Late last year, Babar Azam conquered Australia. In Brisbane, he reeled off a hundred so finely constructed that it made you feel intoxicated just watching it, amidst a violent onslaught of Australian quicks on a lively surface. Pakistan slumped to an innings defeat, but Azam wowed them all.
The hundred, and the 97 in Adelaide for an equally heart-breaking defeat, had Australians rushing for adjectives. Tom Moody raved: “If you think Kohli is good to watch, have a look at Azam bat. My gosh, he’s something special.” Mike Hussey gushed: “This guy can be in the same conversation when we start talking about the best players in the world.”
England awaits to be conquered. Expectedly, there’s an unmistakable buzz around him, a conviction that he could be the most prized wicket of series even before the first ball gets bowled in the three-Test series, starting Wednesday at the Old Trafford. A feeling that a special talent is spreading his wings and soaring to greatness. Only the finest of batsmen from Pakistan have generated such anticipation.
If much of the initial hype around him was about style, minimalistic technique and melting stroke-play, now he has married it with substance. Some stats are better than those churned out by the Fab Four of this generation. Since start of 2018, Babar averages 65.5 in Tests, compensating an average start of 23 in his first 11 Tests and an eternal wait for his maiden hundred. Joe Root, Kane Williamson, Virat Kohli and Steve Smith’s corresponding figures read: 40, 52, 53 and 59. There’s three hundreds in his last seven innings, besides a 97 and 60. All these runs, staggeringly scored at the fastest clip — 63 per 100 hundred balls, seven more than Kohli, the next on the list.
Yet, he’d be the first to admit that he is imperfect, still a few badges away from gaining access to the rarefied space of greatness. He still has the tendency to play one stroke too many, to drive instinctively from the crease, and to reach out for the ball that’s pitched far from off-stump. Minimalism of foot-work is beautiful when it comes off; horrendous when it doesn’t. No doubt, England bowlers will relentlessly probe those channels, testing his discretion as much as technique. As hostile a bowling firm he had subdued in Australia, their England counterparts could ask him tougher posers.
James Anderson could tease and taunt him with swing and guile, Stuart Broad with seam-movement and smarts, Jofra Archer with raw pace and Chris Woakes with innocuous cutters and wobblers.
The conditions – lovely when it’s sunny, savage when gloomy, will demand the batsman blends technical perfection with judged brilliance. Some of his favourite strokes need un-friending. Like the punch on the rise that was so productive in Australia. Or the flick that he sometimes picks off the middle-stump. Even to pull is dangerous if the breeze trifles about with the Dukes ball.
More than his skills to adapt, it’s about the discipline. It’s not like in Australia where macho-ness reigns, but about reining the macho-ness of your batting. It’s both the strokes played, and those not.
He’s not a complete stranger to the country. His county stint with Somerset saw them pen a ballad for him and their technicians upgrade the club website’s server capacity during live streams and a prolific World Cup too. His only Test innings had 68 glorious runs before he retired hurt, struck on the arm by a Stokes bouncer.
Acquainted he might be, but he’s still far from mastering English conditions. His favourite batsman, Kohli, would concur. It took the Indian a second visit to assert his credentials; while Williamson needed five innings and Smith 13 to reach hundreds in England. Someone like David Warner has never scored one in 13 games. There is no better place for a keen young batsman to test the limits of his game than in England.
Driven as he is, Azam wouldn’t flinch. Rather than getting compared with the batting greats, he is on a journey of self-discovery and improvement. Azam himself says: “A good performance doesn’t make me happy, instead I push myself to go further and try to expand my game”. His coach Misbah-ul-Haq sheds more light into his psyche: “He believes in the work ethic that if you want to better Kohli you have to work harder than him at your skills, fitness and game awareness. He is never bored of getting runs, he is always hungry.”
In this regard, it rankles him that he hasn’t yet registered a score of 150-plus in Tests. “When you score a century, you naturally want to go on and convert that into a double or a triple century. This is something I would like to do during the Test series,” he had recently said in a press conference. If he does so, he shall have England conquered by the end of the summer.