No one is berating him more than the man himself after his exquisite cameo in Taunton. Will the innings that defines him come against India? | ESPNcricinfo.com

Saw that Babar Azam innings in Taunton? Saw what it did to everyone? That epidemic of swooning and poetry-writing it produced in cricket’s many languages? About his serene stillness in the tumult of the pit, whether while cover-driving or backfoot-defending or just being Babar. Slight of frame, dark of brow beneath helmet, all clean lines from start to finish, the keeper of the flame of aesthetically sumptuous batsmanship that is invisibly passed on between generations across nations only to a select few. Of the kind that causes certified public crushes.
And then he got out. Hooking like an eager child grabbing at a biscuit tin atop a larder shelf. And other things happened and Pakistan lost and the Babarnama of batting remained unwritten.
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It is what the smoothest, briefest Babar innings can do. Detach itself from the facts on the ground and make the rational loopy. Intoxicate to the point that Pakistan’s cricket faithful believe – no, make that expect – that at some time during the World Cup, Babar Azam’s name will be written across the sky in flames. Or at least emphatic streaks of lightning.
This is undeniably Pakistan’s most successful batsman across formats in the last four years. The fulcrum of his team’s line-up, the stylish gatherer who ensures there’s enough in the stockpile so the hunters can run wild. Except, at the World Cup, apart from that innings against England, Babar has not done enough gathering, nor have the Pakistani hunters nabbed much game.
The words of his school-days coach, a crusty Lahore task master known only as Mamaji, who belonged to the nets at the Minar-e-Pakistan ground in Lahore, have stayed with Babar. “Pehli ball bhi tum khelo, aakhri ball bhi tum khelo.” Play the first ball, play the last ball. ODI crease occupation as an edict.
Only if you bat through the innings can you catch up with what you are trying to do, Babar says when we meet in Bristol. It is why he bats at the pace he does. “If you’re not in there batting because you tried to start hitting to try and up the strike rate, what’s the point? That’s not my game, that I try to hit out and go at 150 strike rate. I want to be between 100 and 110 and then afterwards up it. That is my role – that I need to play the entire overs. If it is needed, of course, I can do power-hitting, play the big shots.”
That wasn’t quite happened in Taunton. What we saw was the blood rush of youth lording it over the bowling and being suckered by the invitation to go for a glory shot.
For what it is worth, no one will be punishing himself more today than Babar himself. He is a self-confessed fretter and fumer after an innings.
He is far from loquacious but a question about being at a World Cup and how changed he is from the 21-year-old who first came to England in 2016, unpeels a layer. “The World Cup is a very big event. Every player dreams of playing in one and it was my dream too. Each team brings their best bowling and you have to do extra preparation against every bowler who is here. You have to perform and show the world that aap bhi aaye ho [make your presence felt]. If you want to compare yourself to anyone in this game, to compete, you have to produce extraordinary performances.” In this World Cup, Pakistan and the world are waiting.
At another point he speaks of regular, non-World Cup cricket. He talks of describing what happens when those scores and performances don’t come. “Bas, the next two days” Sulking? “Bohot. I won’t talk to anyone. I will be cranky and cursing myself: Why did I get out like that? What did I do wrong?
For Babar, nets are about hitting as many balls as possible to get the indefinable “feel” right AFP
“The mistake plays itself out in the mind, and I’m telling myself, if I’d not done this, I wouldn’t have got out Even when I played in club matches, I would take it to heart that I had got out early.”
He does not think of this emotional reaction as loading his mind with unnecessary anxiety. “No, this is what helps me. When I get out, I get annoyed with myself.” He then either hits the nets or starts running. “Of course, every batsman gets out. I know that. It is almost inevitable that no matter what you do, you will get out at some point or the other.” His reaction works for him, he says, because it helps prepare for the next game, the next innings.
“It kind of forces me to tell myself: ‘Okay, you didn’t do anything in the last match. You have to do something in the next one.'” Deconstructing a dismissal helps him stay grounded even after good innings, he believes. “Even if I do well also, I don’t think, ja ke dekh lenge [we’ll see how it goes]. Dekhna nahin, karna hai [There’s no imagining, there’s only the doing]. For that I will do my preparation again.”
He has a drill. Visualisation every night just before going to bed, about what awaits – match day or training. “I think that I will do this kind of practice, this kind of training, this kind of fielding, this amount of batting. And what I have to work on in the batting.”
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In the nets that means hitting as many balls as he needs to find what batsmen call the “feel”. Make sure everything is moving as it should, in sync – feet, limbs – or staying secure and aligned: eyes, head, torso. After Taunton, you can bet he will dissect the cross-batted horizontals.
Only when it feels like perfection does he stop. Whether it takes 20 minutes or two hours. “Whatever if it’s not happening, I just stand there. At the net. Waiting for a net to get free.” He is often the last man to leave, the last man in the dressing room. “When I think, okay, I’ve got the feel, it’s there, then I feel sukoon [peace]. That my day has gone well.” He smiles.
That sound like a dense coil of want for a 24-year-old to be carrying around; but it is the sort of unquantifiable thing that helps elite athletes break through to go where they aim to go. When he talks of his ambition, you realise Babar has been carrying his want around for more than a decade.
He’s a Lahore gully boy from Gulberg, who got shouted at and often spanked by his parents playing in the streets, and for the regular, serious Sunday tape-ball matches that he played “paagalon ki tarah” [like a mad person] from the age of 12.
Babar after his hundred against England at Trent Bridge ahead of the World Cup. Deconstructing a dismissal helps him stay grounded even after good innings Getty Images
Babar joined a tape-ball club, played for a year and made it through an Under-16 trial where he played in three of four matches. “I was zero. My highest was 30.” He wanted to join the national academy in Lahore, which pulled in the top U-15 and U-16 players from around the country. Not making it stirred his ego and his desire. “I said, maine idhar jaana hai, jo marzi ho. [I will get there no matter what.] I started my preparation for the next year from then on.” He was 14 then.
Leave home at 10am with two cousins (not the famous Akmals, he confirms, who are also family) and a friend, walk south for over an hour to Model Town Park, set up nets and train and knock with his buddies until the actual net began at 2pm. Only after sunset, when everyone had left, would the Gulberg boys take the nets down and walk back home, getting there at 8pm.
He did that for about a year, and when the trials came around again, he was selected and was named the best Pakistan U-15 batsman. It gave him entry into the academy, and a leg up various ladders of the game. “My ambitions were first that I should play for U-15, U-16, for the country juniors, then U-19 and so on.” But playing wasn’t the only thing. “Everyone plays,” Babar says. “Perform karna is the main thing. To be at the top and to be the best.”
At every stage, he has found his capabilities stretched and has found ways to respond, “Whatever other cricket you play, international cricket is totally different. It is a pressure game. I think at that level, it is just a game of the mind – how much you use of your mind, how to bat at what time.” Babar bats across different positions across formats, from Nos. 1 to 7. He is now a regular T20I opener for Pakistan, the No. 3 bedrock in ODIs, and moves between Nos. 5 and 6 in Tests.
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“To be honest, it’s just a mind thing. I don’t have a problem with it. You have to adjust your mind to where you are batting. I feel if it’s in T20, I have to be in that zone, to be positive and attack. I change my game a bit, try to attack more. In ODIs I take a bit of time and try bat long.” Not in Taunton, he will be reminded.
It is where that business about age and experience comes in. Remember Mickey Arthur’s facepalm-inducing comparison of Babar to Virat Kohli? Well intentioned but so unnecessary in the age of socmed overreaction. Still, the Babar Army will be comforted by the numbers: when India won the 2011 World Cup, Virat Kohli was 23, had played in 54 ODIs, scored 1954 runs at 44.40, a strike rate of 82.13, with five hundreds and 13 fifties. Babar, 24 went into this World Cup with 64 ODIs in which he had made 2739 runs at 51.67, a strike rate of 85.96, nine hundreds and 12 fifties. By his 64th ODI, Kohli had 2347 runs at 43.49, a strike rate of 82.14 (six hundreds and 16 fifties) and was about to launch his batting into the stratosphere.
The lithe, bearded young man sitting across the table in Bristol is an introspector, but he will also be aware of his standing in the world. He may be a few years of development behind his brethren, those classical white-ball anchormen Joe Root and Kane Williamson, but in white-ball cricket over the last four years, he is comfortably placed.
Babar says, of the time he met his hero, AB de Villiers, in the PSL: “I asked him whatever I had wanted to. About belief, about his batting, how you build an innings, how you change tempo, how you play under pressure and things like that.” And de Villiers said, “I can’t do what you do and you can’t do what I do. But believe that you can do everything. It is in you. Take it outside and utilise it.”
Babar’s ODI innings for the ages is yet to appear and is his due, say his worshippers. How about during the India game? That won’t be bad timing.

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