The Pakistan cricket team’s new generation of talent has got the world talking. Pakistan’s recent exploits in South Africa saw the Men in Green become the first Asian team and only the second touring side to win two ODI bilateral series against the Proteas in their backyard.
Led by the talismanic Babar Azam, who tallied 210 runs in the four-match T20I series and 228 runs in the three-match ODI series, Pakistan won the ODI series 2-1 and the T20I series 3-1. The historic win saw a surge in their rankings as the team moved up to the second position in the ICC CWC Super League. However, the headlines were made by skipper Babar Azam, who displaced Virat Kohli to sit atop the ICC ODI rankings and leapfrogged Australia’s Aaron Finch to sit second in the ICC T20I rankings.
In an exclusive interview with SportsAdda, former Pakistan cricketer Ramiz Raja discussed Babar Azam’s special talent, India’s emerging cricket stars and Pakistan’s chances to win the ICC T20 World Cup 2021.
Babar Azam was unstoppable in the limited-over series against South Africa. What makes him so special?
Raja: That’s how he approaches every innings. Whether it is Test cricket, ODI or a T20 knock, he is safe. He doesn’t take a lot of risks, yet he has got so many angles to beat the field. His basic technique is fantastic, and I think the most wonderful factor is the balance that he maintains at the crease. It is because half the batting is about balance and he has improved his power-hitting as well. He is averaging 50 in the ODIs, almost 50 in T20I cricket and he’s upwardly mobile in Test cricket as well. He has had a great year as well.
He’s only 26, so the sky's the limit. The best thing I like about his batting is the risk-free approach and the balance at the crease.
How would you rate Pakistan’s performance in South Africa?
Raja: See, the point is that beating South Africa, whether it was their A team or B team, is an achievement. The fact is that Pakistan had struggled in those South African conditions. From that standpoint, I thought it was a very good performance and since this is a World Cup year, every series win makes them confident.
Can Pakistan capitalise on this form in the T20 World Cup later this year?
Raja: They still have a long way to go as far as getting combinations and the best XI sorted because the middle order batting is a problem and bowling, at times, suffers when the charge is on. So, there are things to improve but winning can sort out a lot of stuff. Because you become confident of your skills, you can win from any situation. They just need to sort out a couple of things before they are in a better shape to take on the world.
In T20 cricket, anything can happen. However, they need to sort out the middle order because the top three, Mohammed Rizwan, Babar Azam, and Fakhar Zaman were very impressive during the South Africa tour. So, the middle order needs to be tweaked a little. Bowlers can go for runs, so they need to find a couple of them who can do a cleaning up job after Shaheen Afridi and Haris Rauf finish their bowling spells. Things are looking up; they will have an outside chance. They can’t be the favorites in the T20 2021 World Cup, but they have an outside chance to win.
We talk of ‘fab four’ - Virat Kohli, Steve Smith, Kane Williamson, and Joe Root. Is it time we also add Babar Azam to the list?
Raja: He’s probably the only batsmen out on the list. I mean there is Virat clearly and then there is Babar Azam who has done consistently well in all the formats. Whereas you see Steve Smith suffers at times and Kane Williamson not a straightforward pick in the Indian T20 league as well, meaning that he is not indispensable. Babar Azam, if you look at how he has approached his career, he has been great in all the three formats.
You have lauded Team India’s bench strength. Who are the Indian cricketers who impressed you the most recently?
Raja: Suryakumar Yadav stands out, Ishan Kishan for the talent that he has got. I have always been a fan of Sanju Samson, because he’s at par, when it comes to aesthetic batting, with Rohit Sharma. Then you have Rahul Tewatia and Rishabh Pant. I have written an article in Khaleej Times that it is good to see Sanju and Rishabh captain their franchises. Because the message has been sent to them that we do not need cameos from you but to extract greatness out of them. They have still been in and away because of how they have approached their careers in the T20 format. It is good that they’ve been made captain because now they’ll be looking to play longer innings, responsible innings, not play for the gallery and look for match-winning innings.
Have you been following the Indian T20 league? Anything or anyone who caught you in particular?
Raja: Sanju Samson’s 119 was a delight. I have enjoyed the slow-turners -- the point being, T20 cricket is not about target shooting. There are so many other facets of the game like getting characteristics that are not engaged because of how T20 has generally been set up. So, slow turners, ball stopping, variations, spinners pausing the game have been quite enjoyable as it has involved good captaincy. Low-scoring matches have been extremely good to watch. So, it has given the Indian T20 league a new shape, a new challenge which can’t be bad.
What are the major improvements you want in the Pakistan cricket system?
Raja: Consistency. Once you feel somebody has the potential, you have to back it and also make sure we see improved performance in the next season. I think they have to maintain fitness. In this year’s PSL, we had plenty of fast bowling options. There were four-five players who were bowling over 145 kmph. It remains to be seen whether they can be harnessed and nourished properly so they can be part of the system. But there is potential which needs to be channelised and properly managed.
You were unhappy that Pakistan and India did not play in the ongoing World Test Championship. What would you recommend to the BCCI and PCB?
Raja: I’ll recommend to the ICC that you must have one player window where only the Test Championship should be played. It can’t be an ongoing process for two or two and a half years because the competition loses steam. It will serve Test cricket also where no other competition is played for three months but Test matches. Every country plays each other, and it can’t be three countries play minnows and qualify because they schedule the series like that or on their behalf and India and Pakistan don’t meet at all. You know how unfair it will be for the fans. It needs to have a proper quick-in and quick-out Test championship window, where the rest of the formats are not played at all. Just like during the Indian T20 league, few international matches are played during that window. The same scenario should be played out during the Test match championship.
Featured photo: AFP / Phill Magakoe, Punit Paranjpe