Babar Azam stands on the threshold of history. When he looks across the Melbourne Cricket Ground, one of the world’s greatest sporting arenas; when he hears the roar of 90,000 fans; and when he absorbs the atmosphere of a World Cup final, Pakistan’s captain will carry the hopes and dreams of a global diaspora of hundreds of millions — and every other England opponent.
Another Pakistan captain felt that very moment thirty years ago. Pakistan were an aspiring side, hungry for a first title to confirm their undoubted class in 50-overs cricket.
They had lost their wunderkind Waqar Younis to injury before the tournament started. Had Waqar, then in his absolute prime, been fit, Pakistan might have swept through the tournament like a wildfire, a wildfire of Two Ws that no force on Earth could extinguish.
Instead, Imran Khan, in his last campaign, had refashioned his team to muddle through with part time bowlers to support his match winner, Wasim Akram, and to find just enough batting to add to the dependable runs of Javed Miandad.
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The team still had legs but this was the end of Imran’s cricketing journey, mission accomplished, a world title delivered to his country as promised. The next era would have its own dramas under Javed and then Wasim. Imran’s legacy was a team as strong as Pakistan has ever possessed but it is a team that would be eclipsed by Australia and then fade away, potential unfulfilled.
The parallels with 1992 of course are strong, but if Babar’s team were to win then the legacy may be very different. 1992 was the high point of an era, and the adventures and misadventures that followed never quite matched that night in Melbourne, which is why it sits so vividly in our memories. Instead of a stepping stone to greater success, 1992 turned out to be the peak of an era dominated by Imran and Javed.
In the intervening years, Pakistan cricket has often fought adversity, most notably the cricketing exile of the last decade and a half. Pakistan challenging at the top seems almost normal again but the achievement must not be taken for granted. These were hard years, sustained by the defiance of the teams of Misbah-ul Haq and rejuvenated by the inspirational introduction of the Pakistan Super League, which allowed Pakistan to nurture its talents and recalibrate itself with the leading standards in international cricket. Babar and all his team have thrived in the PSL where the quality bar is raised with each season.
Babar is a very different leader to Imran, but he is dominant in his own way. The debate about his batting position in T20 cricket aside, Babar is the supreme Pakistani player of his generation. His hunger for runs, elegant style, and remarkable consistency is a combination never seen before to this level in Pakistan cricket.
What Babar lacks in force of personality compared with Imran, he makes up for in sheer weight of performance. But the question mark over him is whether he can turn such personal and statistical excellence into results.
And that is why this T20 World Cup is a pivotal episode in defining Babar’s legacy. Lose to England and the questions will multiply, the doubts about his ability to translate individual performance into team success will resurface. Win and this year’s World Cup will be more than a salute to 1992, it will strengthen Babar’s hold on the captaincy and present him with an opportunity to deliver similar success in other formats.
The notion is not fantastical. This is a young team, and its core talents aren’t merely T20 specialists. England’s captain has recognised the potential in Pakistan’s four man pace attack. Mohammad Rizwan is a player for all seasons. And Babar himself, as we know, excels in every version of cricket. The nucleus of Pakistan’s team is potent, and a world title at this stage in its evolution may galvanise it in a way that the 1992 win failed to galvanise that generation of highly talented cricketers.
None of this is easy. England of 2022 are very different to their counterparts of 1992. England are a multi-faceted team, leading T20 cricket In a new direction, perfecting a relentless brutality that reduces even the world’s best bowling attacks to rubble. Whether they can demolish Pakistan’s bowlers, whose own performance level is very much higher than it was in Pakistan only a few weeks ago, is open to question. That too on the lively pitch and the vast outfield of the MCG.
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Rain is the other force of nature that stands in the path of Babar’s team and a victory that can give them the motivation and self-belief to aim for further glories. The weather forecast predicts a potential washout on both days, but the ICC has adapted the rules to make a result more possible.
The contest, then, is evenly poised in every dimension. But the significance of moments like these only becomes fully apparent in retrospect. In the 30 years since the triumph of the Cornered Tigers, Pakistan cricket has reached the top in every format winning a T20 World Cup and Champions Trophy, and achieving the top ranking in Test cricket. Each moment has been memorable yet each has signalled the end of a road and the start of the quest for a better path.
In Melbourne today, weather permitting, Babar Azam has greatness in his grasp but he also has the opportunity to shape the future of Pakistan cricket. The road to this glittering night has been hard and tortuous, but Babar and his Pakistan can stand defiantly against the adversities of the past 13 years, representing the endeavours of their predecessors and the ambitions of their country. This Pakistan cricket team, Babar’s Pakistan, now stand at the gates of a passage to higher peaks.
Published in Dawn, November 13th, 2022