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Explained: Is Pakistan’s Babar Azam a Virat Kohli in the making?

Despite the gulf in experience, Babar Azam is cut from the same cloth as Virat Kohli — adhering to the conventional modes of batsmanship rather than the slam-dunk style made popular by the advent of T20 format.

Written by Vishal Menon , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: April 20, 2021 8:18:41 am
Pakistan's captain Babar Azam plays a shot during the third One Day International cricket match between South Africa and Pakistan at Centurion Park in Pretoria, South Africa, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, File)

On Wednesday, Pakistan captain Babar Azam became the No.1-ranked ODI batsman, ending Virat Kohli’s reign at the top of the charts since October 2017. In doing so, he became only the fourth Pakistan batsman to attain the top ranking in the 50-over format after Zaheer Abbas (1983), Javed Miandad (1988) and Mohammed Yousuf (2003).

“I have also previously topped the T20I rankings, but the ultimate ambition and goal is to lead the Test rankings, which are the real testament and reward to a batsman’s calibre, reputation and skills,” Azam said.

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Not surprisingly, this triggered a Kohli vs Azam debate among fans and pundits. On the face of it, this may sound a bit of a stretch, even preposterous, considering the Indian captain has scored over 22,000 runs in international cricket with 70 centuries to his credit. Azam, on the other hand, has 19 tons and close to 8,000 runs to show for across formats since his debut five years ago. Going by these numbers, and considering the yawning gap in experience between the two, this comparison looks skewed.

In that case, why is Babar Azam being compared with Virat Kohli?

Despite the gulf in experience, Azam is cut from the same cloth as Kohli — adhering to the conventional modes of batsmanship rather than the slam-dunk style made popular by the advent of T20 format. That Azam has lived up to the hype by churning out consistent numbers over the last three years has led many to believe he has earned the right to be included amongst the pantheon of contemporary modern greats.

Since 2018, Azam has been averaging over 67 in Tests, with 5 centuries. Kohli, considered a beast in this version, correspondingly averages 51.2. However, in the shorter formats — ODIs and T20s — Azam has been averaging over 60. In comparison, the Indian captain’s average has nosedived to 45, from the career average of 59.07. In T20Is, Kohli has witnessed a dip in form, tallying 36.87 last year.

How do they stack up against each other?

Basing our judgements on their current career stats will be a futile and self-defeating exercise. Instead, we can look at how Kohli’s numbers had shaped up when he was at Azam’s juncture — 31 Tests, 80 ODIs and 50 T20Is — to get a better perspective (see table below). At the outset, both have identical numbers at this stage of their careers. They have tasted a fair amount of success, but have not quite hit the dreamy highs yet. At this stage, Kohli has scored centuries in treacherous terrains of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Azam, on the other hand, has just a solitary century to his credit outside the sub-continent — the 104 against Australia in Brisbane.

In ODIs though, Azam seems to have stolen a march over Kohli at this stage. Incidentally, it was Azam who broke Kohli’s record to become the fastest player to reach 1,000 runs in T20Is. While these numbers are indicative of Azam’s talents, he will have to continue at the current level for the next six years, if he harbours hopes of remotely matching Kohli’s enviable record across formats.

Graphic: Abhishek Mitra

How has Babar Azam’s cricketing journey been so far?

Azam may have transformed into a terrific all-format player. But in his first two years — much like Kohli during his initial years — was pigeon-holed as a white-ball specialist. During this period, he struggled to replicate his form in long-form cricket, having had to wait for an eternity to cross the magical three-figure mark. But when he did — in the 17th Test against New Zealand at Abu Dhabi — it opened up the floodgates. Prior to that, Azam endured heartbreaks — against New Zealand in Hamilton in 2016 when he was left unbeaten on 90, and against Australia in Abu Dhabi two years ago, when he was run out on 99.

How does Pakistan view Azam’s rise in international cricket?

The affable lad from Lahore, known for his rasping cover drives, has caught the fancy of a cricket-starved nation. His rise in international cricket could not have come at a more opportune moment. A void was created three years ago following the retirements of their ageing batting superstars such as Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq. Azam stepped up, marrying grace with substance. At the international level, he is still largely under-rated. The fact that he does not feature in the Indian Premier League has also played a part. But Azam has managed to change these perceptions by achieving irresistible consistency levels over the last three years.

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How has Babar Azam reacted to the comparison with Kohli?

Even though he is pleasantly delighted when his name is taken in the same breath as Kohli, Azam said he would only want to be compared with former Pakistan greats such as Javed Miandad, Younis Khan, and Inzamam-ul-Haq. “If you want to compare me with someone, I would like to be compared to Pakistan’s players, instead of Virat Kohli. We have had legends like Javed Miandad, Younis Khan, Inzamam-ul-Haq. If you compare me to these legends, I will like it more and feel proud of my accomplishments,” he was quoted as saying by Cricket Pakistan.

Babar Azam, an affable lad from Lahore, known for his rasping cover drives, has caught the fancy of a cricket-starved nation. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

How has the cricketing world reacted?

Former England captain Nasser Hussain said he was in awe of Azam’s class and elegance, and conceded that he deserves to be put in the same bracket as Kohli, Smith, Kane Williamson and Joe Root. He reckoned that had Kohli carved out that innings as Azam did in the first innings at Old Trafford (first Test between England and Pakistan last year), the world would have been talking about it.

“I think it is a real shame and it is in part a consequence of Pakistan playing away from home, playing in the UAE all the time in front of empty stands, Pakistan hiding in the shadow of Indian cricket, not going over and playing IPL, not playing India,” he said on Sky Sports. “If this lad was Virat Kohli, everyone would be talking about it but because it is Babar Azam, no one is talking about it. He averages 68 since 2018 and 55 in white-ball cricket. He’s young, he’s elegant, he’s got all the swagger. They keep going on about the fab four, it’s the fab five and Babar Azam is in that,” Hussain added.

Former Pakistan off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq, however, pointed out that it was unfair to draw parallels between the two batsmen. “Kohli is more aggressive while Azam is humble. His calmness gives him an edge over Kohli if we look at what sports science teaches us. But comparing Azam with Kohli is unfair because the latter has been performing for a very long time, all over the world,” he told Cricket Pakistan.

In the years to come, will Azam match Kohli’s numbers?

Despite a glorious start, Azam will agree that he still has a long way to go before matching Kohli’s feats. He has notched up enviable numbers in white-ball cricket, but it’s in Test cricket that he needs to take his game up even further. For starters, he needs to improve his batting average away from home, which stands at a middling 37.1, and his conversion rate. The lack of a three-figure score in England, New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies is something he will look to rectify in the years to come. Test centuries abroad will go a long way in attesting Azam’s greatness and reaffirming his credentials as an all-format, all-conditions player. Thankfully, he has age by his side. Many argue that at 26, Azam’s best years as a batsman are ahead of him.

Going forward, the onus will be on Pakistan captain to take a leaf out of Kohli’s manual, work hard on his fitness, iron out the deficiencies in batting and convert those centuries into big double or triple hundreds. If that happens, he will have finished his career with enviable numbers.

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