During Pakistan's T20 match against England at Old Trafford in September, Babar Azam twisted his ankle going for a catch. With just a couple of balls left in the innings, Shoaib Malik simply decided to scoop up his prostrate young colleague and carry him to the boundary for medical attention. It wasn’t the most elegant way a player can be carried off the field by teammates, but for Pakistan’s new century bot, you suspect it certainly won’t be the last. In years to come, however, Azam will more likely have trophies waiting for him rather than treatment.
Azam’s rise has been steady since he made his ODI debut in May 2015, rattling off fifties with regularity even before his three nonchalant tons against the West Indies last week. This unprecedented spurt (most runs in a three match ODI series for starters) comes at an interesting time, particularly as he has now been named in Pakistan's Test squad. Despite their and to some extent Azam’s iffy ODI form in England, Pakistan as a whole have entered into a period of rather unaccustomed calm.
We often hear of post-truth politics these days, but for Pakistan, the zeitgeist is post-Shahid Afridi cricket. For better or worse, in triumph or defeat, it was previously near impossible for the side to avoid the constant buzz of electricity attracted by the Boom Boom lightning rod. Now Afridi is gone (perhaps forever, but like all the best comic book anti-heroes you can never be sure), it is hard not to believe Pakistan are in a better position without him. What it also means is that there is a position vacant for a fan-adored deity within the green-shirted ranks.
Is Azam the man to fill it? Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, for all their astounding fitness, surely cannot play on too much further. Mohammad Amir, for all the hype around his return, has bowled well but not quite with the genius swagger of adolescence he had before his ban. Perhaps, in some bizarre way, the subsequent lack of adulation has actually helped him negotiate the minefield of his return. Yasir Shah is undoubtedly a truly stellar cricket, but unless you’re a peroxided Australian with a gift for self-promotion and destruction, it’s a struggle for spinners to assume absolute megastar status. Or, of course, unless you also happen to bat a bit and smash a world record when you’re sixteen.
Azam’s rise is also interesting in the context of how different countries like their heroes. There’s undoubtedly some truth in the cliche that Pakistan pedestals pace and India worship willow. If Javagal Srinath had been born in Karachi rather than Karnataka, it’s probable he would be recalled in even greater terms than he is already. So if Azam does indeed continue his climb up towards Steve Smith, Joe Root, Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli – this claim is of course speculative but not specious – it would be almost a cheeky affront to India’s sensibilities. Kohli, in particular, would surely both relish and recoil from having to share hero-status and headlines with a thrusting young buck from his country’s greatest rivals.
Yet, it is another batsmen that Azam resembles – the angular cowboy hero jaw, the intense racoon eyes. There’s something in Azam’s appearance that reminds you slightly of Alastair Cook. There is very little in his batting, however, to do similar. In contrast to the mighty though stolid England captain, the Pakistani’s strokeplay – as befitting an age where “360 batsmen” are a necessity as well as a buzzphrase – produces wagon wheels to make opposition captains weep. He’s not yet a regular ramper or scooper (though he fell to the shot in the 3rd ODI in Abu Dhabi) but there is no obvious way to stem his runs, spread adroitly around the field as they are.
Awaiting his next delivery, he stands slightly hunched over his bat with his top lip gnarled like Clint Eastwood sneering at an imminent victim. He can be both bludgeoning and beautiful. His slog sweeps could be sponsored by PETA, so comprehensive an attack on leather are they. He drives straight quite superbly, but often untypically after moving back in his crease, turning near-yorkers into half-volleys with a virile but sedate swish of the bat which makes you imagine how Jacques Kallis probably hits a golf ball. His pick-up of even length balls to both speed and spin to swat legside speaks of a forensic eye to go with the whizzing hands.
For greater aesthetics, he seems to have a particular affinity for the square drive off the back foot, arching up his body like a salmon as he caresses the ball between point and third man. He plays more orthodox cuts with smooth violence, a samurai slicing the head off a boiled egg. He is no scruff on the front foot either, with one drive through the covers last year in New Zealand being so perfect you could almost smell the grass sizzling as the ball raced across it with Brendon McCullum in, for once, futile pursuit. It’s a shot which is already being compared, fairly or not, to Kohli’s masterful interpretation.
A cousin of the three Akmal brothers, Azam nonetheless appears to have a calm temperament which may leave some geneticists scratching their heads. Even at the age of fifteen he was giving interviews which seemed like he had been attending media training in the womb. It can only help, as he inevitably attracts greater interest, that he has come through the ranks of both Pakistan’s Under-15 and Under-19 sides, attuned to press attention from an early age. It seems unlikely he will follow Kohli in expressively sharing his emotions whether on or off the field (though both he and the Indian captain do enjoy sharing their gym sessions on social media.)
We obviously cannot be naive about the political reasons, but it is truly a shame we may not see these two players – India’s reigning king and Pakistan’s emerging prince – up against each other very often over the next few years. The prospect of the nations regularly playing each other looks more distant than ever and more so with a government MP at the head of the game in India. It’s not really for a British writer to pass judgment on Anurag Thakur’s recent comments, but it is fair to say the BCCI President along with Kohli himself have been very forthright in their response to the recent tragic Uri attacks. Thakur was even involved in a media spat with the equally forthright ex-Pakistan captain Javed Miandad, with this latest cricketing row coming on top of the claim the BCCI boss wishes to keep India out of Pakistan’s group at the 2017 Champions Trophy. It was quite a poignant juxtaposition that around the same time another member of India’s team, Ravichandran Ashwin, was tweeting simply about how much he was looking forward to watching Azam bat in the third ODI. We can only hope the cerebral spinner one day actually gets to bowl at him.
For now, like Ashwin, we can all just enjoy watching the development of what looks like an incredibly special player. It’s often said you shouldn’t, as people did with his cousins’ early promise, get carried away with the first flush of youth’s potential. But Azam, even at just 21, is already carrying the hopes of Pakistan fans everywhere on his apparently broad young shoulders. Watch out, Virat Kohli. To borrow a word from Eastwood, there’s a new punk in town.