@Aadya_Wisden 4 minute read
For the first time in history, Pakistan have lost four Tests on the bounce at home. With just one Test win so far in 2022, the pressure is mounting on Babar Azam, the captain, even though there’s no clear counter-measure in sight, writes Aadya Sharma.
“Pakistan first, everything else comes later.”
Not long after the whitewash was complete, Babar Azam – green cap and training kit on – fronted local journalists in Karachi. The first question understandably veered towards captaincy, and whether criticism over his selection calls was having an any effect on his own batting performance. Babar was ready. He insisted “he enjoyed the pressure”, saying that captaincy “neither affects my batting nor anything else”.
“In fact, it’s a matter of honour,” Babar continued. “I keep giving my best, for myself, and the country. Pakistan first, everything else comes later. The team lost, I will keep defending the rest, and keeping fronting [losses].”
One can’t doubt how dedicated Babar is to the role. When he was handed the job just over two years ago, it seemed like the perfect choice. A world-class batter in his mid-twenties, taking up the reins of the Test team. We’d seen it all too often. Babar was the poster boy of Pakistan cricket. The stature only grew further.
Captaincy can’t be driven by sentiment though, and Pakistan’s recent Test results, especially at home, have been a sign of real worry. Out of the 16 Tests Babar has led in, Pakistan have won eight, lost six and drawn two, but the numbers fall dramatically over the last year. In 2022, Pakistan won just one out of their eight Tests, all in Asia. At home, they drew two and lost one against Australia. Against England, they lost all three.
Midway through the third Test, Nasser Hussain pointed out at the lack of creativity in Babar’s leadership, calling his captaincy “very orthodox, very… almost textbook”. The criticism was directed at Babar’s over-reliance on his two specialist spinners, with no room to implement a Plan B, a stark contrast to how inventively his opposite number led England.
“It was almost like, ‘this will spin so Nauman Ali and Abrar Ahmed will be our two wickets and we’ll bowl them out’,” Nasser told Sky Cricket. “And when it didn’t spin as much, he didn’t have a Plan B, he didn’t go to Salman Agha.”
In fact, Abrar and Nauman bowled 64.4 out of 81.4 overs between them in the first innings of the Karachi Test. Agha Salman bowled one. Yes, Pakistan have been affected by injury, losing fast bowlers after every Test, but with six debuts and seven changes in three Tests, a muddled selection policy did not help either. Babar might not selecting the XI alone, but to underutilise the existing bowling resources does point at a one-dimensional plan.
On to Babar, the batter, arguably Pakistan’s biggest asset. He has conceded that his team’s strength lay in batting. Now, out-Bazballing England in Rawalpindi was never an option. But, even on turning, home-crafted wickets in Multan and Karachi, the hosts’ batting consistently fell behind the visitors. Babar ended with a century and three fifties, but you could tell that Pakistan needed more from their premier batter.
When Babar says his batting hasn’t been affected by captaincy, and you look at his numbers, the claim does align. As leader, he averages 52.77 – about four runs more than his overall average – and has 14 fifty-plus scores in those 28 innings. However, a closer inspection suggests that he isn’t converting them as well as he would like. Just three out of those 14 scores have been centuries, one of them coming on a Rawalpindi pitch that saw six other centurions.
Babar is really a class apart, someone who has forced the ‘Fab Four’ to be nearly revised to ‘Fab Five’. Big names score big runs though, and in a 45-Test career, he still has just one 150+ score. Further, for a batter of his calibre, seven scores between 50 and 99 this year [and three in this series] speak of good work left only half complete.
In this series, which could have drifted in a different direction if Pakistan had batted longer, Babar pointed out the way to his teammates in periods of darkness, but didn’t walk them out to the light himself.
Babar is one of the rare ones in contemporary cricket to lead their team in all three formats. To juggle the dual role of being the team’s best batter, and leading the side across different kits is no mean task. He still remains at the heart of this Pakistan team, and vows to lead the side with the same commitment as he always has.
The pressure is mounting, but even if Pakistan do look elsewhere, there aren’t many alternatives. Among the obvious names are Mohammad Rizwan, who is going through a poor rut, and Shaheen Afridi, still recovering from injury. The rest of the lineup often changes, and it’s difficult to see anyone else ready enough to take up the job.
Whatever the solution, things change fast in Pakistan cricket. In six days, they’ll be facing New Zealand at home – a team set to begin their own captaincy transition – in a two-Test series. Win that, and Babar’s a hero again. Lose, and the pressure will ramp up all the more.