Why Babar Azam could become Pakistan's Virat Kohli
It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when Indian fans would have gladly traded one of their many talented batsmen in exchange for a couple of Pakistani fast bowlers. Pakistan have consistently produced a factory line of quality pacers unlike India, who seem to throw up a batting superstar every other year.
Times have changed of course. With the rise of Jasprit Bumrah, India need not look elsewhere in envy. On the other hand, Pakistani fans have longingly looked at Virat Kohli and wished that someone similar would rise up through the domestic circuit and become the next big batting star.
Well, they can stop looking. Babar Azam has shown that he is ready to take his batting to the next level.
Fresh off a sublime century against New Zealand in the ongoing World Cup, Azam has won over a legion of new fans and in the process shown that there is more to Pakistan than their fast bowling.
There was never a doubt over his potential for greatness, but there was increasing frustration over his inability to score the big runs when it mattered. All that changed after the New Zealand game as he showed how his presence in the middle can alter the dynamics of the game.
There is every indication that he can only get better, as scary as that sounds.
This is where Azam has the perfect model to follow as he takes the next step towards greatness. Kohli has been where Azam is now, and the Pakistani batsman would do well to trace the Indian captain's journey over the years - from a highly skilled batsman to a complete cricketer who has molded the Indian team in his image.
Azam has every reason to become to Pakistan, what Kohli is to India.
He's got the numbers
Azam is no emerging superstar. He has been around since 2015, and averages over 50 in both ODIs and T20Is. While he has yet to crack Test cricket like Kohli, he has shown in his brief career that he has the potential to become Pakistan's greatest ever limited overs batsman.
Other impressive numbers over the course of the last few weeks include: second fastest to 3000 ODI runs, fifth in most runs scored by a player aged 24 and under in a senior World Cup, the first Pakistani non-opener to score a ton in the World Cup since 1987, second youngest player to score a World Cup ton for Pakistan.
Numbers may not tell the whole story about a batsman, but for a country that has unreasonably clung to players who are deemed 'talented' or 'match-winners' based on a few games, Azam has shown that he is the real deal.
He's got the shots
Azam is a very pleasing batsman to watch, much like his cousin Umar Akmal. Even during brief stays at the crease, he lights up the game with gorgeous strokes that ooze class and command.
Azam bats like he knows there are people watching and that it's his duty to entertain them; he never disappoints in that regard.
No shot better encapsulates that mindset better than his cover drive. When Kohli hits a punchy straight drive down the ground, you know he's in the mood; the same goes for Azam's graceful cover drives.
It is one of many delectable shots that Azam has in his armory, all of which can demoralize the opposition in a matter of a few overs.
He can calm a wildly temperamental batting order
Azam has a decent supporting cast in the likes of Imam-ul-Haq, Fakhar Zaman and Haris Sohail. One day, these four could constitute one of the most dangerous batting line-ups in international cricket. But they are not there yet.
In the wild world of Pakistan cricket, it is hard to say how consistent their batting will be on a regular basis. In-form players get dropped, random old strugglers make comebacks, and the batting line-up seems to implode often.
Amidst all the drama, Azam has shown that he can be one constant Pakistan can rely on. His ability to switch between anchor and aggressor can reassure his team-mates that they can play their natural game and still contribute to the team's success.
This is one of the things Kohli does very well, as he knows when to lead and when to step back depending on how his batting partners are going at a given moment.
He would make for an ideal captain
Pakistan have a turbulent history of captaincy dramas, and that may be why they played safe with their most recent picks in Sarfaraz Ahmed and Misbah ul-Haq. Both these players have proven to be ideal captains for a volatile team, letting their more illustrious team-mates take the spotlight and being a steadying influence behind the scenes.
This is where Azam has the potential to take Pakistan (kicking and screaming) to the next level and mold the team in his image, much like Kohli has done with India.
For all his flashy strokes and impressive numbers, Azam has shown he prefers to stay away from the spotlight and let his bat do the talking. That is the kind of attitude that he can infuse his team with, and transform Pakistan's image of a mercurial side into a more professional unit.
If Pakistan want to compete with the top teams on a more consistent basis and stop settling for one-off miraculous wins, they would do well to give Azam the captaincy and imbibe the level of professionalism he plays with.
Also read – World cup winners captains list