Azhar Ali backs Babar Azam to shine in England Tests
Pakistan captain Azhar Ali is confident Babar Azam will show he is one of the world's leading batsmen in the Test series against England.
The 25-year-old Babar has a fine career Test average of 45.12 from 26 matches heading into the first of a three-match campaign against England at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
But his figures during the past two years suggest he is approaching the prime of his career.
Babar's five Test hundreds have all come since the start of 2018, during which time he has scored 1,375 runs in 15 matches at a hugely impressive average of 65.47.
Babar is top of the global Twenty20 batting rankings, third in the one-day standings and sixth in the Test list.
Azhar, asked if the England series would see Babar join Australia's Steve Smith and India's Virat Kohli in the top bracket of Test batsmen, told British media: "I think he is right up there already.
"People are thinking and talking about it. He is just hungry for runs and I think if he keeps doing that he will be up there for quite a long time.
"His performances have improved massively in Test matches over the last year or so. Firstly, he was performing really well in white-ball cricket and people thought he was only a white-ball player but he took on that challenge and played with a lot of freedom and flair."
'Free from pressure'
Azhar, anxious not to pile too much pressure on to Babar, said he wanted the batsman to relax and play his natural game.
"He is a very important player for us but I would like him to be free from any pressure and just enjoy his game," said the skipper.
Pakistan could also do with runs from Azhar, who knows English conditions well from his time with Somerset, and Asad Shafiq.
The two batsmen have scored just two hundreds each in 18 Tests since the veteran pair of Misbah-ul-Haq, now Pakistan's coach, and Younis Khan retired in 2017.
Azhar told Pakistan media that while he was "not happy with my batting", he was working hard to make sure he lived up to his responsibilities as captain.
Pakistan have named a 16-man squad for the first Test, which will be played behind closed doors because of the coronavirus.
They have the option to play three pacemen in Naseem Shah, Shaheen Shah Afridi and Mohammad Abbas, together with two spinners in Yasir Shah and Shadab Khan.
The combined ages of Naseem (17) and Afridi (20) are lower than that of England leading Test-wicket taker James Anderson, who recently turned 38.
"They are very talented, obviously not as experienced as some of the bowling attacks that have come to England in the past, but potentially they are right up there," said Azhar of the young bowlers.
"Naseem is a young talent who came up and played Test cricket from nowhere.
"He's impressed all of us and is in our number one bowling attack.... Over time he will get the experience he needs.
"In terms of his potential, he is very threatening and hopefully he will be very good for us in this series."
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Aamir Qureshi