OUTSIDE EDGE: BABAR THE CAPTAIN

Published November 21, 2021
Babar Azam: No retreat, no surrender!
Babar Azam: No retreat, no surrender!

It has been a year since Babar Azam was appointed captain across all formats. How is he doing?

There is no doubt that Babar is a much better player than he is captain. In Test cricket, he has missed tactical tricks, and seldom appears attacking enough. In white ball cricket, his strategies often seem formulaic. But, in the grand scheme of things, these are relatively minor complaints. He’s a pretty good captain — about as good as we’re going to find right now — and only going to get better with time.

The Outside Edge column fondly recalls the condescending smirks that greeted Ricky Ponting becoming captain. Few were enamoured with the prospect. For one thing, he was following the bone-crushing success of the Steve Waugh reign. For another, Ponting looked disturbingly like George W. Bush, hardly the most endearing figure in the mid-2000s.

When he promptly lost his first Ashes in charge, Australia’s first series loss to England in almost two decades, he armed many with the corroboration for their initial hunch: this guy is not a good captain.

One way or the other, though, the guy ended up leading more wins than anyone in Test history not named Graeme Smith (ironically, also someone whose captaincy was greeted with deep scepticism). Today, to the pleasant surprise of many, that same Bush lookalike brings an intellect and gravitas to Australian commentary boxes so often missing both.

To be sure, it is an imperfect analogy. Babar did not have to overcome the young Ponting’s issues with discipline. In the dressing room, Ponting’s captaincy had to contend with heavyweight personalities like Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Langer, and Hayden, while Babar is leading a team whose entire core is in its early- and mid-20s.

Given this was his first experience in a World Cup T20 tournament, Pakistan skipper Babar Azam did more than fine. But if we are to do well in Australia next year, he might have to make some hard decisions about his captaincy...

But the comparison works in the sense that the sheer weight of runs, and the vast difference in quality between them and the next-best player, meant that, if nothing else, both Ponting and Babar enjoyed the respect of their teammates known for their, shall we say, iconoclasm. Runs and respect is a good place to start for any captain. Tactics, angles, and man-management can be learned.

And Babar will learn. In Tests, he will learn how to squeeze a wicket on day two when the opposition is 220-1, or how to pounce on a day four or five when they are 140-5, an intuition he has not yet developed.

In white ball cricket, Babar will learn to be calm. Though typically unflappable, it was instructive that, as the crunch came in that semi-final against Australia, Babar’s volume — and cussing quotient, thank you lip-readers — also inflated.

But as the likes of M.S. Dhoni, Darren Sammy, Eoin Morgan and Kane Williamson have shown, perhaps no trait is more important in a modern T20 captain than mindfulness: the ability, in the midst of a cauldron, to step back, breathe deeply, and take the sting out of a situation. Pakistan will need Babar to be steadier if it wants to win ICC trophies.

We must not be so exacting, however: given this was his first experience in such a tournament, Babar did more than fine. He scored heaps of runs, kept the squad united, and was the face of a team both widely feared and deeply liked, a difficult balance to strike.

His post-exit dressing room speech, seemingly aimed as much at fans as the players, was the exact soothe that was needed. And his public and vociferous backing of Hasan Ali, after getting trapped by a leading question about “turning points” in the post-match presentation, was crucial.

Let us be clear: Hasan Ali is an absolute superstar and Pakistan cricket is lucky to have him. He can bat, bowl and field in all three formats. Yes, he had a bad tournament. It happens. But how short fans’ memories can be! Just in the last nine months, Hasan has put in match-winning performances across formats, opposition, and conditions, from Pakistan, to South Africa, to the West Indies. He is a crucial component of the national side’s core in the years ahead.

Look, there is no doubt Hasan being off-colour, and his nasty habit of conceding a boundary or extra off the over’s first delivery, had a great deal to do with our loss against Australia. But he or his dropped catch wasn’t the reason we lost; that’s just not how sports work.

Indeed, the very idea of “turning points” is flawed. As basketball analysts like reminding us, a point scored in the first quarter counts as much as a point scored in the fourth. T20 cricket lasts forty overs — meaning that, technically speaking, there are 240 potential turning points in the game. That some loom larger than others is only because our memories are drawn to them, or TV channels endlessly loop them in highlights packages.

And while we are discussing such critical junctures, what of Pakistan missing not one, not two, not three, but four direct-hit run out chances, any one of which would have ended the game? What of Babar’s decision to ignore match-ups and go with prepackaged plans in giving the fourth over, a time when the Aussies were on the ropes, to Imad Wasim, a typically brilliant new ball bowler but pure red meat to David Warner? What of the stark reality that Pakistan finished 10-15 runs short, mainly because our first 10 overs yielded just 71 — a time when Babar was playing well, middling it, timing it, but never escaping third or fourth gear?

Indeed, if there is a significant concern about Babar in T20 cricket, it’s not his captaincy but his batting. That he is ranked #1 in the format has arguably as much to do with flaws in the calculations of T20 rankings for batsmen as his undeniable quality as a player.

In Tests, strike rates are irrelevant. In ODIs, they are about as important as averages. In T20s, however, strike rates are much more important than averages. But official T20 rankings do not sufficiently account for this fact. As such, T20 batsmen rankings tend to overrate anchors and underrate middle order hitters and finishers. For instance, Dawid Malan is technically ranked #2 in the world, but he is barely among the five best T20 batsmen from his country, and arguably would not make a full-strength England side.

Those nagging doubts from analytics nerds that the Babar-Rizwan method to opening, lucrative though it has proved in terms of pure runs, is too cautious for a team batting first, were proven correct. This problem does not require a massive course correction, but it bears noting that Babar seems almost congenitally unable to slog. When he does, he invariably loses his shape and inevitably fails to middle it.

Akin to a ballet dancer being unable to twerk or a sleek German car stalling when taken off-roading, it seems that a system designed for supreme elegance simply throws up “does not compute” when faced with a demand for such coarseness.

On the surface, the idea of breaking up the world’s most successful opening partnership must seem foolish. But the next World T20 will be played on truer Australian surfaces, where a safe score will not be 185 but 200 — if not 220.

To have a realistic chance of winning the tournament, Pakistan will need to regularly score 55 or more in Powerplays. Can Babar/ Rizwan do so? Perhaps our T20 prospects may be better served by moving Babar to three, and promoting either Fakhar or some six-hitting young gun (Haider Ali?) to open with Rizwan.

The writer is an assistant professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in the US.
He tweets @ahsanib

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 21st, 2021

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