Babar Azam interview: Pakistan star on his rise in Test cricket, ‘big brother’ Imad Wasim and T20 World Cup

Batsman looks back at a memorable 2019 and prepares for captaincy challenges this year

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Pakistan’s star batsman Babar Azam can’t seem to put a foot wrong. In the past 12 months, Azam has scored 1801 runs in 29 international matches at an average of 66.7, which is the second best aggregate among those who played at least 20 games. And this after his Test average dipped below 25 in 2017-18 due to successive failures.

But as they say: form is temporary, class is permanent. A renewed focus on red-ball cricket, graduation to Pakistan T20 captaincy and sustained brilliance in white-ball cricket have made the 25-year-old the best young batsman in the game and worthy of being bracketed with the likes of Steve Smith, Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson, and Joe Root.

It has been a remarkable rise for Azam since his debut in 2015, with the future looking even brighter as he closes in on becoming just the second batsman after Kohli to average more than 50 in all three formats.

As is the case with any player, it was his performances in Test cricket that made the cricketing world acknowledge his brilliance. He raised his game during the Test tour of South Africa at the beginning of 2019, scoring two fifties and going after an all-time great like Dale Steyn – Azam scored 92 runs from just 79 balls with 21 boundaries.

But it was during the Test series against Australia in November-December that he truly made a name for himself, scoring a century and a 97 in four innings. He then went on a ton-scoring spree at home against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, reaching triple figures three times in four outings.

For Azam, it’s the tour of South Africa where he raised his game.

"For me, my Test cricket improved after the South Africa tour. There I learnt how to score runs in Test cricket, how to survive each session. Gradually, as you score big, play longer innings, talk to senior players, you get an idea how to perform in Test cricket," Azam told The National.

“The Australia tour was very good. The last time I went there, I struggled in Test matches. This time, I improved a lot. It was outstanding.”

It was only a matter of time before captaincy came into the equation. Azam was named Pakistan’s T20 captain after the board sacked Sarfaraz Ahmed in October. And with leadership came responsibility.

“Captaincy has given me a lot of responsibilities. Earlier one would think of just one’s batting but now one has to think of the entire team and take all players along,” he said.

My Test cricket improved after the South Africa tour

“It’s quite difficult. I captained at the U19 level, but there is a big difference between that and international cricket. I have just started and hopefully it will work out well.”

What has not helped matters, though, is rumour of a rift with his Karachi Kings captain Imad Wasim in the Pakistan Super League. The T20 tournament is going on in Pakistan right now – the first time the league is being held in the country entirely - and stories emerged of differences between the franchise and national captains.

And just like Wasim had done earlier, Azam rubbished the rumours as ‘fake news’.

“These rumours were there last year as well. There is no truth to it. I think of it as fake news,” the right-hand batsman said, with a laugh.

“He is like my big brother. I captain in international cricket and here he is my captain. I am a professional cricketer. I don’t think about why I am not captain, why the franchise didn’t make me captain. This is not my domain.

“They (Karachi) liked him and made him the captain as he was the leader last year as well. I truly respect him as he is like my big brother. Whenever I am down, he is one of the first to lift me up and provide encouragement.”

Which is commendable since Azam will need all hands on deck during the T20 World Cup later in the year in Australia. Pakistan are still the No1 T20 team in the world, despite a horrid run of six consecutive defeats. While Azam is busy guiding Karachi Kings’ campaign with the bat in the PSL, he is keeping one eye on players in the tournament who can deliver Down Under.

“PSL and World Cup are two different things. I am focussing on PSL, but it’s not that I am not thinking of the World Cup,” he said.

“I am looking at PSL and keeping an eye on who is performing well, bowling well. I am looking at who can be a part of the team for the World Cup and which players will be suited for Australian conditions.”