CRICKET is a game for geeks. Nerds and anoraks are in love with statistics and data. Cricket is also a game for aesthetes, people who look beyond the numbers to art and beauty. When a match, a moment, or a player satisfies both personalities the full magic of cricket is unleashed.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but it generally comes second to grit, the steely desire to accumulate runs, when measuring the success of batsmen. Pakistan’s top three run-makers in Tests, heroes to a man, tended to place pragmatism ahead of elegance. Indeed, how else could you achieve such numbers?
Javed Miandad began as a cavalier but turned roundly into a dour accumulator, a man capable of anchoring any innings. Inzamam-ul-Haq was a virtuoso hitter who learnt to play within himself for the sake of his team. When he attacked, though, his style was brutal rather than beautiful. And Younis Khan only ever knew the way of self sacrifice. There was a certain artistry in his agile footwork and loose limbed play but it would be generous to call it attractive.
Still, Pakistan have had their share of artists. Majid Khan was an exquisite timer, exhibiting the joy of limited footwork. Zaheer Abbas had languid grace and a cover drive to die for. Saeed Anwar was genius on a knife edge. And Mohammad Yousuf made lazy elegance his brand value.
These artists had periods when they were unstoppable, when their eye candy play combined perfectly with their inner accumulator. But the stats speak for themselves. Throughout history, the pragmatist has won, lasting longer and scoring more heavily. As much as we might wish it, the artists haven’t quite made the very top grade.
Into this world of two philosophies, enter Babar Azam, an accumulator and an artist, a player of the rarest of mettle. There is something about Babar. Magic in his wrists, a sparkle in his eye, a simple joy in scoring runs, a hunger to keep going, and a beauty to satisfy any aesthete.
For Babar has Majid’s timing but with footwork to match. He has grace but there is nothing languid about it. He is a genius but there is no knife edge, only a serene inevitability about his run scoring. And his elegance isn’t at all lazy.
With all this, he finds himself ranked as the world’s top T20 batsman and in the top 10 of the other formats. The numbers to back any argument about his worth.
Or so it would seem, because the rankings judge a player on his performance against the opposition he has faced. They tell us little about a player’s influence on the eventual outcome. Cricket allows an individual to flourish without making a decisive contribution.
Now, to say that Babar’s performances don’t contribute to team success would be absurd. Just look at the important hand he played in the Sri Lanka series, when international cricket happily returned to Pakistan.
But the truly great players seize a match that is heading for defeat and change the momentum. They turn the odds upside down. They upend your emotions. They stand between the opposition and your team’s defeat. They convert a losing game into a winning one.
This isn’t a talent that even the greats are necessarily born with. Javed changed his method to become the world beater he is now remembered as. Inzamam struggled for a period after his sensational introduction to international cricket. Younis built up his powers of application and turned a meandering career into a record-breaking one.
Babar, then, has time. That skill of changing the mood and momentum of a game, of being remembered for your deeds instead of your scores, tends to come with experience. But it is a personal journey he must complete to join the ranks of the world’s greatest players.
That we already think he is capable of turning doubters into believers is compliment enough. Yet the next step is the hardest to take and the toughest to sustain. It is a hurdle that every great player must overcome. Even Sachin Tendulkar, the greatest by some accounts, was dogged by these reservations for much of his career. Nice company for Babar to keep.
Babar is special. Batting artists generally don’t come with his pragmatism and appetite for accumulating runs. Babar is the batsman Pakistan never thought it could have. A rare player who satisfies both geeks and aesthetes. When he learns the art of taking control of a match and bending it to his will, Babar will be ready to join the greats of Pakistan cricket.
Published in Dawn, January 6th, 2020