Imran Khan is prime minister. Wasim Akram is on half the TV ads. But who now has the heart of Pakistan?
Late night, in dimly-lit Islamabad chai joints, bonfires ward off the mountain chill, and over the the crackle and hiss of the flames, over and over again is heard the name of a batsman. A batsman!
In the eighties, there was Javed of Karachi. But also, there was Imran: the lion of Lahore. Imran, in whom were vested the privileges of the eastern Punjabi elite, the soul of a northwestern Pathan, the withering pace to thrill all those who loved cricket, and the withering good looks to besot everybody else. What was Javed supposed to do against all of that? That Imran also batted very well - that he averaged over 50 for the last eight years of his career - is all but forgotten. The Imran of the mind's eye has his whites unbuttoned to the sternum, ball in hand, surging in.
In later decades Saeed Anwar, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Mohammad Yousuf, and Younis Khan came through. But could they ever truly delight in a place that glowed for something else? There are not just Imran's locks, there is also Waqar's mini-fro, Shoaib's middle-parted flowing mane and the Sarfraz Nawaz mop-and-moustache combo.
Pakistan may only have potato-quality YouTube replays to call upon, but its roadside conversations bring to vivid, technicolour life that Wasim ball in Chepauk, the one that swung late, seamed later, pitched leg, hit off, and cut no less a giant than Rahul Dravid in two. A place whose memory bursts with Waqar yorkers that dived at the stumps like snakes suddenly smelling prey. Where Shoaib's furious run to the crease is a source of roaring pride. Flying stumps, electric spells, the two balls that turned a World Cup final, braced front legs, strong wrists, haal and lachak - here is what sets pulses racing.
Into this, drop Babar Azam. On top of all the other stuff, his cousins did him no favours. As if to make up for their disappointments, he began to score and score and score, but that was in the shorter formats. It is only on the last 12 months that he has had this shining Test blossoming.
Even in those early Test innings, though, you knew. This guy… ufff. On a damp, windswept November day in Hamilton, all the way back in 2016, he was princely on a lurid green pitch, disdainfully cutting and pulling bowlers that had decked the rest of the top order - the scoreline at one stage 51 for 5. He was 90 not out having run out of partners in that innings, but the hundreds eventually came. In foreign climes, obviously. In Dubai, his 127 helped set Pakistan on track for an innings victory. A year later, a hundred against a fearsome Australia attack at the Gabba - as difficult a venue as could be imagined for a young, Asian batsman. Soon after, 97 at Adelaide.
In the last two weeks as cricket has broken a 10-year drought, Pakistan has not seemed to be awaiting the return of Tests so much as awaiting the arrival of Babar. He is spoken of in freezing chai joints, yes, but also evoked with adoration by waiters in pulao restaurants, weekend taxi drivers, rangers patrolling Karachi streets, and the thousands that have come to the grounds. When Rawalpindi's clouds finally broke, they chanted his name all through that day, the regal drives, flicks and sweeps from their object of love prompting more cries, and those cheers, in turn, spurring him. In Karachi, they bayed for him during his fifty on day one. When Abid Ali, clearly the player of the series, reviewed his dismissal on day three, Karachi was chanting Babar's name at ear-splitting volume before the final decision even came in.
He could not have rewarded them more handsomely. In three Test innings in Pakistan, Babar has doubled his Test-match century count, two unbeaten hundreds and a 60 sending his average in the country to 262. No majestic shot of his has gone unplayed. No louder cheers have been heard this series than when he reached triple figures.
With luck, he will be seen in his whites all over. In Multan and Faisalabad, where after ten years without international cricket, the stadiums require renovation. In Lahore, where, when he was little, his father put him on the front of a bicycle and rode him from cricket ground to cricket ground until a club accepted him.
Take him in Pakistan. Breathe him up, study him, applaud, dissect, imitate, adore, revel. The exile years were were defined by staid and stately men - Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, who made the best of the circumstances handed to them.
The next decade may perhaps be nothing like that. The thousands who braved the cold in Rawalpindi; the multitudes that roared his name in Karachi, the kids who stood on seats to get a glimpse when he raised his bat, the aunties and uncles whose hearts spilled over in the stands, they know. They've seen him.
Babar Azam is home.