Babar Azam rises as Virat Kohli finds the going tough

Published on Aug 16, 2022 06:53 PM IST

Once compared and seen as a mirror image of the former India skipper’s domination of bowlers, the younger Pakistan skipper is enjoying a dream run with the bat

Babar Azam and Virat Kohli (Twitter) PREMIUM
Babar Azam and Virat Kohli (Twitter)
By, Mumbai

Virat Kohli’s plummeting form has dominated the Indian cricket narrative in the last two years. However, Pakistan’s Babar Azam, whose batting has often been compared his senior, Kohli, is making a strong claim as the best all-format batter—a tag that once belonged to the former India skipper.

Babar has been unstoppable in the last two years—he tops the ODI scoring charts, is the second highest scorer in T20s, and has 1,000-plus runs in Tests, the most among modern-day greats like Kohli (834 runs, 16 matches), Kane Williamson (892 runs, 8 matches), Steve Smith (934 runs, 14 matches) and Rohit Sharma (996 runs, 13 matches). Joe Root is way ahead with 2,664 runs in 25 matches with 11 centuries and five fifties.

Along the way, the 27-year-old Pakistan skipper is breaking new ground. He was the highest scorer in last year’s T20 World Cup, scoring 303 runs with four fifties in six matches at a strike rate of 126.25. In June, he became the first batsman to twice score three consecutive centuries in ODIs. In July became the fastest Asian batter—fifth fastest overall—to score 10,000 runs in international cricket.

That achievement came on the back of a match-saving century in the first Test against Sri Lanka in Galle with Pakistan struggling at 85/7 and helped him topple the record of Kohli, who took 232 innings to reach the 10,000-run mark. Babar overhauled it in 228 innings.

In the last two years, Azam has scored 1,083 runs in ODIs in 15 matches, averaging 83.30 and hitting six centuries and four fifties. Others’ figures over the same period look meagre. Kohli has scored just 477 runs from 14 matches and Sharma 261 runs in nine matches. Smith has played just five matches but scored 279 runs at a healthy average of 59.40. Williamson hasn't played ODIs since March 2020.

In ODIs that Pakistan have won in the last two years, he has scored 693 runs in nine games at an average of 99, hammering four centuries and three fifties.

His T20 numbers are equally impressive—he has scored 1,215 runs in 36 matches with one century and 13 fifties. Sharma (714 runs, 24 matches), Kohli (514 runs, 17 matches), Williamson (431 runs, 17 matches) and Smith (247 runs, 18 matches) have all found the going tough.

One may say that Babar is too slow at the top of the order with a strike rate of just 131.06, but that doesn’t mean he can’t up the ante when required. An example is his 59-ball 122 against South Africa at Centurion in November last year, which helped Pakistan chase down a target of 204. He has been asked to anchor the innings with the others to launch around him. His partnership with Mohammad Rizwan has clicked and resulted in some good results for Pakistan in the shortest format. In the 14 matches he has scored 40-plus runs in T20s in the last two years, Pakistan have won 11, losing three. In those wins, his strike rate goes up to 137.03.

The one criticism he has faced is his conversion rate in Tests. In 15 matches in the last two years, he has scored just two centuries. Overall, he has hit only Test tons out of 23 fifties.

Everyone felt he got over that barrier during his 119 in the first Test against Sri Lanka on a turning track at Galle where he got Pakistan out of trouble. Azam in the past would have caved in under pressure but on that day he stood tall to pull Pakistan out of trouble, setting them up for the win.

“It was an exceptional innings. The maturity Babar has shown as a batter even after becoming captain in all three formats is remarkable,” Pakistan batting coach Muhammad Yousuf said after that innings.

Azam in a talk show with Inzamam-ul-Haq on YouTube said it took him time to understand the nuances of Test cricket. “After getting to 50-60, I was relaxing. That’s why runs weren’t coming. In Tests, every session bowlers come with different plans. It took me a while to understand that.”

On the latest episode of The ICC Review, Mahela Jayawardene picked Azam when asked who can dethrone Root from the top spot in Tests. “I would say Azam has an opportunity. He’s been consistent in all three formats and it shows in his rankings. He’s a naturally gifted player, plays in all conditions, he’s got the game to adapt as well,” the former Sri Lanka skipper said.

For Azam, personal highs don’t matter if it doesn’t result in victories for his team. “I am enjoying my form. But with this form my prime goal is to win the two World Cups for Pakistan (T20 in 2022 and ODI in 2023). If that happens, I will feel that my runs are worth gold,” he said after scoring those three back-to-back centuries.

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