rate and hitting ability. That is something Babar has slowly improved on under Mickey Arthur and it isn’t a fluke.
When Babar signed for Karachi Kings in the Pakistan Super League (PSL), Arthur moved him to the opener’s slot to make full use of the powerplay overs. Babar’s ability to find gaps through the field meant his strike-rate starting improving as a result of the promotion in the batting order. However, even during the PSL he struggled to keep going at the same rate once the powerplay ended.
In the opening match vs World XI, Babar accelerated after the powerplay overs and he did so in style against perhaps the best limited overs spinner in the world, Imran Tahir. In the second match though, Babar again faced similar issues once the field spread, he was eventually caught trying to accelerate off Samuel Badree’s bowling.
Given Babar’s track record, it is a little surprising that he hasn’t been tried as an opener in the World XI series just like he was by the Karachi Kings during the PSL. Shehzad is struggling to time the ball and despite his runs, he ends up putting pressure on his partner because of the time he takes to get going. Fakhar Zaman is the perfect T20 opener, on his day he can take the opposition apart within the first six overs and it makes sense for Babar to be his opening partner.
With the series tied at 1-1 heading into the decider on Friday, Pakistan will rely on Babar to yet again be the backbone of their innings in front of his home crowd. This 22-year-old is already carrying the burden of Pakistani batting’s limited overs frailties. There is little, if any, doubt about his talent but then again the same thing was said about his cousin.
Babar, however, seems far more focused and mature. If he remains as dedicated as he is and under the right guidance, he will no doubt go down in history as one of the best batsmen Lahore has ever produced by the time he hangs up his gloves.