First off, if you’re reading this then you’ve lost. It’s already the second-best thing you’re doing with a Babar Azam innings. If you’re ever reading about a Babar Azam innings, just know that it’s really the second-best thing you’re doing at that moment with a Babar Azam innings. The best thing to do with any Babar Azam innings is to be watching it, whether that is Babar Azam making 27 or Babar Azam making 127. And if you’ve already seen the Babar Azam innings of Edgbaston, do yourself a favour and don’t read about it: watch it again (and maybe then read about it).
And as you watch it, allow the incredulity to overwhelm you, allow it to soak deep into you, so deep that it’s not the game that is holding you but Babar’s batting. Incredulity? Yes, because we’re now in the age of Babar and that you can say that about any Pakistani batsman is an incredulous thing to be able to say.
The rest of the world will recognise that he is a fine batsman, a very fine young batsman. They will acknowledge him. They will fete him like they do all modern batsmen and that this is normal. They will compare him to Virat Kohli because why not? Don’t fall in with them. See, the rest of the world is long used to batting gold.
WATCH on Hotstar (India only) – Babar’s classy hundred
India has Kohli and Rohit Sharma and not so long ago they had… actually, they’ve never not had batsmen the rest of the world envied. Australia have Steven Smith and David Warner and they can even afford to be all casual about Glenn Maxwell. England has batsmen falling out of everywhere, even out of their bowlers. New Zealand have Kane Williamson and most days you’d throw Ross Taylor into that. West Indies have batsmen who hit sixes better, longer and more often than any set of batsmen in history. South Africa had/have (maybe, we hope?) AB de Villiers, the godfather of modern batting.
These are men who constitute a golden age of batting, men who have piled up such numbers that new ways of understanding and analysing their genius have had to be found; men who have not brought about an evolution but are the evolution.
In all this time, Pakistan have memories. Of innovators like Javed Miandad. Of classicists like Mohammad Yousuf. Of incongruous giants such as Inzamam. Even of the cussedness of Younis Khan. Mostly they have regrets. Regrets about Umar Akmal. About Sohaib Maqsood. About Ahmed Shahzad. About all the batting spaghetti they were throwing at a wall and none of it was sticking because none of it was cooked. About a domestic system that seems designed to preclude the emergence of genuine batsmen. About a way of thinking, a culture even, that precludes the emergence of a genuine batsman.
And so the incredulity that having lived and envied through all this, now, finally, suddenly, they have Babar Azam and you know what – no, can you believe what – that he does not look out of place in this company?
When you’re watching today’s innings and not reading this, you’ll understand. There is value to all his runs. All 3000-plus ODI runs that he has scored hold value and each innings of his that has helped Pakistan win games have value. All the records he has broken have value. And then there is his innings today, at Edgbaston, in a chase – and Pakistan can win 17 ODIs in a row chasing but come that 18th game whether they’re chasing 350 or 150, you’ll still be watching from between the fingers covering your eyes – which will hold a value forever greater than all that. At this of all moments, in this increasingly heady campaign, let’s not be shy – let’s call this innings for what it is, a coming of age for sure, and perhaps an all-timer.
For one, he’d been suffering from flu, Grant Flower later said. In fact, because of the flu he had not netted the day before the game and Flower couldn’t remember that Babar had ever not batted the day before a game (he did make up by netting plenty on the morning of the game).
For another, this was not an easy surface, a surface on the stranger, more dangerous side of slow. Fast bowlers got seam movement from it, and grip for their cutters. Spinners got plenty of turn – anytime Williamson can only edge a legspinner, you know this is serious. Mitchell Santner is Daniel Vettori on most days (and that is a great thing) but here he was turning it like your uncle swears Bishen Bedi used to. It was a proper spell. Plus there was Lockie Ferguson, one of the five quickest bowlers this tournament and Trent Boult, whose name alone is sufficient. Deal with all of that, as well as the knowledge that it is, from here on, pretty much do or be done.
WATCH on Hotstar (US only) – Full highlights of Pakistan’s victory
So when you’re watching this one again, you might form a conclusion. Not that this was a grind, because Babar doesn’t grind. There was plenty of the pretty stuff you’ve watched over and over but just that it was feeling like this would amount to way more than the sum of all that prettiness – and if you think about what those shots he plays does to people, then we’re talking a big sum. But that this wasn’t his most in-control innings. Numbers will tell you that he played more false shots than he usually would, that he was beaten more often than he usually is. But ask yourself whether he was ever not really in control?
Watch the ninth over. Boult was sniffing. He had an early wicket and that target had grown considerably in spirit. First ball, Babar committed an error in trying to play to leg and ball somehow missed edge, off-stump, everything. Next ball, Babar leant into a drive through point. Four. Next ball, beaten again, even after correcting the earlier error and playing straight. Where to now? Next ball, a little wider, a little more tempting, no sir, not biting: leave.
Now Boult went round the wicket, messing around with angles. Got it a bit straight though, and Babar immediately leant into one of those cover-driven fours that no fielder moves for. Boult went back over, Babar blocked out, end of over. To be in control when you’re not in control, to be in the Headingley of the 80s one ball and Trent Bridge of the aughties the next, is the real trick the best modern batsmen pull.
And so it went. He almost edged Jimmy Neesham attempting a cute dab, but immediately leant back and punched him through point for four. He inside-edged Santner, then miscued a pull off Ferguson during a really tricky phase but as soon as Colin Munro came on, through covers he was driven for four. In those early parts, a large percentage of his runs came from boundaries but it wasn’t that these were loose balls – it was that Babar had this very modern clarity, this conviction, to identify balls off which his strengths could fetch boundaries from, that he has hit boundaries from thousands of times before. They could be good balls, or a little less good, but they were his balls to do with what he needed.
He kept doing it long enough so that the bluff that he was in control eventually became the reality and suddenly, you’ll watch and see that he was playing the Babar innings you’ve watched over and over. The steady accumulation to let you drift – control see? – the occasional moment of beauty to wake you up, repeat, until end.
And if you’ve made it this far, reward yourself. Go watch it again.