Babar Azam: An Average Captain

If cricketing history has taught us anything, it's that a great player is not necessarily a great captain

Babar Azam: An Average Captain

If you know anything about Pakistan cricket, you know very well that captaincy has always played a pivotal role in our team's successes and failures.

Enter Babar Azam. No one can possibly dispute his greatness as a batsman; his average across formats speaks volumes of his talent. He came into the team when our top order was in shambles, and it was almost a given to find our batting struggling at 30/3 in just the first ten overs of a one-day international (ODI). Despite trying different combinations, we were simply unable to find a consistent and reliable player who could anchor the innings the way greats such as Javed Miandad, Saeed Anwar, Aamir Sohail, and Ijaz Ahmed used to do during the '90s. 

There is an ongoing debate about Babar Azam's strike rate; however, those of us who have witnessed a plethora of openers struggle to score runs in SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand, and Australia) countries (Ahmed Shehzad, Muhammad Hafeez, Nasir Jamshed, Imran Nazir, and Imran Farhat, just to name a few) know very well what Babar brings to the table.

Since his batting prowess is beyond discussion, we will focus here on his captaincy skills. Granted, captaining the Pakistan cricket team is no easy feat, least of all because of the cricket. But Babar has willingly accepted this responsibility twice. So, let us take a deeper look into his performance as the national team captain.

If cricketing history has taught us anything, it's that a great player is not necessarily a great captain. Take the case of Indian great Sachin Tendulkar. He was one of the finest batsmen the world has ever seen. But his record as a captain is nothing to boast about. Conversely, Sourav Ganguly — who, as a batsman, would never be considered in the same league as Sachin — was clearly a much better captain. He transformed an ageing and defeatist Indian team into a winning unit, with a combination of senior performing players and young fearless talents such as Yuvraj Singh, Mohammad Kaif, Virender Sehwag, Irfan Pathan etc. Ganguly's team went on to win their first-ever test series in Pakistan and drew against Australia down under, a feat rarely achieved by Indian teams till then. He gave the blueprint, which was later adopted and improved upon by Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli, who became successful captains of India.

Similarly, Graeme Smith was not South Africa's best player when he was appointed the captain after the 2003 World Cup. When Smith led his team to a tour of Pakistan in 2003-04, South Africa had the likes of Gary Kirsten, Jacques Kallis, and Makhaya Ntini in its ranks. But the South African cricket board had the foresight to see that Smith had the correct mental aptitude and leadership qualities to make a great captain. The rest is history.

Babar is risk-averse and depends too much on certain 'big name' players, ignoring their actual performances on the ground

To emphasise this point further, note that many legends of the game, such as Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Matthew Hayden, Aravinda Di Silva, Muttiah Muralitharan, Dale Steyn, VVS Laxman, Kevin Pieterson, Ian Bell, Stuart Broad and James Anderson, to name a few, were not considered fit for the role of captaincy. Hence, a great player will not always be a great leader. Unfortunately, it appears that Babar is not an exception to this rule.

Granted, Babar did lead Pakistan to the T20 World Cup final in Australia, but ask yourself this: has Babar actually won any major ICC tournament as captain? How have we fared in the World Test Championship under his leadership? Have we won a test or ODI series against SENA nations (apart from the one ODI series in South Africa)? His record indicates that whether he is trying his bench strength or leading his best playing eleven, he has failed to get the best out of his players.
What the decision-makers at the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) do not appreciate is that historically speaking, Pakistan has always performed better under aggressive captains who have the courage to take bold decisions and lead from the front. Consider what successful captains like Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Younis Khan and Sarfraz Ahmed had in common: they all were fearless leaders who had a no-nonsense approach to the game. They ensured that merit prevailed, favouritism was shunned, and only fit players were selected. These captains encouraged young talents and gave our team many match-winners who served us for years.

Sadly, Babar has exhibited none of these traits so far. He is risk-averse and depends too much on certain 'big name' players, ignoring their actual performances on the ground. He has failed to put aside personal likes or dislikes, and does not seem inclined to drop consistently inconsistent players who take their places in the team for granted. In short, he lacks appreciation for taking a broader view of things and looking at the grander scheme.
Anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of our domestic cricket structure (which is not just the Pakistan Super League) knows that players like Sahibzada Farhan, Muhammad Ali, Omair Bin Yousuf, Muhammad Huraira, Imran Khan Junior, Muhammad Haris, Kashif Ali and Khurram Shahzad have much better domestic records than the likes of Hasan Ali, Usman Khan, Shadab Khan, Haris Rauf and Fakhar Zaman. And yet, despite their consistent performances, these domestic players are yet to be given a proper shot at the international level, whereas Hasan Ali, Muhammad Iftikhar and Haris Rauf are somehow guaranteed a place in every squad.

Granted, the selectors are answerable for this strange dilemma, yet one feels that since Babar is the captain, he can and should take a stand to ensure he has the best, most in-form players at his disposal. 

The bottom line is that Pakistani cricket fans should consider themselves lucky to live in the era of Babar—the batsman. But so far, Babar—the captain has not given us much to celebrate about. One hopes in his second coming, he learns from his past mistakes and builds a legacy that will be comparable to the great Pakistani captains of yesteryears.

The author is a lawyer based in Canada