Sitting next to the avuncular Inzy bhai, Babar first said how he feels grateful and happy that his name is spoken of like that before he homed in on the vital change he made because of this comparison. “Why were their names on top? Naam tab banta hai jab team jeetti hai (You become famous when the team wins). Their top performances were noted for the wins. I made that change in myself. Win games,” he said on Inzamam’s YouTube channel. Put double effort.”
It’s a lovely chat, the kind that one would have imagined how Inzy bhai would talk normally, off-camera too. The gentleness, the pauses, the directness in asking tough questions, but in his inimitable soft manner. The answers too were interesting. Babar doesn’t shy away from anything, a quiet confidence seeps through, and his quiet ambition comes across.
As a curious, but kind, uncle might ask about a school exam result, Inzamam quizzes about Babar’s failure to get big scores at the start of his Test career.
The ‘nephew’ doesn’t turn shy. “Yes, I would get starts, make 50-60 and then get out. Some 7-8 fifties I had at one point.” Babar then zooms in on the moment it all changed.
“One day, I sat and asked: Why isn’t it happening for me? The answer I got was that after 50-60, I was relaxing. Those were negative things in my mind,” Babar says. “That’s why runs weren’t coming. In Tests, every session, bowlers come with different plans. Different attacks. It took me a while to understand that.”
Inzamam cued up a question about criticisms on his batting, early on in his career. “This was an allegation in my U-19 days,” Babar says. “Yeh tv wala player nahi hai!” (He is not a TV player. ). Live matches mey perform nahi karega. (Won’t perform in games broadcasted live). Meaning? “That bada match ka player nahi hai (not a big-game player),” Babar says. “I took it positively, how to correct it. How can I prove them wrong? Only with my performance.” Inzybhai nods sagely.
Eight Pakistan wickets are down as Sri Lankan spinners, 30-year-old left-armer Prabhat Jayasuriya in midst of a stunning Test initiation with five-for in all his three innings, and carrom-ball offie Maheesh Theekshana on top.
Babar is all alone, a one-man army. The feet, they dance. They breach areas that other top batsmen seldom do these days. Like Rahul Dravid, Babar can press-back smartly to create his own length. Like Virender Sehwag, he can lean forward and drive against the turn through covers. Like VVS Laxman, he can skip down to meet the ball on the full.
If one prefers the Pakistani examples, the press-back is almost as effective as Salim Malik’s, a wonderful player of spin.
Such was Malik’s drive and cut against spinners that it would create an illusion that the length of the bowler was erratic. Actually, it was all down to the vision, the confidence, the feet, and the hands. Babar possesses that. Not quite Malik’s wrist, of course but the confidence and his vision.
Jayasuriya had everyone else fooled with his arm-ball that seems to have the pace and trajectory almost similar to his loopy turners – quite a skill that, but Babar had it covered. Theekshana would flick out carrom balls and roll out offies, but Babar was unfussed. “Double the focus, double the effort,” as he would say.
Ace against pace
This game against Sri Lanka was about his skills with spin; not that he is any less against pace.
In that chat with Inzamam, Babar brings up a tour of South Africa as the turning point where he understood Test cricket. It’s worth hitting YouTube to see his batting against Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander in 2019.
This wasn’t peak Steyn but the man whom Michael Holding rated, he once told this newspaper, as the “best pacer he had ever seen”, was no slouch. The out-swingers from full length, from a good length, likewise the inswingers, and the seamers from different points of release at the crease were all attempted. Babar just didn’t block; he blasted them.
He does this astounding little thing. Again, watch the feet and hands. When Steyn’s deliveries were treading the start of good length or back of length, Babar seemed to materialise at the right position. As if he has divined where the ball would be. Watch the replays. Look at the feet.
To the balls on off-stump, he would have a tiny back-and-across press on the back foot. More a weight transfer than anything, which is what good batting is all about as they say. The hands now whirr into action, and he cuts. He hasn’t gone the full Michael Slater or the Aussie way – the exaggerated back and across, the hauling of the entire body frame diagonally across, but a gentle back-transfer. He seems to be already hovering on the off-stump guard line. With this tiny twitch of the feet, he is there, ready to pounce. Hence, he can cut the ball closer to his body than most.
Then the hands whir. Gasp-worthy. Like many great Pakistani batsmen, Babar too can be a bit more arms then wrists, unlike the Indians. Or in other words, the difference between Sangakkara and Jayawardene, the former more arms, the latter more wristy.
Not that all Indians were necessarily Azharuddin, Laxman kind of wristy, but in the way arms would quickly collapse to let the wrists power the shots was common. Sachin Tendulkar was an exception to the norm in the Indian scene, and, now we can see that effect in the post-Tendulkar era.
The Pakistanis wouldn’t do that. Most were nearly all-arms, with the wrist coming in to impart power. You can even see it in the way the Pakistanis cradle the bat while at stance. It’s distinctively different to how Indians have done for years now. Across the border, a Zaheer Abbas was more the exception with his flamboyantly wristy bat flow. The rest mainly dealt with punches of the arm. In their essence of batting, the two countries have thus differed historically.
There were the usual crowd-pleasers: the exquisite cover drives, the wondrous cuts to balls close to the body, the fluid on-drives when Steyn hurled them fuller and straighter – but one shot has stayed in the mind.
Not for its beauty or authority, in fact it was probably a mistake to do what he did. But it stands out for the adjustment, for how he visited aggression to get out of a hole.
Aware of the need for hitting that in-between length to thwart Babar’s balance, Styen had cleverly dragged back the ball a touch. The easy option of defending was always there but he didn’t take it. Instead, after a tiny lean-in, he lets the hands take over. A waft. An on-the-up wafty-punch. Neither a drive nor a push or a punch. The hands are well ahead of the body, the feet aren’t there quite, but Babar has the feel for the ball that great batsmen tend to possess. It could have been an awkward jab that Steyn was probably hoping for, instead the ball plummets past the non-striker.
It should have been a shot that led to his dismissal, instead it had Mark Nicholas cooing, “Babar Azam in middle of a gem …” That ball, that in-between length, where Babar thinks he can play off the back but is dragged ahead is still the best ball to bowl at him from a pacer. That cuts out his cut shot and the drive. Never mind, though, as he did that day, he can conjure a four.
— ICC (@ICC) July 17, 2022
Playing for Dad
Babar’s relationship with his cricket-loving father seems to have firmed his character and resolve. Short on finances, but high on love for the game and his son, the father would accompany him to most of his matches.
“Even if I had gone first, he would reach in time, at least for my batting. That pressure was there. Out nahi hon! Bad shot nahi khelna! (I don’t want to get out. Don’t want to play a bad shot)! Father is watching. At times, he would say he is not coming and I would think I can get away with a lie about the way I got out. As he hadn’t seen it. But he had. And would catch my lie!
“Even now, I have that fear. If I had played a bad shot, he would scold me! It has only helped me. The focus has improved a lot as galti ki gunjaaish nahi hai (no scope for mistakes).”
His first bat and kit came from an uncle’s largesse. “Mama gave me 3500 rupees and I got a bat for 1500 Rs. I probably still have that bat in my old home.”
Inzamam brings up a moment when a cousin apparently abused Babar for asking for money to buy shoes. “I decided that day I will earn what I need.”
Babar’s father would invariably get food for him. At times, Babar would occasionally lie that he has already eaten with his team-mates and tell his father to have the lunch. “Because I knew he hadn’t eaten anything.”
Inzy bhai gives a nod of appreciation before declaring, “Jisne ma baap ko izzat di, Allah ney usko baadshah banaya hai. (Those who respect their parents, God makes them an emperor).”
Baadshah Babar Azam is now ruling the cricketing world.