Babar Azam needs to break the habit

Sri Lanka players celebrate the wicket of Babar Azam Getty Images

There were about five minutes left before tea. Babar Azam was looking like Babar Azam, hanging around with all the languor of a rakish prince. When he defended the first ball he faced, as often happens with him, he immediately looked so in, so in control that it could've been the 100th ball he was facing, or even dawdling in a low-key net session.

For half an hour, he appeared every bit as accomplished as the hype has it, mostly untroubled - although not against spin - and definitely unhurried. Sri Lanka's pacers were squeezing him and making him play, but all in all he was shaping up okay, a young man who knows he's got this.

Then, with a break in play looming, Rangana Herath bowled a shortish delivery on off stump that broke further away. Babar tried to whip it through midwicket, except there was a midwicket in place and he took a straightforward catch. The ball had not stopped on him, it did not bounce more than it should have, it wasn't great. But it was an awful shot. With ten balls left for tea.

But hey, it happens. It happens to young batsmen finding their way into the game. Make a note, talk it out with him and expect better next time. Except this wasn't the first time Babar had gotten out at the worst possible time. Or even the second. Or third.

He's not had a long Test career - this is just his 12th Test. Yet of his 19 dismissals to date, on as many as 15 occasions he has been dismissed just before or after a break, whether that is at the start of play, lunch, tea and close (or tea and dinner), as well as drinks intervals in between sessions.

Near enough a break, for the purposes of this, is anything inside four overs either side. If that seems too much, it isn't really - common wisdom has it that five overs either side of a session break are important moments in a game, where it is vital to not lose a wicket and, potentially, cede momentum. Maybe including the drinks in between sessions is harsh, but they are breaks and do require, to an extent, the batsman starting afresh after it. In any case, Babar's dismissals near drinks breaks have all been within 10 deliveries either side.

Even if you take those out, look at the timing of the really bad ones on the list. Four balls after tea in Hamilton; last ball before lunch and first ball after it at the MCG; three overs before tea and four overs into the morning in Sydney; last ball before lunch in Dominica; and what turned out to be the last ball of the day in Abu Dhabi.

All of them are critical moments for batsmen, where the very best of them prove in a small way why they are what they are. It is where the already-heightened levels of focus of elite athletes reach out to another higher level. Eyes narrow, the mind cleanses itself of distraction. Shots are checked and balls that can be, are left. Batsmen, forever stepping in and out of bubbles, must step into one here, where their intrinsically selfish instincts are, for once, line up with the needs of the team. One must survive so that the team can prosper. It is when you really need to understand not only your game but also where the game itself is. What will bowlers and their captains try and do to you here?

Even if you find justifications to whittle this list down, in such a short career it will still be too many for it to not be a pattern, not to reveal an overbearing looseness in Babar's Test game. It makes it worse that it always looks so easy for him. Half the problem is that he is unable to make it look any other way. He plays as he plays whether Pakistan are following on, clawing their way out of another wreck, chasing a target down, batting out time - batting in monotone, unaware much of what is happening around him.

That much should be clear from the nature of some of these dismissals. The shot to Herath was awful, but only perhaps as bad as the tickle down the leg side in Abu Dhabi at day's end. At least twice he has chased full, wide tempters that may as well have come with a skull-and-crossbones sign. And twice his wicket has come not only right after a break, but been the second in quick succession. He's a cautionary coaching manual tale of how not to bat near breaks.

It's no secret how highly Pakistan rate him. And the fuss is understandable, because it's easy to look at the way he bats, and the runs he scores in limited-overs and the manner in which he scores them, and walks away thinking there is no way he's not going to make it as a Test batsman. Well, it turns out there is one way, which is to average 19 in 16 innings since his best Test knock (an unbeaten 90 in Hamilton) and lug around this list of dismissals. It should be enough for Pakistan to start asking themselves whether he really can be turned into a Test batsman.

It is not known whether he or the coaching staff have picked up on this issue, though it wouldn't be a surprise if they haven't. All through last season, they put him at one down in the belief that 'yes, it will be tough and he is the youngest and most inexperienced in that order, but he is gifted enough to work out a way'. And suddenly this season, it's fine to have him lower down when, one would think, he is a year older and wiser. With young batsmen, it usually works the other way.

Azhar Ali, who could teach him a thing or two about batting, thinks it is just a matter of one big innings. Babar will make it, that'll be the end of it and we'll have ourselves a Test batsman. If only it were that easy.