Fawad Alam’s failure was mournful to watch. Asad Shafiq’s third consecutive knock without a significant score was unexpected but not worthy of headlines. But Babar Azam’s ‘so close so far knocks’ in this visit resonates Joe Root’s recent string of innings in which he displays glimpses and falls short of getting back to his best.
But at least Joe Root has had the pleasure of being acknowledged as the number one Test batsman at one point and a complete one, the latter of which Babar Azam is yet to experience and which is most essential. As the England tour kept approaching, Babar Azam was also getting exposed to the floodgates of comparison with his Asian counterpart Virat Kohli.
The analogy drawn was particularly with that Virat Kohli, who redeemed himself from the 2014 tour of England four years later. That Kohli, who blunted his nemesis James Anderson and his other colleagues on his way to 593 runs in five Tests.
It was Babar Azam’s turn to be that man for Pakistan and to show why he gets counted amongst the Test kings of the current era. And if Pakistan were to emerge victorious in England, Babar had to go two steps more than Steve Smith of the 2019 Ashes.
The 25-year old began hitting his straps relatively late in Test cricket. It was two years after his debut that the elegant right-handed batsman notched up his first Test century and six fifties. And it would be another one year before a three-figure score outside Asia came. Brisbane in November 2019 was the witness to a hundred that came under pressure but which was still not enough to avoid an innings defeat.
Before the England tour, he had scored three more centuries that lifted his average to 45 and surged to number six in the rankings. And the United Kingdom was not particularly a nadir for Babar unlike it was for Kohli in 2018. He played an instrumental role in Pakistan’s win two years ago at the Lord’s as injury kept him out of the second at Leeds.
However, the weight of expectations was heavy on this occasion and how well Babar handled that and thrived on it would define him for years to come.
Babar Azam’s half-measured run in England so far:
Babar began the ongoing tour at the Old Trafford, coming at a reasonably precarious position. Shan Masood was watertight in his technique as Chris Woakes greeted Azam with a jaffa outside off stump that escaped the edge by an inch.
He took 15 balls to get off the mark but appeared authoritative after lunch, taking James Anderson for three boundaries in his three successive overs. Babar Azam spared none and capitalised on anything loose to dispatch it to the fence while also knocking the singles.
He reached his half-century in the 41st over of the day by punching one to the cover off Dom Bess. The tourists finished the day at 139-2 around their newly-crowned backbone Babar Azam, who finished unbeaten on 69 and Shan Masood at the other end grinding it down nicely.
By this time, Babar supposedly became the new Joe Root in the fab four and climbed rapidly to be in the category of “ranked at par with Kohli and Smith”. Even though he perished on the second day without adding to his overnight score, Babar’s stocks remained on a high.
Sadly, it all came plummeting down in the second innings of the Manchester Test since he departed for a single-figure. It would not have mattered much if Pakistan won the match. But the tourists could not put the Englishmen on the sword from being 107 ahead. Azam had to bring upon the counterattack that he produced in the first innings and similar to Smith’s in the second innings at the Old Trafford in 2019.
On Friday, as the play began after an hour’s delay, Pakistan reached till lunch unscathed around Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan. On the second day, the vice-captain watched Abid Ali, Asad Shafiq, Fawad Alam depart at crucial junctures and three batsmen, who are entirely capable of hanging around and scoring runs. He began the day at 25 with Pakistan five down, needing to make at least a 100 more to put England under pressure.
The two boundaries that came in the first hour was through Babar’s bat, clipped through mid-wicket off Woakes and Anderson. Other than those freebies, the pace quartet hardly gave anything that Babar Azam could cash on in favourable bowling conditions. There existed a few deliveries that troubled Babar but none that the right-handed batsman allowed the Englishmen a lot of excitement.
But luck played its part till lunch and ran out after that. In the third over of the fourth ball after the break, Broad delivered a probing line on the fourth stump line that Babar could not avoid but play it.
The length was a fraction short too, kissing the bat edge through to Buttler. It not only ended a promising stand between him and Rizwan but left Babar Azam hopes of making a lasting impression, after holding the fort for 126 deliveries.
In the first innings of the first Test, Babar missed an opportunity of Test hundred while being in a beautiful rhythm. In the subsequent one, Babar Azam had to do just enough for the visitors to bat the Englishmen out of the game.
On Friday, the 25-year-old had the massive responsibility dig Pakistan out of the hole, but he fumbled at the doorstep of doing it. It was three scenarios, all of where Babar Azam had the potential to excel in, but all it became was near misses.