“He [Babar Azam] is a young gun who will be an exceptional player. I’ll go so far as to say, at the same age, I reckon he’s as good as Virat Kohli, which I know that’s high praise but he’s right up there”, Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur had said in 2016 when Azam had played just 18 One Day Internationals.
At the time, it seemed like lavish praise on a young and upcoming player from a coach who had seen him at close quarters. True, Babar had slammed three back-to-back hundreds in an ODI series against the West Indies, but cricket is so filled with abnormalities that the fall from grace is just a step away at most times. It is a bait which many talented, young players have fallen for. Early rise and early decline is something of a trend amongst the youth of today in cricket.
So far though, Babar has not only sidestepped that trap but also unfurled his talent in all its glory in the fifty-over format of the game. In his last 15 ODIs since the hat-trick of hundreds against the Windies, Babar has compiled four more centuries, making him the quickest ever to seven ODI hundreds (in 33 matches).
He enjoys a stunning conversion rate of hundreds, with seven of his 13 scores above 50 converted into triple figures. A hundred at Adelaide in Australia was followed by a fourth ton against the Windies in Providence before he slammed back-to-back hundreds against the Sri Lankans in the ongoing ODI series.
Babar’s consistency is something which has stood Pakistan in good stead. For a batting line-up that reeks of inconsistency, the 23-year-old has been a huge bonus. Although he shies away from comparisons to Kohli, the youngster has indeed looked the part in his short career thus far.
"There is no comparison. Virat Kohli is a great batsman and I am just a beginner. But I would like to be recalled as (the) Babar Azam of Pakistan," Babar had written on Twitter while replying to one of his fans.
Since the start of 2016, Babar has 1429 runs in 26 matches at an average of 62.13 with all of his seven hundreds coming during this time frame. Only David Warner has more centuries during this time (10) with Kohli equal to him with seven centuries.
Is he a match-winner though? You bet. Five of his six hundreds have come in winning causes and he averages an astounding 82.72 in matches where Pakistan have won. Under Sarfraz Ahmed, Babar has been quite a force, smashing three hundreds (converted all of his 50+ scores to hundreds) and averaging in excess of 70.
The last two centuries have come in the current series against Sri Lanka with the other Pakistan batsmen struggling to adapt to the conditions. In the first ODI at Dubai, Babar walked in at No 3, consolidated after Ahmed Shehzad's wretched 12-ball duck, and compiled a fine century. Although it did not prove to be enough to earn Pakistan a win in the end, Babar showed that he meant business in this series.
He continued his rich vein of form at Abu Dhabi, with another outstanding hundred, probably the best of his seven so far. With Pakistan's top-six wiped away with the scorecard reading just 101, Azam set about resuscitating a broken innings. He found able support in 19-year Shadab Khan, who applied himself much better than the rest of the top order batsmen.
The duo put on a 109-run stand during the course of which Babar struck a seventh ODI hundred and took Pakistan from nowhere to a position from which they could fight for victory. The hundred turned out to be his fifth consecutive in UAE with his last three knocks before this series being the string of hundreds against the West Indies. In Pakistan's de facto home, Babar has been a beast — 798 runs in 13 matches at 72.54 including five tons.
Without Babar, Pakistan would have struggled to be anywhere near the force they have been in One Day Internationals since 2016. No other Pakistani batsman has scored even 800 runs in this period whereas Babar has 1429. Only five other players have registered hundreds for them in this span of time but none of them them have over one. The No 3 batsman has seven.
He may have taken more than 130 balls for his two hundreds in the last few days, but Babar's game isn't built on the modern day T20 heist. He is a proper batsman with a sound technique and a pristine array of strokes up his sleeve.
That he has five ducks in his last six Tests might taken the sheen off his ODI achievements, but like Kohli once took, Babar is taking his time to adapt to the longer version of the game. At the moment, he is as good as it comes in the fifty-over format. Given his composure, maturity and tenacity, runs in the longer format of the game should just be a matter of time. In Babar, Pakistan finally have an anchor around whom their long line of volatile batsmen can bat.