‘BABAR Azam the captain’ versus ‘Babar Azam the batter’ has been one of the dominating themes of discussion among Pakistan cricket fans and the country’s former players-turned-television pundits over the years, right up to the end of his run as the team’s all-format leader.
During the three years Babar led the Pakistan side, it was easy to forget that behind the exquisite timing and the most elegant of cover drives, there stood a mere mortal.
As a promising 25-year-old, having come through Pakistan’s age-group cricket systems to the national side, Babar was handed the T20 captaincy in October 2019 and the Test reins a year later, solely on the basis that the country’s then-prime minister, Imran Khan, took a liking to him after he “watched him play twice”.
The former PM had revealed on a TV show last year that he had “immediately asked the head of the cricket board, you must make him the captain because he is genuinely world-class”.
“Him as the captain makes a lot of sense because you want your captain to be world-class so that he commands respect,” Mr Khan would go on to say.
By that point, Babar was emerging as one of the best batters Pakistan had ever produced, with averages of 54.17, 45.44 and 49.61 in ODIs, Tests and T20s, respectively. Add to that the fact that he had found a fan in the prime minister and was gathering praise from fans and critics alike, while also being on his way to becoming a superstar.
In his first year as Pakistan’s white-ball captain, former skipper Misbahul Haq was the team’s chief selector-cum-head coach — the first of the four selectors and three head coaches Babar would work with.
Misbah stepped down as the chief selector within an year of Babar’s white-ball captaincy. Replaced by another former cricketer in Mohammad Wasim, he was now only the head coach of the team.
A common notion about Misbah as coach was that he practiced strictness, especially over players’ fitness. He was also said to have been the main decision maker, rather than giving the captain the authority to do so.
Ramiz turned it all around when he came in, giving Babar the room to “demand respect” as Imran envisioned him doing as captain. At the same time, Misbah left the head coach role as well and was replaced by Saqlain Mushtaq.
Babar’s popularity got a massive boost when Pakistan beat India by 10 wickets in the 2021 T20 World Cup — the first time Pakistan got the better of their archrivals in a World Cup game in any format.
That’s when Pakistan’s dominance in white ball cricket really took off. Pakistan won a three-match ODI series 2-1 against a second-string Australian side, with Babar scoring two hundreds in a row. They thrashed the West Indies and Netherlands 3-0 each in the summer.
Pakistan also reached the final of the T20 Asia Cup in 2022, but lost the final to Sri Lanka, a fairly less experienced team. Babar and co. were then beaten 4-3 by England at home in a seven-match T20 series.
During Ramiz’s tenure, as an official close to the team would put it, “Babar was made a demi-god, an untouchable entity”. While all was just fine in the limited-overs formats, Pakistan lost home Test series against Australia (1-0) and England (3-0). The defeats led to the sacking of Ramiz by PCB’s then patron-in-chief, PM Shehbaz Sharif.
Najam Sethi was brought in as the interim chief of the PCB and there was a host of changes once again. Sethi removed Wasim as the chief selector and Saqlain as the head coach. The journalist-cum-cricket administrator appointed former captain Shahid Afridi as the selector and created the team director position for South African Mickey Arthur to occupy.
But as soon as Sethi’s interim tenure ended, there was another shift as Zaka Ashraf took charge of the interim management committee of the PCB. Three weeks before the Asia Cup and a month and a half before the World Cup, Zaka appointed Inzamam-ul-Haq as the chief selector, while Arthur’s role was reduced to merely heading the coaching staff.
It was during the Asia Cup when Pakistan were given a reality check, especially when they lost to India by 228-runs in the Super Four encounter. The match exposed Pakistan’s lack of preparation leading up to both the Asia Cup and the World Cup.
The Zaka-led PCB administration still decided to go with Arthur and his management staff and avoided making changes in the team ahead of the World Cup, where Pakistan eventually lost five of their nine league matches.
The World Cup debacle, indeed, showed how instability in administrative and selection affairs marred the team’s preparation for the big event. However, it was only Babar who ended up being asked to give up his role in the aftermath.
“If you talk about Pakistan’s preparation for the World Cup, how selection matters were handled need to be talked about as well,” former Pakistan captain Rashid Latif told Dawn, maintaining that Babar wasn’t the centre of Pakistan’s problems.
“We have to see how many players were picked and dropped by four different chief selectors across Babar’s tenure.
“There has been no consistent policy over selection matters, which is key for any international team to excel,” added Rahid as he lamented the ongoing turmoil in the PCB.
In contrast to the backing he received from Ramiz during his time as PCB chairman, Babar was constantly under pressure with Zaka at the helm of the board.
After Pakistan’s third straight loss, a press release was issued by the PCB which cryptically pointed out that the captain and chief selector would be held responsible for the team’s poor show.
The deadlock between the PCB and players over central contracts continued through the World Cup as well, with a Whatsapp chat between Babar and PCB chief operating officer Salman Naseer regarding the issue surfacing on a mainstream TV news channel.
All this happened while a host of critics across mainstream and social media were calling for Babar’s removal as captain. Many believed the campaign was being run to pressurise Babar to accept surrogate betting companies as his sponsors through the PCB.
Babar’s on-field decisions as captain were clearly not great, but if allowed to present an argument in his own favour, the batter would have many at his disposal.
Published in Dawn, November 17th, 2023