Sat, 05 Dec 2020

In October last year he became Pakistan's T20I captain. Since then he averages 55, striking at nearly 143 and has six fifties in 11 games. In May this year, he was appointed Pakistan's ODI captain. Since then he averages 110.50 (ok, it's only three ODIs and all against Zimbabwe). This month, Babar Azam became Pakistan's Test captain. Now?

Now, he is readying to fly out in a few days' time as Pakistan's all-format, all-powerful captain to New Zealand which, great country and all, has become an unforgiving cricket host since the turn of the century. Only Australia and South Africa have favourable Test win-loss ratios there in that time, and although Pakistan are the only other side New Zealand haven't won more Tests against, more recent history is pretty one-sided.

In fact, very much unlike the '90s, New Zealand have become a pretty unforgiving opponent for Pakistan anywhere. Pakistan have won only two - a pair of T20I series - out of their last 12 bilateral series across formats and venues against New Zealand. Most recently was a fairly traumatic Test series defeat in the UAE, where they lost one Test by four runs (a target of 176) and one after gaining a 74-run first innings lead.

So the platitudinous tone of Azam's assessment on Friday sat slightly out of kilter with that record. "We're quite excited about going to New Zealand," he said. "Quite confident as a group. We've been playing back-to-back cricket. We've got decent stats against them and we've played pretty good cricket against them too, in New Zealand and outside. We hope to go there and start well and play with the confidence that we have right now."

It's quite possible he was talking from a personal standpoint. He should be quite excited and confident because his record against them is no short of outstanding. He has healthy averages in all formats and some key, landmark innings: the majestic, unbeaten 90 in Hamilton in 2016, the first signs of his prowess in red-ball cricket; his first Test hundred in a dominant win in Dubai; and possibly his finest innings to date, the World Cup hundred at Edgbaston.

It is the fear of losing precisely these performances that accompany his ascension to this moment, more even than the more intrinsic question of whether he has the aptitude for captaincy.

So far at least, the batting has not been hit.

"The pressure has always been there, right from the start when I came into the Pakistan side," he said. "Challenges keep coming every day and now I have a new challenge, a new responsibility. It's not added pressure. I enjoy it and the things I've learnt in white-ball cricket over the last year, there's been a bit of improvement. I want to try and enjoy it. I was vice-captain to Azhar [Ali], I learnt a lot under Saifi [Sarfraz Khan], so I want to apply that.

"As for the batting, this is just another step forward, another challenge that I want to set myself. The team relies on me and I accept that responsibility. I enjoy taking on that pressure, playing with that pressure."

Hackneyed again, perhaps, but no captain is picked because of his oratory. He will come from a position of some empathy for younger players, a few of whom Pakistan will be relying on. The promise of something special was evident during periods of the summer tour to England if not quite the actual performance.

But Azam himself was the beneficiary of patience and persistence, citing former coach Mickey Arthur's support early in his own Test career. "You have to support them, you have to back them. I struggled early on but I had support from my team. Especially I'll say of Mickey. He always said, 'the more you back them, the more you play them, the better they'll get'."

Patience is one of the aspects missing from the PCB's appointment of captains since the departure of Misbah-ul-Haq - although not the only one. Azam is the third man in three years to lead the Test side, Pakistan having used one in the nearly-seven years prior to that.

For now, Azam thinks he has the support. "The PCB has given me the confidence to go out there and play," he pointed out. "They've said I don't need to worry about it, that I am in their long-term plans. There's certainly no pressure from the PCB that you lose this series and what will happen then, nothing like that. They've given me the freedom, that we are thinking of you long term."

All of Pakistan will be hoping likewise, for the prospects of losing his batting because of the captaincy - or its fallout - is too frightening to consider.

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