There’s a hush around the ground. The ecstasy of Shaheen Afridi bowling the best new ball spell a Pakistani has bowled in years has died down. Edgbaston is quiet. The chase is tottering. Lockie Ferguson has bowled two balls, and yet already the demons are surfacing – dormant demons, that have taken root over the past eighteen months. Demons that reside inside the DNA. In November of last year, Ferguson had concussed Imam-ul-Haq in Abu Dhabi. Either side of that he had tormented Pakistan, taking 11 wickets in 3 ODIs against them in the Emirates. Before that, he had taken 7 in the series in New Zealand. He averages under 20 against them.
There is no complexity to the method – he is going to bounce them out, just as he has done before, just as Duanne Olivier did to many of these same batsmen a few months later, just as many a fast bowler, both great and not have done so to the men in green; just as West Indies did barely a month ago. And unlike the last time they suffered against Ferguson, there are no home comforts of the desert, even with tens of thousands of green-clad faces around them. This is England. The ball moves around under clouds here. And it is doing so today. 238 seems a million miles away. Ferguson has 58 more balls to deliver.
If they are below the eye line they will have lateral movement, if they are not, you are going to have to protect more than just your wicket. Santner is still to bowl on a pitch that is going to be a delight for him. Mohammad Hafeez walks out to bat as the senior-most member of this side – in the middle, Babar Azam is there.
For someone as gifted as him, in a country as devoid of quality batsmen, Babar has had a lot of grief. He is the best pure player Pakistan have had since Mohammad Yousuf; the best player of fast bowling since Inzamam Ul Haq. But he has had questions. Questions over his strike rate, questions over his 'eliteness', questions over him being a 'match-winner'. Sure he’s 24, but why does he have no match-winning hundreds in a chase? Only three fifties in successful chases? In the golden age of chases?
These are ridiculous questions to ask – there are guys in far better cultures who take longer to take that responsibility.
He didn’t come through a system that prepares you for international cricket. He only has two domestic First Class hundreds, but one of them was 250 in a tournament final – he knows how to score big in crucial games. He has the guile but does he have the graft? Considering he’s come through the Pakistani system, of course, he does. But Pakistan want Babar to be everything, and for that to have happened already. He needs to be an elite Test batsman, a complete limited overs player and everything else. He needs to be Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson, Joe Root and Steven Smith; he needs to be Inzamam, Yousuf, Javed Miandad and Saeed. He needs to be all that at 24. In a country that has rarely produced great batsmen. That hasn’t produced one this century.
For now, though none of that matters, even the strike rate brigade can take solace in only one thing – not all hope is lost yet, Babar is there.
Ferguson bowls a 4 over spell of express pace bowling. Twenty of those balls to Hafeez – he edges it twice, is beaten six times and hit twice. Babar faces three balls, he gets two singles to boundary riders and a four to the backward point with an exquisite drive. One is supposed to be the rookie playing his first World Cup, the other the experienced batsman who has long been considered the best player of fast bowling in his generation – a not particularly great generation, clearly. There’s a gulf in class here that was present when Williamson was batting with Tom Latham and Jimmy Neesham earlier. But Neesham survived and thrived. Hafeez has survived for now. But the true comfort is that Babar is there.
The ball is gripping in the surface, to the point that Mitchell Santner is having a solitary slip seems a defensive field. Haris Sohail will later come in and struggle more at the start than perhaps any batsman in the whole match, before he pulls off a Neesham. Babar has not yet been considered a great player of spin, and he’s struggling as per reputation. But for now, he has Hafeez in company, the senior man ought to guide him through this phase. But we’ve seen that movie before, thus the relief is that Babar is there.
Babar can’t deal with Santner so he keeps playing inside the line. At one point, with the run rate over 5, he just kicks a ball away which pitches outside off and turns away. This is no chase; this is a species trying to survive an extinction event. Santner only has 60 balls, Babar has 50 overs to bat. He will outlast him. That’s what he’s thinking. What are the faithful at Edgbaston and thousands of miles away in Pakistan thinking? Only that thank god Babar is there.
After playing the finest knock of his white ball career, Hafeez has thrown away four starts in a row. Once to Hardik Pandya, thrice to part-time spinners. Three of those four dismissals were him getting caught on the boundary when Pakistan needed stability from its veteran. That seems an appropriate epitaph for his career. Babar’s career? It’s just beginning. He’s got a long way to go but he doesn’t have a career-defining innings yet. Maybe this might be? That’s too much to ask. Inzamam’s was a pure-talent rock-opera, Javed and Saeed’s came a decade into their careers. Babar is a novice, but for now, Babar is there.
'This also happened in 1992' is a meme that has gone from WhatsApp forwards to the official broadcast with graphics and everything. Back then Javed was the one who guided Inzamam along. Hafeez is no Javed. Babar will have to be Inzaman without guidance. Babar will have to be Javed too.
Williamson has tried everything. Trent Boult returns, Ferguson returns, even Colin Munro bowls one. He has to deal with one thing above all else – Babar is still there. He finally brings back Santner. By now Babar is in the groove. Milestones and personal bests and chasing stats and Pakistan’s World Cup records are footnotes. Mediocre records too. Of the men who have judged him and admonished him, of men who never did what he is doing. Those are numbers, quantifiers, with or without context. They don’t matter. Something else is happening. A batsman is taking the leap to a higher plane. A higher plane that any of his contemporaries might ever reach.
Destiny and fate as words are being overused. This is what he was born to do. This is the moment in the Motion Pictures where the background music increases in volume and the highlights are off attacking shots. But that’s not what’s making this innings. Those two are footnotes. This isn’t a montage – this is batting on a level that fans from other countries get to experience. This is as alien to Pakistanis as a low exchange rate, a fight without swearing or a meme that’s unfunny. This is the sort of innings that makes you want to check his passport – is he really a Pakistani? A 21st century Pakistani? In a World Cup chase? At 24?
By now the Kiwi tails have stopped wagging. Edgbaston explodes in jubilation. There’s a man running down the pitch, arm raised. It’s the first time in an hour that he looks awkward, that there isn’t something balletic about him. This is the part of the movie where you stop the picture and the credits roll in the foreground. That’ll have to wait – I mean it’s Pakistani cinema, after all. Like everything else in the country, it’s either in decline or in decrepitude. And yet the one thing that has always suffered from decrepitude is somehow standing the tallest right now. It’s the bete noir of a nation – it’s Pakistan’s batting. It’s in safe hands. Because Babar is there.
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