Babar changes gears with ruthless precision to ensure familiarity does not breed contempt

Published April 16, 2023
Pakistan captain Babar Azam is pictures during the second t20 match against New Zealand Lahore on April 15. — Photo courtesy: PCB
Pakistan captain Babar Azam is pictures during the second t20 match against New Zealand Lahore on April 15. — Photo courtesy: PCB

One of science fiction’s greatest authors Arthur C. Clarke said the supreme enemy of all utopias is boredom. The same can be said for consistent dominance at the top level of any sport.

One of the unique hurdles that only the greatest must overcome is that the familiarity of their greatness can breed contempt. The casual dominance that defines the very best can lead to a ‘yeah so what’ mentality among onlookers and fans. When the unheard of becomes common place then the magical becomes expected. You just pushed the boundaries of what we thought was humanly possible, yeah well you did that last week too, come back when you have something new to offer.

Perhaps that is the problem that Messrs Babar Azam and Muhammad Rizwan face as people question the skipper’s decision to stick with their opening partnership. The two fell early in the first T20I against New Zealand in Lahore and you could almost hear the gleeful sharpening of collective knives. In the second game, like clockwork they once again forced their critics to stow away their knives and pitch forks as they combined for a 99-run opening stand that ensured New Zealand were never able to get a true foothold in the game.

When Rizwan fell for 50, the two were just one run away from becoming the first partnership in T20I history to combine for 10 century stands. No other duo have managed more than five. Their tally of 2,651 partnership runs is 754 runs more than the second most prolific T20I partnership, dwarfing the efforts of India’s Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul. Theirs is the only partnership with more than 1,000 runs to average more than 50. All this for a Pakistan side that saw an entire generation of fans grow old without a proper opening partnership to speak of in any format.

Their critics ignore their remarkable consistency and instead point to their slow accumulation of runs, especially in the first six powerplay overs. The argument goes that Babar and Rizwan’s strengths and weaknesses are too similar, and it would be better to let a more aggressive batsman open the innings alongside one of them. That is not an invalid criticism, considering that Pakistan’s openers do not usually hit the opposition out of the contest in the manner that openers of other international sides can and do.

The counterargument goes that Pakistan’s middle-order is so brittle that if Babar and Rizwan were to get out early trying to force the issue then Pakistan can crumble very easily. The fact that Pakistan went from 99-0 to 105-4 in 13 deliveries in the second T20I lends even more credence to that line of thinking.

And yet there is an increasing feeling that this batting attack no longer needs its best two batsmen to coddle them. For the first time in living memory, Pakistan have more than a couple of batsmen in their line-up who can win a match on their own, and the openers must adapt accordingly. A steady century opening stand is no longer enough when the requirement is an explosive start.

While Rizwan is more adept at increasing his scoring rate, this new requirement is now Babar’s biggest challenge as Pakistan’s greatest-ever all-format batsman is forced to wade even further away from his comfort zone. Whether the strike-rate stick which Babar is often beaten with is justified or not depends on how you see the game of cricket, but it is clear that Babar is more comfortable playing traditional cricketing shots than the kind that T20’s more destructive willow-wielders pull off.

On Saturday, Babar showed that he is more than capable of overcoming this new challenge as well, and that too on his own terms, as he changed gears with ruthless precision. Babar had made 43 off 27 deliveries (strike-rate: 159.25) in the first 10 overs as Pakistan looked to be cruising to the 200-run mark at 98-0. When the side lost four quick wickets, Babar consolidated and scored only seven off the next nine balls (strike-rate: 77.78) and reached his half-century off 36 deliveries in the 15th over. From then on, with some able support from Iftikhar Ahmed, Babar once again upped the ante in the final five and made his next 51 runs off 22 deliveries (strike-rate: 231.81).

Perhaps Babar’s biggest struggle has been to reapply the peddle to the metal once, for whatever reason, he has fallen into a lull in his innings. On such occasions, his knocks usually end with a tame attempt at clearing the straight boundary that ends up down the throat of either mid-off or mid-on. On Saturday, he showed a Virat Kohli-esque ability to change gears at will depending on the game situation.

There are many who will continue to criticise and condemn T20’s most prolific batting partnership and the part that Pakistan’s captain plays in it, but for now the critics will have to wait in the wings as Babar shows a wonderful ability and willingness to adapt. Pakistan’s finest T20 batsman must now elevate his game to even more otherworldly levels still —the emergence of a genuinely exciting and aggressive crop of young Pakistani batsmen now demands it.


The author is a freelance journalist

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