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Monday, November 29, 2021

With Babar Azam at helm, Pakistan dreams of ‘nayaa daur’

Babar Azam isn't the world's leading all-format batter, but is also aiming to take along a team, notorious for imploding, in his slipstream.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty | Dubai |
Updated: October 26, 2021 2:00:53 pm
Babar AzamYoung Babar Azam with his father Muhammad Azam Siddique. (Spl arrangement)

Pakistan’s heady start to the T20 World campaign has a crisp shot of espresso tempering the dizzy intoxication of the 10-wicket win over India.

“Overexcited na hona please, phir yeh request kar raha hoon (Don’t get overexcited please, I’m requesting this again). Kyunki yeh hamari aadat hai (Because we have developed this habit),” skipper Babar Azam can be heard pleading to his band of boys in a short video put out by Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) on social media, soon after drubbing the Indians.

Much is known of Pakistan’s tempestuous, mercurial habits. But here’s something of Babar’s unwavering ones: he can pull a shortish zipper through midwicket with elan and then leave the off-stump targetting pinpoints and outswingers well alone, one after another. The man can curb enthusiasm.

To understand why Babar, apart from his world-class batting, is the right man to lead the team to a ‘nayaa daur’, we have to rewind to his academy days.

Mohammad Asif, the compulsive quick was once left startled and skidding in his strides. Babar, just into his teens, had hit a bouncer through mid-wicket and much to Asif’s chagrin, then Pakistan’s National Cricket Academy (NCA) director Mudassar Nazar had foretold him – a frontline pacer in the national team at the time – about this very outcome.

Nazar likes to recount the story. “Asif was bowling with the old ball and said, ‘I would bowl him (Babar) a bouncer’. I told him, ‘if you do that, he will hit you through mid-wicket. He said, ‘he is just a kid, what are you talking about?’ I said, ‘try it then’. So, Asif actually bowled him a bouncer and Babar hit him through mid-wicket,” Nazar recalled speaking to Indian Express.

Nazar vividly remembers Asif’s reaction. “He stood for a second and said, ‘give me the new ball’. I gave him the new ball but I played a trick on him,” he chuckles. Nazar would tell Babar, Asif was going to bowl an off stump line, so to leave the delivery as soon as he saw the ball. He would also forewarn him about the imminent outswinger from wide of the crease. “After three balls, Asif went wide of the crease and bowled an outswinger, and Babar left it again. Asif berated me for playing a trick on him. But more importantly, a young Babar had the cricketing intelligence to understand the tricks of the trade.” Babar was 13 then.

***
A video clip posted on Twitter by Pakistani cricket statistician Mazher Arshad on Sunday night went viral in no time. Babar’s father Muhammad breaking down in the stands after his son led Pakistan to their first World Cup victory against India. As Babar’s first cousin Kamran Akmal says, Azam Sr was a hard taskmaster. But when the crowning glory arrived, toughness melted away.

A stern upbringing toughened up Babar, although by his own admission, and to paraphrase a line from Raj Kapoor’s Teesri Kasam, his was a case of ladakhpan khel mein khoya (childhood being consumed by cricket). In a YouTube chat with Pakistani journalist Abdul Ghaffar, Babar gives a peek into his past. “Every Saturday night I used to play gully cricket by turning on the lights. Those were whole-night affairs. It continues to the day also. Bohut maar bhi khai hain (Got a lot of thrashing). Eventually I graduated to club cricket.”

Babar’s father had a small watch-repairing shop at Firdous Market in Lahore and Farrukh Anjan Shah has followed the family’s upwardly mobile journey as a next-door neighbour. “They used to stay at a 660 square feet kholi (building) and young Babar’s serious cricket education began when his father took him to a cricket academy at Model Town. Babar’s childhood was basically spent riding pillion on the motorcycle of his father and going to different clubs. They have now moved to a haveli at Defence Colony,” Shah says, speaking to The Indian Express.

His three cousins, Kamran, Adnan and Umar, played for Pakistan. Conspiracy theorists _ and Shah swirls one of his own _ say that Babar didn’t get much help from the Akmal brothers, but during a conversation with this paper a couple of years ago, Kamran was full of praise for his younger cousin. “He (Babar) did a lot of hard work. His father was a hard taskmaster. He always wanted to play cricket full-time. He made his mark at club level and at all age-group levels. When he started playing U-16 cricket, we saw the spark. There was a big enough hint that he would be a success,” Kamran had said.

Nazar takes us back to the NCA days, when Babar bowled a bit as well with a ‘kink’ in his arm. “We tried to rectify that. But he didn’t show much interest. For him, it was only about batting. He was inquisitive, although it was more a case of me approaching him rather than the other way round. He was always very quiet, an introvert.”

Underneath that shy exterior, Babar, though, had steel and Nazar as his coach was very impressed. “He came under my tutelage during my second tenure at the NCA, when he was 13 or 14 years of age. He was very talented and advanced for his years. And he would often get to bat against Shoaib Akhtar and Asif. Of course Shoaib didn’t go full-tilt but Asif, after being hit through mid-wicket, bowled top pace.” He saw no fear whatsoever in Babar.

***

Back to the PCB dressing room clip that went viral on Twitter late on Sunday. “Dekho bhaiyon, yeh individual kisi ki credit nahi hai (Look brothers, this is not down to individual brilliance). As a team hum jite hai (We have won as a team). Yeh cheez chhodni nahi hai, kisi bhi time pe (We can’t ditch team effort at any time). Abhi start hai (This is just the beginning). Enjoy karo, lekin over-excited nahi hona (Enjoy, but don’t get over-excited). Hume aage focus karna hai (We have to focus ahead). Yeh guzar gaya (This is gone now). Focus humara ek hai, woh kya hai, World Cup jitna (We have just one goal, to win the World Cup).” His team-mates greeted the speech with thunderous applause.

What had stood out following the win was Babar’s equanimity, and also humility, as he spoke with his Indian counterpart, Virat Kohli, after the game. Babar’s opening partner Mohammad Rizwan, with the duo remaining unseparated till the end to take their team to a 10-wicket victory, hugged the India captain. Together they posted the highest-ever opening stand in T20 World Cups, surpassing Chris Gayle and Devon Smith’s 145 against South Africa in 2007.

Babar’s T20I average is north of 48 over 62 matches. His ODI average is touching 57. In Test cricket, however, the 27-year-old has been playing catch-up, 42.94, not totally doing justice to his world-class talent. The longest format is where he hasn’t followed his club coach Mama Juna in toto.

Two years ago, on the current PCB chairman Ramiz Raja’s YouTube show, ‘RamizSpeaks’, Babar had revealed his coach’s advice: “Play the first and the last ball of a match.”

Maybe not in Test cricket, but that was exactly what the opener did against India yesterday and so impressed was former Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal that he didn’t bat an eyelid to call him the country’s “finest limited-overs batsman ever.”

It’s his captaincy though mirroring his batting – calm and measured, imploding-free – that can usher in the ‘nayaa daur’ Pakistan dreams of. Not many moons ago, when New Zealand and England abruptly cancelled their Pakistan tours, the PCB chief had urged the team to make a statement by winning the World Cup. Babar spoke about the hurt back then. He is oozing resolve now. Through their resounding win over India, Pakistan gave an impression that they meant business. A start of it in the least.

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