Let’s start with the more obvious premise. Babar Azam is good. Really good. In fact, Babar Azam is the only world-class Pakistani batsman an entire generation has ever seen play. The last great ODI batsman Pakistan had was Mohammad Yousaf, a man unceremoniously ousted half a decade before Babar made his debut. In between, there isn’t much to talk about.
Despite a great test career, Younis was an underperforming limited overs batsman. Misbah got his opportunities too late to ever become world-class. Players like Malik and Hafeez never feature in the list of best batsmen in the cricket world. There were also some false alarms; nearly half a dozen of them. Sohaib Maqsood, Umer Amin, Nasir Jamshed, Sharjeel Khan, Ahmed Shahzad and Umer Akmal all promised at one point or another to become the next great batsman. One by one, all fell away to mediocrity, corruption or complacency. Despite their great numbers, Fakhar and Imam always seem to be lacking that one spark in their batting. In short, Babar stands alone. He lives in a different place far away from the ordinary world of Pakistani batting.
These statements are not without justification either. Before the game against NZ, Babar had a wonderful average of 51.22 with a strike rate hovering in mid 80s after 69 games. He had a total of nine centuries and fourteen fifties. These are great numbers belonging to a quality top-order batsman. Before the WC began, he was already ranked as the top T20 batsman in the world and stood at 8thin the ODI rankings. Even if you didn’t know all this, it is easy enough to imagine Babar’s quality if you have ever seen him bat. The way he plays his shots, with impeccable timing and pure elegance, are sure signs of the talent he possesses.
Of course, these numbers also invite comparisons. Big and overwhelming comparisons. Comparisons with the giants of cricket like the Kohlis and Williamsons. Those comparisons bring in a whole set of expectations, of a kind that very few modern Pakistani batsmen have had to carry. If you are as good as Kohli, you better be winning matches as frequently as him as well. If you want to be called the best in the world, you better be scoring hundreds when it really matters the way Williamson does, the way Root does, or the way Rohit does. It’s a territory that Babar’s predecessors never sailed, at least not in the past decade.
Babar himself faltered for a long time. Against the current top 5 in cricket, the SENA countries and India, his average of 51.43 dropped dramatically to a 43. Then there was the fact that he had scored 7 of his centuries against low-ranked teams. Even worse, he had never scored a century in a successful chase. He had yet to score anything big in a global tournament. All that he had until 26 June were some good starts. Thus, an unfulfilled promise was there. Until and unless Babar won his team a high-pressure and all-important contest, he was nothing more than a pretender with inflated numbers.
There are many possible reasons as to why Babar had failed to win games for Pakistan. For one, he had the occasional habit, though not as pronounced as his cousin Akmal’s, of throwing away his wicket after settling down. Occasionally, he also received some truly lethal deliveries (Yadav at Old Trafford) that he could do nothing much about. But perhaps, and this is really important, his failure to play his best game was a consequence of something structural. Something that was well out of his control, the very nature of Pakistan’s batting itself.
Now the thing with giants like Kohli or Williamson isn’t that they are monstrous individuals who always single-handedly drag their teams to victories every time they play. Rather they are the central cogs of an already solid batting line-up. If we are looking for classy metaphors, these men are the principal violinists in a highly organized orchestra. In the lead, but always augmented by people who can match their skills. Take Kohli for example, he is an immense individual by himself and of that there is no doubt. However, there is also the very important fact that India are a super powerful batting side, with or without their captain. When Kohli looks up from his crease to face a bowler, he sees top class batsmen like Rohit Sharma, Dhawan or Dhoni standing at the other end. As a young man, he had the luxury of Tendulkar or Yuvraj playing alongside him. What this essentially means is that Kohli takes responsibility for the team while knowing that he isn’t alone, that he is well supported by the batsman at the other end. Afterall, cricket is a team game. You can truly live up to your potential only if the rest of your team is keeping up with you. Otherwise, it is just you against the entire opposition. That is a mental space even the best batsmen would struggle to perform in.
Also take a quick look at Williamson in the WC. He has earned immense praise for the way he led NZ to a victory against SA. On a troublesome Edgbaston pitch, he scored a very slow 106 of 138 balls in order to make sure that he is there at the end to see NZ through. As it turned out, his presence at the end was the decisive factor in the game. Still, it wasn’t a solitary effort. Williamson could afford to stay till the end and save his best for the last because Colin de Grandhomme was there with him. The Kiwi all-rounder scored a quick fire 60 off 47 to take away any pressure his captain might have felt. This allowed the captain to just stay put and see it through. On other occasions, Williamson has players like Guptill and Taylor supporting him. A similar situation is present for Joe Root, who has the destructive English batting line-up playing around him, allowing him to bat through the innings and do what he is good at.
Babar Azam has none of that. What he has for support, or what he had for support before 23rdJune, are the likes of Hafeez, Malik and Sarfaraz. These players, with their own limitations, are more known for their ever-present unreliability and moderate records. Fakhar’s innings are a coin toss themselves, where the coin usually lands on Fakhar giving away his wicket cheaply. There were occasions where Babar tried building meaningful partnerships with Imam, another fellow accumulator, but it never seemed enough. For all intents and purposes, when Babar Azam looked up to face the opposition, he only saw limited and unreliable men standing at the other end. He could never consistently count on them. For him, the entire expectations of the fanbase were focused on him. It was Babar vs. the opposition. Sort of like a talented principal violinist playing a lone tune. He was forever chained down by fellow men who could never match his skills. This was the situation until 23rdJune. On that day though, Haris Sohail walked in to bat at Lords.
Now Haris Sohail has never been mentioned in the same breath as Akmal or Shahzad. He has performed every time he has been given the opportunities. He is praised by every foreign commentator who watches him play. He has strength, perfect timing and a technique good enough to handle any type of bowler. And yet, he has remained at the margins of Pakistan cricket. There are many dimensions to it. For one, he has had two career-threatening injuries that kept him out of cricket for long periods just when he was hitting his peak. Two, there is always the issue of senior men like Malik overstaying their welcome and blocking the path for people like Haris. Thus, Haris’s entire career has been very much a tragedy. His years were wasted not due to any lack of ambition or hard work (as was the case with Akmal), but due to a fragile body that couldn’t sustain for long. Perhaps, in many ways, he is an older version of Babar Azam. A version betrayed by his own body. In this WC though, his presence suddenly changed the entire dynamics of the team. Let’s get back to 23rdJune at Lords, where it is Pakistan vs South Africa. A do or die situation for the team and their first outing in ground since the disheartening loss to India.
The batting innings against SA can be seen as a sort of botched rehearsal for the chase against NZ. The situation was similar. Hafeez had just gifted his wicket to a part-timer. Babar had gotten yet another solid start but found himself stranded in the middle of a looming collapse. His efforts wasted away yet again. The chances of Pakistan missing out on a good total were high. However, the No.5 batsman Haris Sohail turned the entire situation on his head. His 89 off 59 ball innings needs no description. You need to see it to believe it. When Pakistan and Babar were struggling for runs, Haris decided he was going to take on the job. He plundered boundaries against top bowlers like Tahir and Rabada. He took singles at will. He never seemed uncomfortable against good balls. When he walked in to bat, Pakistan’s NRR was a mere 4.76, when he got out it had shot up to 6.16. More importantly, he took away a huge layer of pressure off from Babar. By the 42ndover, Pakistan had seven wickets in hand and two very set batsmen on the crease. In a regrettable turn of fate though, at that moment, Babar gave away his wicket by playing a rash shot. He didn’t need to do that. It was regretful because all he had to do was to play through the fifty overs and let Haris do the dirty work. In retrospect though, perhaps, Babar made this mistake because he was accustomed to doing all the work himself. This is how he had been hardwired and this is what the entire fanbase expected him to do. This is how most Babar Azam innings went. Thus, the promised fire against SA never materialized. But a spark was created. It burst on 26thJune, in a must-win contest against an unbeaten team.
We are at Edgbaston, June 26th; Hafeez has yet again given away his wicket to a part-timer. Pakistan is back where it belongs, losing out in chases against an unrelenting team. The Kiwi pacers are sharp, Santner is turning the bowl like peak Murli, and even the genial Williamson is looking like a lethal off spinner who could get you out every ball. The pitch is discouraging any timing off the bat. 9/10 times Pakistan would lose this. Babar was on 48, another good start from him about to be wasted. He wanted to win a match but was soon going to run out of capable partners to support him. Just another average Pakistani chase. Instead, what followed for the next 98 minutes was something totally unprecedented in recent cricket history. Pakistan chased down a tricky total comfortably, in a pressure game. Babar Azam scored his finest century yet. A beautiful century in a winning chase, nothing less than magical dust for Pakistan. How did that happen? Simple answer:
Haris Sohail was at the other end.
Here is what transpired. Unlike other Pakistani middle-order batsmen, Haris is wired differently. He doesn’t get rattled at all. There were occasional misses and some nervy moments but overall, Haris managed to withstand the Santner assault. He faced most of the deliveries against the left-arm spinner and eventually forced him out of the attack by hitting a huge six in his seventh over. Haris then spent the rest of his innings rotating the strike at will and punishing any mildly bad delivery on offer. For many people, this may seem like basic stuff. You could count on any good middle-order batsman to do that. For Pakistan and Babar Azam though, this was liberation. Babar may have not fully realized Haris’s value against SA but things were different now. He wanted to win a game here, and a good partner was there to support him for that. So, Babar did what Babar does best. He decided to make his stay on the pitch permanent. He went back to the basics of chasing. No more rash shots, no more giving away of opportunities, and putting a very high price on your wicket. You get a good ball, you block. A less good ball, you take a run. A bad ball, you punish the bowler. Babar repeated this process right till the end. Right until the winning shot was played. But you might ask a question: Why could he do this now and not before when Pakistan needed him so many times? Again, simple answer:
Haris Sohail was at the other end.
He matched Babar shot for shot. Good ball, block. Average ball, run. Bad ball, punish. Together the two men gradually chopped off runs from the once overwhelming total. When there was need for a release shot, Haris hit Boult straight over his head for a six. When they needed to keep up with the run rate, Haris cut a quick Ferguson ball through to point. Him and Babar were dictated terms to NZ once the pair got set. By the time Haris was run out, Pakistan’s win was inevitable. Heck, Babar could even afford many dots in the nervous 90s because his partner was doing the dirty work for him.
Babar must have surely felt a strange sense of confidence when he put on that partnership with Haris. It was unlike any other he had ever seen. The difference in class between Haris and the rest was immense, just as it is with Babar and the rest. For yet another metaphor, the lonely but talented violinist had now been joined by a talented pianist who could match his tune.
On a highly difficult pitch against one of the best attacks in the world, Haris was the catalyst who allowed Babar to finally perform heroics that he had always promised to deliver. There is a 6 years difference between the two men, with a major chunk of Haris’ best years already gone. If one was prone to sentimentality, one could almost see Haris Sohail living up to the trope of the older brother we see in sports anime and films. Haris being the talented elder brother whose own heroic journey were cut short but who now wants to give his all to make sure that others reach their potential. The partnership almost felt as if Haris was saying to Babar “Listen kid! You go out there and play your best, leave the rest to me”.
And Babar obliged, as he played to the best of his immense abilities, letting Haris do rest of the work. The end result was a victory for Pakistan, no less satisfying than a great orchestra performance.