No format can take the place of Test cricket: Babar Azam

The current ICC rankings for the limited over formats are a not only a sad reminder of the decline in fortunes of the 1992 World Cup title winners, but they also confirm the fact that other international sides have progressed while Pakistan have remained stationary or even regressed in these formats. In particular, the middle order batting has been a concern for some time with the Pakistani batsmen seemingly incapable of adapting to the modern, fast-paced Twenty20 style of cricket. It’s got to a point that while the better sides are pushing scores of 400 in fifty overs, Pakistan reaching 300 is considered an achievement. Also Read: “If the ball is there to be hit and in my zone, I will go for it” : Sharjeel Khan

However in this period of gloom, there has been a shining light in the shape of Babar Azam, who provides reasons for hope for Pakistan cricket. This highly rated batsman made his international debut in May 2015 against Zimbabwe in Lahore. With a List A average of over forty-seven and a strike rate above eighty, expectations were high of the then twenty-year-old right-hander and he didn’t disappoint, constructing an excellent innings of fifty-four off sixty balls. He is regarded by many as the future of Pakistan’s middle-order in all forms of the game, and in an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net during the ongoing Pakistan A tour of England, Babar Azam discussed his start to international cricket, his targets for the current tour and the importance of such tours for the development of young players. ALSO READ: Pakistan government never created hurdles in India-Pakistan series: Shahryar Khan

Babar Azam’s international career has blossomed since his debut and he has already become an important cog in the ODI batting line-up. Now averaging forty-seven from nine matches with five half-centuries, he continued to captivate attention during England’s tour of the UAE with an unbeaten sixty-two helping Pakistan to their only victory of the ODI series in 2015, before following it up with another excellent fifty in Dubai. He also scored two half centuries on the subsequent tour of New Zealand in early 2016, highlighting his immense potential and ability to play in bowler-friendly conditions. Azam credited his Pakistan teammates and the coaching staff for the outstanding start to his international career, stating “The experience of getting into the Pakistan team was brilliant. I was obviously a junior in the team and got a lot of support from the senior players and coaching staff who encouraged me to play my natural game. Whenever I felt I had a technical issue the other players really helped me out so I had a great time with the Pakistan team. I was obviously very pleased with my performances in the ODIs and I was very disappointed I got injured ahead of the World Twenty20 given I was in good form. These things happen though and I hope I can produce the same results if given another opportunity.” Also Read: Pakistan government never created hurdles in India-Pakistan series: Shahryar Khan

Given Azam’s excellent ODI form, there was a possibility that he would make the Test squad for the tour of England but ultimately the selectors decided against it and instead named him as the captain of the Pakistan A side. Pakistan’s strong Test middle-order appeared to have no room for the talented Azam and this is likely to have been a reason for his exclusion from the Test side. In hindsight it seemed a sensible decision for Azam to play and get some batting time with the Pakistan A side rather than carrying drinks during the Test series. The Lahore batsman expressed his satisfaction at the decision and stressed that he sees this as a chance to showcase his skills, “The selectors made the decision that they felt was right for my development, I don’t feel disappointed about not being selected. I’ve been selected for the Pakistan A tour and I’m satisfied with that and I see it as an opportunity to perform well and perhaps get selected for the senior team further down the line. I’ve made a good start to the tour scoring forty-five against Yorkshire and I hope there are some bigger scores to come in the rest of the games this summer.” READ MORE: Mohammad Amir will face a lot of pressure during the England tour, says Umar Gul

The rationale behind team selection for the Pakistan A tour seems to be to allow talented players a shot at capturing the attention of the selectors and also to hone their skills in unfamiliar conditions. As captain, Azam in particular can make his mark by scoring heavily and demonstrating his leadership credentials. Whilst he accepted this as a golden opportunity to break into the Pakistan team, he cautioned against too much talk about a potential future as the captain of Pakistan, “This is my first tour of England and I have a number of targets for myself to do well and improve my game, particularly having come here as captain of the Pakistan A side. I want to set the tone and be a good example for the rest of the team. My personal focus is on performance – I want to do my best to ensure the Pakistan A team wins all the matches on this tour. Personally I want to use this tour as a springboard to cement my place in the Pakistan team. I want to give 110% focus to my batting, score heavily, and earn a place in the senior team. In terms of captaincy, I’ve been captain of the Under-19s side and now I’m incredibly fortunate to have been chosen to lead the Pakistan A team as well. I’m very happy that the PCB has considered me capable enough of being captain of this team, but I’m not looking too far into the future just yet.”

Almost every pundit and ex-cricketer in Pakistan has at some point stressed the value of overseas tours for Pakistan A and Under-19s teams. The PCB has often faced criticism for not focusing on this area enough but this summer is proving to be different. Along with the senior side, the Pakistan A and Women’s teams are concurrently touring England, highlighting a shift in attitude from the PCB, something that Babar Azam approved of stating, “Pakistan A tours are so crucial for the development of younger players. The earlier this high quality development starts the better it will be for the Pakistan team later on. Both Under-19s and Pakistan A tours are very helpful for the players as they allow them to experience foreign conditions that they wouldn’t normally be used to. Right now, three of our teams are touring England, the senior side, the A team and the Pakistan Women’s team which is such a good sign for the future. The experience the younger players will get will be invaluable and will only benefit Pakistan in the long term.” READ MORE: “My aim is to make a name for myself just like Abdul Razzaq did” : Hammad Azam

No doubt the decision to hold the Pakistan and Pakistan A tours at the same time stemmed from the possibility of calling up additional players in case of injuries or loss of form. It’s a tactic often used successfully by England on Ashes tours and whilst Babar Azam knows he needs to be prepared for such an event, he hoped that his services would not be needed, and instead expressed his preference for selection for the limited overs leg of the tour on merit alone.

“Obviously everyone would love to get a call-up to the senior team while we’re here but we all pray that the players selected for the Pakistan team perform well and remain fit. However we are certainly ready and are aware of the possibility of a last minute selection. I hope to make the squads for the ODIs and T20Is against England this summer but it’s up to the selectors of course and I will respect whatever decision they take. Everything depends on my performance in the upcoming games for Pakistan A.”

The riches on offer from specialising in the shorter formats of the game are no longer considered cutting edge knowledge in cricket. It is becoming increasingly hard to justify the notion that Test cricket is king particularly when so many cricketers are gaining fame and stardom, not to mention financial stability, by playing in Twenty20 leagues all over the world. There are concerns that cricketers in Pakistan may choose to go down this route rather than trouble themselves with the rigours and demands of the longest format. Babar Azam however, laid to rest such concerns about himself at least, confirming that whilst he wants to play in all formats for his country, Test cricket ranks above all else, “I prepare myself to play in all three formats of the game as that is the requirement of cricket these days. I want to play in all formats for Pakistan and I wouldn’t say that I have an overall focus on any one in particular. Having said that, Test cricket is the ultimate form and it’s what challenges us as players the most. I would hope that the younger players also realise this as the most enjoyment comes from performing in the toughest form of the game. Obviously cricket has changed so there is a lot of importance on ODI and Twenty20 cricket, but no format can take the place of Test cricket!” he concluded.

(Shayan Siddiqui is a reporter at PakPassion where the article first appeared)