Ice-cool Babar Azam unshaken by Karachi pressure cooker
With rumours swirling, vultures hovering and the sword of Damocles hanging over him, Babar simply batted, and bat well, he did
The rumours swirled late into a wretched evening for Pakistan cricket, as they stared at just their third ever defeat at the National Stadium Karachi. The vultures hovered on the morning after, as the sun rose on what were to be the finishing touches of a Test match Babar Azam and his side were being taken apart in. This was Pakistan's immovable fortress, an oasis of stability in a metropolis of perpetual change. And it was here that Australia were outplaying Pakistan, and it was Babar, the man from that other city, who apparently stood so thoroughly exposed in Karachi.
What did he know about captaincy, after all? Wasn't it the bowlers who had spearheaded Pakistan's Test series victory over South Africa here last year? Wasn't it Mohammad Rizwan and Shaheen Shah Afridi's sensational form that had lifted Pakistan to the World T20 semi-finals on a tidal wave of exultant emotion?
What, indeed, did he know about batting? Wasn't he the bloke who played that rather sluggish innings in that semi-final that saw Pakistan eliminated? Isn't it him who last crossed three figures in Test cricket before the world knew what Covid-19 meant? Didn't he, one purple six-month patch aside, always struggle in Test cricket anyway? Who, after all, was this man at the helm of Pakistan cricket, given the reins to do as he pleased, projected as the face of a rejuvenated side that has such renewed ambitions to sit among the leaders of the food chain in the cricket economy?
There is a naïve savagery to the way Pakistan cricketers are built up and brought down. There are shades of overbearing smugness in the way we think of Babar, primarily informed by the striking disparity between his suave self-assuredness on the field and its complete absence off it. Behind the mic at presentations and press conferences, there's a coarseness to his delivery, and in this most English of games, his discomfort in that language can sometimes be confused with a lack of sophistication. He never appears quite at ease in TV commercials, which, as the face of Pakistan cricket, he's asked to do plenty of. The smoothness that seems to come to Virat Kohli by nature, for example, Babar is frantically learning on the job.
And so, when things aren't quite going his way, the stick to beat him can easily be fetched from the lowest common denominator, and its method of deployment will necessarily be particularly savage. At 27, Babar has been entrusted the role of all-format captain in a country where the position comes with a sword of Damocles that doesn't even hang over the country's Prime Minister as ominously.
It's not a role he organically grew into over time, instead finding it thrust upon him by circumstance when first Sarfaraz Ahmed, and then Azhar Ali, were dispatched after loss of form with the bat. The departure of the PCB chairman who elevated Babar with a man perhaps not quite as overwhelmingly enthusiastic was an inevitable added stress. For a man never quite accustomed to the camera as he is to the batting crease, the burden to bear is heavy, the support with which to bear it in Pakistan extremely light.
The buzz of activity that currently permeates Pakistan's political ambience felt like it had infected its cricketing atmosphere as Babar walked out at the NSK. Azhar had just fallen in a manner whose farce was a tidy microcosm of the contest, ducking a Cameron Green bouncer that struck him on the gloves which, for some reason, he didn't review. Babar was walking out to take his place, but would someone be replacing him soon enough?
There is a naïve savagery to the way Pakistan cricketers are built up and brought down. There are shades of overbearing smugness in the way we think of Babar, primarily informed by the striking disparity between his suave self-assuredness on the field and its complete absence off it
Babar began tentatively, as you might when you need nearly 500 runs to win and almost 150 overs to survive. Besides, Pakistan were slinking along at a run an over, so Babar could hardly be accused of inducing lethargy into the innings. But Mitchell Swepson dropped one short, and in that moment, Babar's worries melted away. The length was picked up early, and there was a swish and flick of the blade. He might not have muttered an incantation, but as if by magic, the weight of the world on his shoulders suddenly vanished.
The conditions might not have been as treacherous as yesterday; the reverse swing Australia's quicks found yesterday wasn't as palpable this afternoon. But what was absent in sideways movement was compensated for by a deteriorating pitch, where the uneven bounce and darkening patches of rough lay in wait like freshly laid traps. Australia were cornering Pakistan, who certainly didn't feel like tigers.
But even as Babar gained confidence, there was no guarantee of a rescue act. Babar the fourth-innings batter has been a deceptively ordinary batter, averaging 21.63 across his career. There's almost no body of evidence to support any hopes that might be pinned on him for a miraculous final-innings rescue act. Time and again, an attack as balanced and potent as Australia's sniffed around for vulnerabilities.
But young men in Pakistan - particularly Pakistani cricket - get a lifetime's practice of concealing weakness. Australia prowled around. Swepson bowled length, exploiting the pitch's wear and tear while testing Babar's footwork and patience; one run in 21 balls showed Babar was up to the challenge. Starc went full, only for Babar to punish him with two boundaries, beating him back. Cummins went short, but only for four balls, because Babar pulled three away for four. Green wandered full in search of the movement he found the previous day. Babar refused to engage, scoring no runs of the nine balls. The weaknesses hadn't gone away, but for the moment, put to one side, not to be talked about.
That shield of self-preservation never quite left Babar throughout the evening as the shadows lengthened. A score of 100 might be an arbitrary figure, but there was nothing arbitrary about the psychological shot in the arm it appeared to give Babar when, five overs out from the end of the day, a sweep off Swepson got him there. Even as the crowd roared, the celebration was somewhat subdued; a man with as many responsibilities as his knows when a job hasn't yet been done.
It's easy to forget how sensitive the shield sportspeople put up to protect themselves can be, and the damage any breach can do. Pakistan's best batter in more than a generation might have had his broken recently, but a superb knock from a cricketer still close to the top of his game will have gone a long way towards repairing it.
On a day when the rumours swirled and the vultures hovered, Babar simply batted. That may be all he can do, but on days like these, boy can he do it well.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000