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Match Analysis

World-class Babar Azam constructs an innings that only he can

He batted slow, trusted his defence and played another sublime innings when no one else could get to even 20

Babar Azam's sensational seventh Test ton restricted Sri Lanka's lead to just four runs  •  AFP/Getty Images

Babar Azam's sensational seventh Test ton restricted Sri Lanka's lead to just four runs  •  AFP/Getty Images

Babar Azam is the top-ranked ODI batter, 77 rankings points ahead of the next guy (Imam-ul-Haq). He is also the top-ranked T20I batter but is ahead of the second by a slimmer margin (Mohammad Rizwan is 24 points back).
In Tests, though, the format that matters, the purists' format, the thing that gets you into Wisden, he's ranked a paltry fourth. Above him Joe Root (obviously), Steven Smith (partially riding on past glories), and Marnus Labuschagne (originally a discounted Steven Smith who has now proved more popular in the market since the rumours that the original has declined in quality).
We're comparing him to the best now. Is the Big Four, now the Big Five? Root, Smith, Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson, and…. Babar? We have to be comparing, right? This is sport. You cannot exist in a universe all on your own. No player is an island. Forget that the others on that list are four to five years older than him, which in cricketing years, is at least one generation removed, maybe more. They are setting the standard. The over-arching narrative is there. We must make Babar fit into it.
Must we though? Do we have to play this game? Is the cricket world really the kind of even place where star batters from teams such as England, Australia and India, and to a lesser degree New Zealand, can fairly be compared to Babar? We don't have to drag capitalism into it, but you know if we did, that analysis would not land in Babar's favour.
In this innings in Galle, Babar hit 119 runs. Sri Lanka series are not high-octane, or high-prestige, and they won't get you into the big global lists. Even at home, they'll move the needle less, you'd think, than series against the Big Three, or even South Africa.
Babar, though, is there. Playing another sublime innings, on what is already a big-turning pitch. He plays (late, and under his chin) for the straighter one from Prabath Jayasuriya, which has duped his team-mates and brought lbw dismissals. He bats slow, trusting his defence, when plenty of great batters have hit out at this venue, reasoning that a good ball will inevitably get them out so why not make runs before it does.
But this is Babar we are talking about, and the good balls that get the best out are still not too good for him, so he is in his own space, playing as he thinks he should, and likely constructing an innings only he is capable of. In the last two weeks, we've had Smith and Labuschagne on this surface too. They produced innings of varying quality - Labuschagne progressing to a hundred on a flatter Galle track than the one on display now, though only after being let off early on.
They never looked like they trusted their game like Babar.
And rarely will the best batters around the world have their team-mates abandon them as happily as Babar's did. Babar faced 244 balls in this innings. The next best was Yasir Shah who batted out 56 balls. Divide Babar's 119 by six, and he'd still be the top scorer for his side. There are lone vigils, and then there's dragging the bodyweight of your entire top order like vegetables in a gunny bag to the market vendor you need to sell it to, and that was basically Babar.
He was on 28 when the seventh wicket went down. Then 38 for the eighth; 55 when the ninth fell. Then, farming roughly 72% of the strike, he more than doubled his score, on a pitch that no one else in his team could get to even 20. Though he was never in a rush through the course of this innings, he occasionally ventured the kinds of salvos that let you know, that if he wanted to, he could. Three successive fours off Kasun Rajitha towards the end of the second session, for example, one drilled down the ground, another crashed over midwicket, the third whipped over square leg.
In the long view of this career, this innings might not be part of the central folklore. But a batter hitting 82 runs in the company of Nos. 9, 10 and 11, is not un-spectacular. It's futile to pretend we won't compare him with the others, because of course we will. But across formats, across pitch conditions, oppositions, match situations, perhaps we seed the thought there is something special happening here that is happening nowhere else.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf