There was a notion when the Pakistan Super League (PSL) started that has now been firmly put to bed. It was that that there can be no losers in this league. The logic going that since no matter what happens, a Pakistani team will win and hence nobody is truly losing here. Yet such is the nature of competitive sport that that cannot hold true. If there are no losers, then there can be no winners. At this level, that simply cannot be.
There is another notion that has been put to bed by T20 cricket and that is that cricket is a gentleman’s game. The shortest format is terribly cut-throat, and it is ruthlessly vicious.
No quarter is given or asked, and no prisoners are kept. This is not for the faint-hearted. This is hair-raising adrenaline-pumping business, there is nowhere to hide, no moment of respite, no time to be gentle or polite when whoever is at the other end of those 22 yards is baying for blood.
Rivalries in sports are therefore not only inevitable but also beneficial, and don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. The only thing better than supremely talented players pitting their wits and skills against each other is fired-up supremely talented rivals pitting their wits and skills against each other.
The rivalry, or rather bad blood, between the league’s biggest franchise Karachi Kings and the league’s biggest star Babar Azam captured the imaginations of the nation even before PSL8 started. Babar himself said so when asked about his rivalry against his former side. “I think these things [rivalries] should exist. It increases the excitement of the PSL, and it also makes you enjoy facing the opponent more.”
Muhammad Amir, the leader of Karachi’s pace attack, also feels bowling against rivals elevates his own game, saying that such challenges help him keep focus better. It was another statement from that interview that made headlines though.
“My job is to take wickets … so for me facing Babar or a tailender is the same,” said Amir. The sentiment of the first part of that statement is valid but the second part is as thinly veiled a dig as they come.
You don’t need to be a body language expert to tell you how much Babar’s battle with Amir meant for both players. And boy was it a battle for the ages.
Babar the darling of a nation, betrayed by the same men alongside whom he had once conquered all. Amir a wizard scorned, all rage and dark magic, anger and bile consuming him, maybe even fuelling him.
Cricket may be a batsman’s game but all it still takes from the bowlers is one moment of brilliance to dismiss even the best. Few in world cricket can present the full face of the bat like Babar can but when that Amir delivery swung back in, its delicate arch moved away from Babar’s bat with deadly precision, curving millimetres away from the bat and smashing into the pads. Redemption for Amir, Babar gone for 0 off 3.
Best batsman in the league? Same as a tailender for me.
That wicket would also have been especially pleasing for Kings captain Imad Wasim, who had indicated that he felt certain Karachi players were more interesting in padding their stats in previous editions than they were in helping the team win.
Yet another dig that wasn’t very veiled, especially since Imad also added that he now wanted Karachi to play modern cricket, the implication being that they could not do so with the outdated Babar leading the side. Like Amir, Imad delivered on his words, and he has arguably been the standout player of the tournament so far.
His ridiculous average of 179.5 with the bat is the best in the tournament by more than 100 and his strike-rate of 174.27 is only behind Colin Munro and Rilee Rossouw among batsmen with more than 200 runs.
That is the very definition of match-winning performances in modern cricket. Imad also has the second-most wickets for Karachi and only five bowlers in the entire league have taken more wickets at a better economy than Imad.
Imad, Amir, Wasim Akram, and whoever else is involved in the Kings’ decision-making can point to these facts to back what they had said and done before the tournament. Babar’s strike-rate of 118.68 last year was simply not good enough and of the eight Karachi batsmen to play more than 50 balls this year, only Haider Ali has scored at a lower rate.
Like all of Karachi, Babar had a poor PSL7 and was rightly singled out for criticism as the side’s captain and best player. That the loudest criticisms came from within his own camp must have strung Babar that little bit more, but it was still valid criticism.
Karachi’s folly came not in criticising Babar but in doubting him. Babar’s strike-rate last year was poor, but his three strike-rates in the three campaigns before that read 115.51, 124.14, and 132.53 — a clear upwards trajectory. This year it has gone up to 146.47. It appears last year was an exception rather than the norm — something about class being permanent and what not.
Since that duck against Karachi, Babar has gone about fixing things, scoring 50, 115 and 73 in three innings at a strike-rate of over 164. He is now breathing down Muhammad Rizwan’s neck for the top-scorer cap.
Babar has inspired Peshawar to back-to-back record scores of 240 or more, making Peshawar the tournament’s leading-run scorers. His side are playing genuinely attacking front-foot cricket with the bat, even if Babar will want to ignore the hilarious aberration that his side lost both those games.
The Pakistan captain has surrounded himself with three genuinely exciting Pakistani batsmen in Saim Ayub, Haseebullah, and Muhammad Harris. Their ages and strike-rates read: 169.78 and 20 for Saim Ayub, 160.46 and 19 for Haseebullah, and 194.87 and 21 for Harris.
It bodes well that the country’s best player has taken three of the nation’s finest under his wing — a 28-year-old mama bear nurturing the next line of cubs. Almost as if he is determined to do the exact opposite of everything being done by Karachi Kings, the league’s oldest squad who managed to waste the supreme talents of 20-year-old Qasim Akram this year.
Kings’ verbal digressions have clearly lit a fire under Babar, and men do great and strange things when they are burning from the inside.
Nothing highlights that better than the premediated paddle sweep Babar tried against Multan. Babar may be the best conventional batsman in the world, but he still cannot clear boundaries in all directions like AB de Villiers, Virat Kohli, and Surya Kumar Yadav can and could. Add that bow to his quiver and Babar can reach unprecedented heights the likes of which have never been seen before in limited-overs cricket.
The Kings think-tank were right — Babar could and should do better than playing at a strike of 118 like he did last year. It seems that Babar agrees with them and is hell bent on proving so. Amir, Imad, and Wasim Akram can now say perhaps history’s least satisfying “I told you so”.
The author is a freelance journalist