Babar Azam, in plain speak, means the ‘Lion King’. While comparisons — more noticeably, with Indian superstar Virat Kohli, who incidentally himself hailed Babar as the best last year — are odious, the fact that they are even made underpins his soaring reputation as the man to beat.
Last week, Babar grabbed two top ICC awards that reinforced his standing as one of the world’s best willow-wielders. The Pakistani captain won the Sir Garfield Sobers Trophy for 'ICC Men's Cricketer of the Year' and was also declared the ‘ICC Men’s ODI Cricketer of the Year’ for his phenomenal run in 2022.
In 2022, Babar amassed 1,184 Test runs at a tick under 70; 679 at 85 in ODI cricket, and led his side to the T20 World Cup final in Australia, besides making 735 runs at a strike rate of 123 in T20Is.
The technically sound and stylish batter also figured prominently as a part of the 'ICC Men's Test Team of the Year'. Additionally, he was also named as the captain of the 'ICC Men’s ODI Team of the Year’.
The last one comes at an interesting time given how ironically, he is currently copping a motivated campaign in Pakistan against his captaincy, with calls made by a certain section of the media to remove him from the leadership on the back of a spate of Test match losses at home.
While it is true that Babar has endured a lean run as Test captain of late — leading to series losses to Australia and England as well as a drawn series against New Zealand where however, Pakistan came agonisingly close to victory — missing from the debate is how he was severely handicapped by the continuing absence of Pakistan’s envious pace battery led by Shaheen Shah Afridi, the most penetrating pacer in the game across all formats.
While Afridi is still not available after sustaining an injury in an attempt to take a difficult catch during the T20 World Cup final against England late last year, Babar also did not always have the rest of the pace attack available to him thanks to injuries.
But while public memory is prone to be fickle, the campaign against Babar picked up after the recent change in the Pakistan Cricket Board where Najam Sethi, a prominent media personality, who is considered close to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, was suddenly installed at the head of a management committee to oversee the running of the board.
Sethi replaced Ramiz Raja, a former cricket captain and commentator, who was appointed by former prime minister Imran Khan and survived only a little over a year of his three-year elected term. Unfortunately, cricket in Pakistan despite being a force of unity amongst citizens of all shades has historically, suffered from these apparent political changes.
It is in this context that Babar appeared to have become a ‘collateral’ with speculation rife smack in the middle of an ongoing series against New Zealand of an imminent change. This was reinforced with the intriguing appointment of Shan Masood, a favourite of Sethi, as the vice-captain of the ODI team in place of Mohamed Rizwan, a stalwart first choice selection in the shorter formats.
An incensed Babar initially declined to include Masood in the ODI playing eleven — exercising his right as captain — before relenting in the last ODI where Masood failed to make the opportunity count.
But with Babar winning the prestigious ICC awards, it has apparently, for now at least, offset the questionable move to remove him as Test captain. The facetious if aborted attempt makes little cricketing sense given how a captain is only as good as the team he inherits and only if there is a worthy replacement, who, is not only better than Babar, but also an automatic selection in the team first, and has a decent future ahead of him, should such a move be even considered.
For the record, Babar still maintains the best success percentage across all formats for any Pakistan captain — 71 years after the country became a full member of the ICC.
Former Australian captain and ICC Hall of Famer Ricky Ponting was only stating the obvious when reacting to Babar’s ICC recognition, he said: “You’ve only got to look at when he plays, how long he bats for in Test matches, how he controls the innings in one-day games, how he’s sort of got the ability to go up and down the gears as a batsman when the game and the situation needs him to.”
“I think Babar’s still got a little bit of improvement to come, which is a pretty scary thought with what he’s been able to do, pretty much across all three formats,” he concluded.
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