In popular culture, the lion is often depicted in one of two ways. The first and most common depiction shows the lion in his immovable prime, an aura of unmistakable majesty surrounding him. Behold The King himself and bow down before him, for he is wise, regal, and golden. The second depiction shows an aging lion covered in battle scars and ravaged by time. Finally showing the type of vulnerability that brings with it the uneasy realisation that even the best among us may well be merely mortal.
Such is the duality of man that the royal among us can simultaneously contain both versions within them. And so, enter centre stage: Babar Azam. Sense and sensibility as much as pride and prejudice. Babar Azam the batsman is unparalleled, especially in the one-day format. But that is no longer news. It has not been news for some time now. Enough has been written about those ridiculous numbers. Averages of 60.66, 110.5, 67.5 and 84.87 in the past four years. Numbers which make you rub your eyes for a second. These…these can’t be right? But then you watch Babar bat, and you realise that of course they are. Those numbers make perfect sense, just look at him. But then, enough has been said about those darned aesthetics as well. Balance and coordination so immaculately precise that they bend time and space to their will. That late, late cut watched on repeat ad infinitum. That disdainful flick off the pads burned into every eye. That cover drive injected into the veins of every hand that has ever held a cricket bat.
Such is the elegance and regularity with which Babar does what he does that it has become terribly easy to just take it all for granted. He has no right to be making it look this easy. He has no right to be making it look this routine. And yet he does. By now, we all know the drill. The spectators do, the journalists do, the teammates sitting in the pavilion do, those partnering him at the other end do, the opposing captains do, and most tellingly of all, the bowlers do too. Babar Azam just occupies a different plane of existence when he stands at the crease. Babar and Aslan, morphing into each other. That golden body glowing in the sunlight, that smooth mane flowing in the breeze.
This is the year of the 50-over World Cup. Babar the batsman is at the peak of his powers. In October, he makes international cricket’s shortest possible journey and yet unfortunately also its least trodden, much to the detriment of the sport and fans of both Pakistan and India. Into the territory of The Rival. More than 200 million will be hoping that Babar leads the side all the way from the PCB headquarters at the Gaddafi to the World Cup final at the Wankhede on November 26. With numbers like his, it would take a brave man to bet against this force of nature.
And yet, it appears that the king may well be coming to the end of his reign. He is wounded and he is vulnerable, anxiously looking towards the horizon and wondering in which direction the next winds shall blow. Sensing this weakness, or maybe there to create it, reporters who clearly have no agenda whatsoever have been asking Babar some terribly silly, often downright offensive, questions. Tell us about your regrets, tell us how you failed, tell us how would you feel if someone else replaces you, tell us how it feels to be only human like the rest of us? Questions meant to provoke and offend, hyenas nibbling away at the tail. To be fair to those gaggle of hyenas, there does lie a point within their empty giggling.
Babar the captain has sometimes looked almost laughably silly. The failures are just as undeniable as his success. A historic defeat to Australia, a historic defeat to England, a historic defeat to New Zealand — embarrassment after embarrassment after embarrassment. And just like the reporters with no agendas, members of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) with no agendas have been making some questionable decisions. Shan Masood — who last made an ODI run in 2019 and who has less runs in his entire ODI career than Babar has in 14 days of 2023 — promoted to the position of vice-captain with Babar’s right-hand man and close friend Shadab Khan out of the side. Rumours circulating that Shan may well replace Babar. The message clear: fail and someone much less deserving of your throne shall replace you on it and you will have to take orders from your inferiors.
So here comes the crux of the matter: do you risk upsetting and hence demotivating certainly the best batsman your country has ever produced, perhaps the best batsman any country has ever produced? Or do you risk pandering to a captain who has brain fades and risk underutilising the rest of the team just because the captain is so much better than everyone else around him? No player is ever greater than the team and yet no player in Pakistan cricket history has ever been greater than Babar Azam. To make matters more complicated, Babar the captain may well be inextricably linked with Babar the batsman. Since 2020, Babar is the only captain to make more 5,000 runs in international cricket. The next best is Joe Root with less than 4,000. Without the captaincy, Babar has an impressive batting record, averaging 54.2 at a strike-rate of 87.1. As captain, his numbers become pretty much supernatural — an average of 76.5 at a strike-rate of 93.9.
But if Babar the batsman is sense and sensibility itself, then Babar the captain has the tendency to be pride and prejudice. Babar says the right things, acts in the right manner, backs players the right way, tells them to keep their chin up when they fail. Trust the process has been Babar’s mantra throughout his career, and it has worked pretty well for Babar the batsman. But there is the feeling that Babar the captain can sometimes trust the wrong players. For example, Imad Wasim has an average of 42.9 and a strike-rate of 110.3 in ODIs with the bat. Of the 40 times he has batted in one-days, he has not been dismissed 17 times. It’s almost like he can be the answer to Pakistan’s finishing problems. Add to that the fact that Imad can bowl under pressure at both ends of an innings and you have a player that potentially solves two of Pakistan’s biggest problems. And yet pride and prejudice causes Babar to stick with Muhammad Nawaz, with mixed results, because he gets along better with Nawaz than he does with Imad — Karachi Kings friction spilling over into the national team.
But then, can we really blame Babar for sticking to his guns? When trusting the process has helped the batsman achieve what had never been achieved before in the history of the game, then why should the captain not trust the process too? We cast longing looks at the joyous abandon shown by other sides and yet refuse to lay the groundwork that led to that success in the first place. We want our players to be aggressive without accepting the risks that come with that aggression. We want them to not care about failure while also raising the stakes of said failure. We want them to soar without ever giving them the room to fall first. Backing the players to the end can sometimes be folly, but for every Hasan Ali and Faheem Ashraf, there is also a Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes.
Sometimes the process will not work, but mostly it will. Babar the batsman has proved that beyond any doubt. Maybe we should all trust Babar the captain and hope that the process can pay even half as much dividend for the team as it does for the individual. At the moment, Babar stands on the brink of greatness and the 2023 World Cup can be his magnum opus. Make no mistake about it, there will come a time when he falls but for now Icarus flies wonderfully close to the sun, soaring higher than any man has ever dared. One day a new king must take over. One day the hyenas will win. One day it will all be over. But for now, let us bask in the regal aura of Babar Azam without trying to clip his wings ourselves just because we cannot fly like he can. After all, we may never see the likes of him ever again.