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Can Babar Azam steer Pakistan to the T20 World Cup title?

The captain has been Pakistan's most dependable anchor through management changes and team reshuffles, but is that enough?

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
"If we've started well, it's not in my nature to think I should hold myself back"  •  Getty Images

"If we've started well, it's not in my nature to think I should hold myself back"  •  Getty Images

It's the monsoon in Lahore, sweeping rain washing down the red brick of the Gaddafi Stadium complex. The drainage system, ill equipped to handle what the monsoon unleashes in this part of Pakistan, has long given up, water spilling back out onto the streets just outside the PCB's offices in the complex. Still, the place is packed with journalists and TV reporters, because in an intimate little room nestled behind the open-plan office space, Pakistan's T20 captain will spare a few minutes for a chat with the media.
The room was obviously never built to house a dozen TV cameras, and so, instead of sitting at the head of the conference table, the biggest name in Pakistan cricket stands in a corner as questions are breathlessly volleyed at him. He repeats the usual platitudes about players needing to do their best, emphasises the importance of coping with pressure, and - bless him - expresses satisfaction that New Zealand and England are coming to Pakistan to play seven T20Is ahead of the World Cup. Babar Azam isn't exactly the most engaging speaker, especially not in a crowd. Every word of his is scrutinised and sensationalised by the fans and the media, so being predictably dull is a rather useful skill to possess.
Once it's all done and everyone begins to filter out, Babar sits down for an interview with ESPNcricinfo. Pakistan have only recently returned from the West Indies, where they have split a two-match Test series, and the focus is now fully on the T20 World Cup. Every bit of preparation is geared towards that tournament, one that, had it followed its regular cycle of being held every two years, Pakistan would have been overwhelming favourites for.
In recent years, however, that dominance has evaporated, the dip in results faithfully aligning alongside a coaching change Pakistan made following the 2019 ODI World Cup. In three years under former head coach Mickey Arthur, Pakistan won 30 of 37 T20Is. Since his successor Misbah-ul-Haq came in, Pakistan won just 16 of 34, and slipped to No. 3 in the T20I rankings. Babar acknowledges the change had an effect - something that will undoubtedly concern Pakistan given they have had yet another change of coaches since he spoke. But he also insists the full picture is more nuanced.
"Whenever a new management comes in, it takes time to adjust," he says. "You don't just get used to it in a day. It takes time. Even for a team to gel, it takes time. If you select a team, you're not just going to start getting results in the second or third game. You need time, but our goal is to acclimatise as quickly as possible.
"Two years ago was a different time compared to today. Things change. At the time we had a different management, different coaches. The mindset is different. But then, we also had a different team; now we have a few different players."
The concatenation of factors that has combined to deprive or disadvantage Pakistan cricket in recent times is no laughing matter, but among the multitude of gripes Pakistan supporters have, the scheduling of T20 World Cups is probably the one they are most light-hearted about. The joke goes that T20 World Cups have been structured so as to keep Pakistan away from the trophy for as long as possible. When they won in 2009, the subsequent competition was held just ten months later, but when, through the best part of this T20 World Cup cycle, Pakistan were the highest-ranked side by some distance, there was a four-year gap between tournaments, which was extended to over five years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
A quirk of fate, however, has seen a scheduling decision break Pakistan's way. When Covid-19 cases were soaring in India, the scheduled host of this year's event, earlier this year, the tournament was relocated to the UAE. India might remain official hosts, but no country feels more at home in that part of the world than Pakistan. Since the 2016 World T20, when they transformed themselves from T20 stragglers to world beaters almost overnight, Pakistan have won all 11 matches they played in the UAE - West Indies, Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand the teams vanquished along the way.
Babar was just a promising young player in that side, one among several. And while many faded under the spotlight as pressure and expectations intensified, his star has only grown brighter. He is among the biggest names in world cricket, one of the marquee attractions of the T20 World Cup. Part of the side that ascended to the peak of T20I cricket, he now has the job of leading a team looking to ensure they will have a World Cup title to show for all their desert dominance.
Babar doesn't balk at comparisons to past Pakistan performances in the UAE; instead, he seems eager for his side to draw motivation and heart from them. "Our record there is excellent, it's the place where we became world No. 1," he says. "The performances we produced, both as a team and individually, show the conditions really suited us. Our record and consistency there is proof of that. These days we understand teams are playing more positive cricket, and we need to continue to do that, too."
Captaincy changes and huge overhauls of the Pakistan team have historically been common enough that they don't register in the public consciousness, but the PCB made sure Babar's appointment as all-format captain late last year felt different. He had been captain of the limited-overs side since 2019, but when Azhar Ali was unceremoniously dumped as Test captain after a year in the job, Babar's ascension carried the air of a royal inauguration.
An ostentatious photo shoot with the new Pakistan captain at Gaddafi Stadium was heavily promoted by the board. A video depicted him in a crisp white shirt, striped green tie and designer sunglasses, majestically stepping out of a car as he casually threw on a suit jacket and gazed pensively into the distance in front of the PCB headquarters, gelled hair aggressively slicked back. A picture in front of the balcony at the Gaddafi media centre saw him survey the stadium from a great height, as a benevolent national leader might in front of adoring crowds. Azhar Ali's time as captain had almost been scrubbed from history; the Babar Azam era had arrived.
The initial concern with giving a young man like Babar such overarching responsibility was about the effect it might have on his batting, but those fears never really came to pass. As a Test batter, he bounced back strongly against the West Indies after a mild slump, while his strike rate in T20 cricket has improved slightly. He carries himself with the authority of a man who belongs in the role, and while there isn't an obvious on-field spark that marks him out as a natural captain, he is reported to command significant influence in selection calls off the field.
But all that happened under the previous administration. In Ramiz Raja's short time at the helm, there have been sweeping changes at coaching and administrative level, with Misbah-ul-Haq, Waqar Younis and Wasim Khan all taking their leave. Ramiz's public views on Babar have been noticeably cool. He pointedly refused to endorse Babar's captaincy in his first press conference after being elected chairman, saying it was "too early to assess him", and that his "expectations for Babar are the same as Imran Khan". After a month of bedlam, even by Pakistan cricket's standards, the very future of Babar, the most dependable man in Pakistan cricket, remains shrouded in doubt, especially beyond the T20 World Cup.
His problems might not all lie off the field, either. Unthinkable as it might seem, the increased focus on positive cricket has seen Babar's own performances, both with his PSL franchise Karachi Kings, as well as the national side, come under forensic scrutiny. Superficially, the numbers glitter; he was the top scorer at the PSL in each of the last two seasons, as well as the highest run scorer in the competition's history. Internationally, he was the quickest to 2000 T20I runs, comfortably ahead of second-placed Virat Kohli, and has scored a half-century or better in 21 of his 56 innings.
But with Babar insistent on opening the batting, both for franchise and country, questions swirl about whether his game possesses the natural belligerence required to set the tempo in those crucial powerplay overs. An overall strike rate of 130.64 with Pakistan and 121.55 at the PSL isn't quite elite by modern opener standards. Since the 2016 T20 World Cup, 65 T20 openers have superior strike rates to the Pakistan captain, raising questions about the extent to which Pakistan are willing to walk the talk about positive cricket. To compound those concerns, his opening partner Mohammad Rizwan isn't exactly known for his blistering power-hitting either, in spite of the record-breaking year he has enjoyed in the format.
As if it were a day-one afternoon session on a placid track at Abu Dhabi, Babar digs his heels in on this point. "I became No. 1 in the world as an opener, so I'm comfortable there," he says. "That's where I performed so well, so I'm very comfortable opening."
Even with Rizwan? "Yes, absolutely. Look at how well that's gone, at our performances in the past year, at the records he has broken. The year's not done yet and he has already scored the most ever T20I runs in a calendar year. What more do you need, really?"
A cursory glance at the numbers would tell you the question is very much rhetorical. Rizwan's stats are bewildering; seven half-centuries and a hundred in 14 innings this year, while on average, the pair manage 52.1 runs per innings. On the ten occasions the two have opened, only once has neither gone on to score at least 35. When together, they have scored at 9.16 runs per over, nearly a full run better than the two other opening combinations Pakistan have tried this year: Rizwan and Sharjeel Khan (8.23), and Rizwan and Haider Ali (8.27).
"There's no better combination," Babar says, almost offended he even needs to justify it. "We always want to start well to set the tone for the guys coming after us. That's our mindset, and in the year we've been opening, we have come to understand each other's games. We communicate well, and if he's struggling to tee off, I go after the bowlers, and if I'm struggling, he does. We've built on that very well, and you'll have noticed when we bat together we have built big partnerships."
Babar and Rizwan's big partnerships are well documented, but so are the side's struggles lower down the order. Pakistan have experimented with Asif Ali, Khushdil Shah, Iftikhar Ahmed, Azam Khan, Sohaib Maqsood and several other players lower down, but for one reason or other, haven't been able to settle on a combination they can trust the same way as Babar and Rizwan up top. That heaps the pressure on the top two to stick around longer, which, Babar feels, might explain the less than explosive strike rate.
"I believe if you have the momentum, you need to capitalise on it," he says. "If we've started well, it's not in my nature to think I should hold myself back or that I must bat deep at the expense of strike rate. However, if one of us is striking the ball well, we try to bat for as long as possible without changing our game. Keep our strike rate up, remain positive, but also try and hang around to take advantage of your form. You can't worry about whether the guys below will deliver. The mindset remains the same. We plan to ensure one of us remains at the crease for much of the innings.
"We're struggling in two areas, middle order and death bowling, and have done for some time. We've tried different combinations and tried to assess who could suit the team if they played in certain positions. It didn't work out, unfortunately, but that's cricket. If you select players, you cannot guarantee that they will perform. There are ups and downs, and the players we selected were chosen because they had performed elsewhere. You need to take your chances if you want to stay in the Pakistan team. You will have to perform consistently, otherwise you get demoted to the bench."
Babar's game might lack the monstrous power-hitting that has won the West Indies two T20 World Cups, or the all-out attack in vogue at present, which England have just about perfected, but it would be unfair in the extreme to overlook his T20 pedigree or nous. The 2020 PSL was a perfect example of the kind of situations he uses to his advantage so well: he made 473 runs at a shade under 60. While the strike rate of 124.14 fell well short of what Chris Lynn (179.74) or Ben Dunk (167.59) of fellow finalists Lahore Qalandars managed, it was Babar's consistency for Karachi Kings that won out in the final.
Dunk managed just 11 off 14 as Lahore were restricted to 134, and while wickets fell around him, Babar steered his side to the title with a masterful unbeaten 63 off 49, scooping both Player-of-the-Match and Player-of-the-Tournament-awards. With the UAE historically producing lower-scoring T20 games on average, both in internationals and at the PSL - the average batting strike rate there is 122.56 since 2017, with only strike rates in Bangladesh (121.89) and Sri Lanka (115.73) coming in lower - Babar's anchoring role could end up being vitally important to Pakistan's chances of success.
Babar as a T20 batter has been dissected at length, but the narrative is probably less straightforward than "Babar in the UAE means advantage Pakistan". He scores 116.68 runs in the UAE per hundred balls, nearly a full six runs lower than average. Of the 23 men with over 500 T20 runs in the UAE since 2017, only Ahmed Shehzad's strike rate is lower than the Pakistan captain's.
Babar might not be the most renowned power-hitter, but he will still need to improve beyond these numbers. However, what he lacks in explosiveness he makes up for in reliability. His record points to him being perhaps the most consistent anchor in the world. T20 cricket is very much a team sport, and that means the bigger hitters around him are afforded significantly greater certainty about their role than they would normally expect. If Babar typically scores 50 in 37 balls every other innings, the players in the middle order tasked with providing the firepower have a much less variable equation in front of them to reach whatever goals Pakistan have for their batting innings.
It might also explain why Babar has a lower strike rate when he has a more accomplished group of international T20 blasters around him at Karachi Kings, than with the national side.
This theme of adaptability is one he frequently turns to. "You need to ensure the standards you have set for yourself are being met. When I'm batting with Karachi, I might have a lower strike rate than with Pakistan, but that will usually have an explanation behind it. It depends on the situation and conditions. Sometimes you have an idea about how the game's going to go, and the complete opposite happens. Then you need to adjust your plans and your innings. Sometimes you lose a few wickets and then you have to hold back for a while with a view to catching up in the latter half of the innings.
"If I'm still around by the tenth or 12th overs, I feel confident I'll be more aggressive towards the death. I always try and raise the benchmark I've set for myself, and that includes my strike rate. You don't set goals and just stagnate at a certain point. I'm always trying to improve day by day. When you play sports, you're never 100% good at any specific thing. The more you improve it, the better you'll become."
He was speaking at a time when he expected Pakistan to get another seven T20Is in before the World T20, with New Zealand's and England's planned arrivals, but despite that, he struck a note of decidedly cautious optimism about Pakistan's T20 World Cup prospects.
"You can't say where we'll finish. Right now we have small goals. The India game is first, then the New Zealand one and then Afghanistan. When you achieve the smaller goals, the bigger goal comes naturally. That's what we're focusing on. On the day, if you play well, things will happen the way you want them to. We need to continue in that vein. If you ask me, as a captain my goal is to win the World Cup. That's every team's goal, but we'll keep our preparation up to the fullest, as well as our belief. But we can ultimately only aim to play well on the day, and hope the result then goes our way."
The platitudes are back as the conversation draws to a close, Babar playing the old hits that have helped him get everyone in Pakistan dancing to his tune. He and his band of team-mates haven't yet convinced the critics, but if indeed his Pakistan side has new material to show off, the T20 World Cup is the perfect arena for it.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000