Of Babar Azam and Captaincy

Two back-to-back home series losses.

4 consecutive defeats.

At the receiving end of the first whitewash at home in history.

A tame series draw vs New Zealand.

A full year without a single test win at home.

Calls for Babar Azam to be replaced as captain have not exactly become loud enough to bring the house down, but the volume is increasing.

Babar has had a mixed record as captain so far.

In T20s, he has led the team 66 times, winning 40. This includes two final losses in the recent Asia Cup and World Cup, and a semi-final loss in the 2021 world cup. In ODIs, he has led 18 times with 12 wins. He is yet to captain the ODI team in a major tournament such as the Asia Cup, World Cup, or Champions Trophy, however. In terms of percentage of wins, he is Pakistan’s 3rd most successful captain in T20 history and the most successful in the ODI format. Both these statistics are from a sample size of players to have captained Pakistan in 10 or more T20 and ODI games.

Last, and perhaps the format where his captaincy is most under threat, is his Test Record. Before the New Zealand series, he had led the team in 16 matches, winning 8, losing 6, and drawing the remaining 2. Surprisingly, his winning percentage of 50% at that time in the test format was among the highest in Pakistan’s history ( from players to lead the team in 10 matches or more ). Only Saleem Malik ( 58.3% ) and Waqar Younis ( 58.8% ) have a better win percentage than him. For comparison, the great Imran Khan had a win percentage of 16.6% and Misbah-Ul-Haq, the most statistically successful captain in Pakistan’s history, had a win percentage of 33.9%. But here’s the catch – both Imran and Misbah drew a large number of matches too. For example, Imran had a losing percentage of only 16.6%. Babar on the other hand had a losing percentage of 37.5% before the New Zealand series, which is the 3rd worse in Pakistan’s history.

Babar is arguably the biggest draw in Pakistan’s current team. He is adored from the coasts of Karachi to the mountains in Pakistan’s north. He is the only batter ranked in the top 5 of all 3 formats and could have a legitimate claim to being the best all-format player in the world. By the time he retires, he will likely end up breaking every batting record in Pakistan’s history, and there are few, if any, who can match his exquisiteness when in full flow. However as Cricket has shown us time and time again, great players do not necessarily make great captains and vice versa.

A few names come to mind immediately.

The legendary Sachin Tendulkar for example. One of the greatest to have ever picked up a bat, but with a captaincy stint that left much to be desired. Brian Lara is another one who comes to mind from the same era. On the opposite end, there are players like Mike Brearly, one of the greatest captains in history, but with a very modest record as an individual player. There are some who are able to master the art of both captaincy and individual skill of course, such as Imran Khan, MS Dhoni, and Allan Border to name a few, but it’s not something that happens every time your best player is handed leadership duties.

As things stand currently, Babar’s leadership skills, leave much to be desired. It is entirely possible that he is able to develop these with time since he is still 28 with perhaps his best years ahead of him. One also needs to take into account that in the recently concluded England and New Zealand series, he was without his front-line pact attack, and more importantly, he will be without his best bowler, Shaheen Afridi, for a while. There is also the added issue of lifeless wickets at home, with little or no support for bowling.

But that should not come over off the fact that at times his captaincy has lacked imagination and the required aggression. This became even more evident in the England series where his opposite number Ben Stokes was thinking out of the box at every step possible, while Babar stuck to orthodox methods.

If he is to be replaced, the million-dollar question is who should be put in charge?

Shadab Khan is usually the first name on a lot of people’s lips. He is widely considered one of the sharpest minds in Pakistan’s side, with a penchant to be more aggressive and creative as a captain. However, Shadab barely plays any test cricket with his last outing coming in 2020. If he ever replaces Babar as captain, it is likely to be in the white ball format.

Other options as test captains include Shaheen Afridi, Mohammad Rizwan, and perhaps even Shan Masood, who was recently appointed captain for Yorkshire’s 2023 season. Out of these players, only Shaheen ( when fit ) and Rizwan have been regulars in Pakistan’s test lineup. With Sarfaraz staging an incredible comeback, Rizwan might have to wait a while before he is called back into the test side.

Shaheen, despite being a PSL-winning captain, is only 22, and giving him test leadership duties so early might be overburdening him with expectations, on top of his ongoing fitness issues.

Shan Masood has been given the ODI vice-captaincy for the New Zealand series in Shadab’s absence. A chance to get his feet wet perhaps? There is no one in the batting lineup who has evolved like him. He might get more playing time with Azhar Ali’s retirement however he was not a regular on the team until recently. His intent as a batsman is refreshing to watch, but there are no recent big test scores to back it up with.

Lastly, Rizwan, the current vice-captain of the test side ( when selected ), appears to have the same approach to captaincy as Babar. Very standard, with little imagination. This could change if he is given the job full-time, but there is little evidence to suggest that he would lead drastically differently than Babar.

With all this considered, perhaps Pakistan’s best bet would be to continue with Babar as test captain for the time being and hope that he has a fully fit bowling lineup available soon. If there was an obvious alternative available, then this decision might have been easier, but that does not seem to be the case right now as far as Pakistan’s test team is concerned. He has done a decent job of leading the white-ball teams, and one would hope it’s only a matter of time before this translates into success across the longer format too.

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