On Day Three in Abu Dhabi, Babar Azam fell short of his first Test century, but Ben Jones analyses how today’s 99 did nothing to prove that Babar can succeed in this arena.
Babar is a confusing cricketer. In ODIs, he is on course to be among the finest white ball batsmen Pakistan have ever produced; only one Pakistani has made 1,000+ ODI runs at a higher average. He is a classy accumulator, who bats in the manner of a Test veteran parachuted in to add security to the white ball batting line-up. Yet so far, in the format of the game which should surely be best suited to him, he’s looked ill at ease, and out of his depth. It’s almost two years to the day since Babar made his Test debut, on October 13th 2016, and for most of that time, Test cricket has seemed beyond him.
In some respects, he has been moving towards cracking the red-ball conundrum this year. His average before this match was the highest of any batsman in 2018 not to make a century; he is objectively not in that top strata of players, but he is right at the top of the tier below. Equally, on the evidence of how he played today, he’s ready to make the leap to the next level. In pure terms of runs scored, his 99 will have people believing that he has begun to solve any issues which have stalled his progress so far.
However, that’s not the case. A closer look at his batting approach reveals that when facing pace bowling, it is a very specific issue that has plagued Babar’s career to date. He averages 14.50 against balls moving more than 0.75°, and just 7.60 against out-swing deliveries moving that much or more. Full swinging bowling isn’t something you encounter a huge amount in ODI cricket, at least not since the advent of two new balls, and it could well be that this is a genuine technical issue which Babar needs to overcome to succeed long-term in the Test arena.
What’s more, it’s not just the swing that has caught him out, but full pitched bowling, period. Against deliveries pitching 6 metres or less from his stumps, he averages just 10.42 in Test cricket. Again, it forms an odd comparison with his 50 over batting, where he averaged almost 40 against those same deliveries, and scores at over a run-a-ball. It is an inability to play full, swinging bowling that has stopped Babar Azam from succeeding in Test cricket so far.
Today’s innings was built on a clear choice from the young batsman not to attack those deliveries, to basically put away the attacking shot against those deliveries. In the first 90 overs, he attacked seven deliveries from the seamers; just one of them was full. None of them would have hit the stumps. When he attacked, he was doing so with minimal risk. Indeed, minimal risk was the order of the day for Babar. He played and missed at just 1.7% of his deliveries – only once has he faced more than 30 deliveries in a Test innings with a lower proportion. The game situation may have been rather de-pressurised, but this was about as comfortable as Babar has looked batting in whites for his country.
Accompanied by his skipper Sarfraz Ahmed, Babar well and truly took this game away from Australia. That is a different sensation to that which you can find in ODI cricket, you’d suggest, that ruthless execution of an opponent. Perhaps chasing a low-score in a chase can be approached with similar cold-heartedness, but even that is far from that on show today. Babar showed a willingness to just bat Australia to the point of no return, in as controlled and effective manner as one could imagine.
But today, Babar’s dot-ball percentage was 70%. Only three times in his Test career has he faced 30+ balls with a lower dot-ball percentage, and only once has he scored quicker. This was Babar batting at an ODI tempo, in a uniquely Test match situation, but Australia were building no pressure, offering no threat. Australia barely tested it out as a weakness. Typically, 27% of the balls Babar faces from seamers in Test cricket are full – in this innings, Australia bowled just 14% in that region. Very little of what Australia threw at Babar was genuinely going to test him. Demoralised by their first innings collapse, and a bowler down due to an apparent injury to Mitchell Starc, and ineffective – only once in the last 12 months have they recorded a lower false shot percentage in an innings – Australia’s bowling went well off the boil, and Pakistan’s No.6 was able to capitalise.
Yet even in that environment, Babar ended up falling to another full, swinging ball. Only eight balls he faced today were fuller than the one which dismissed him; only seven swung more than that fatal delivery. After an innings of apparently rebutting the accusation that he can’t play full bowling, his case fell down at the crucial moment.
This isn’t meant to be a dampener on any celebrations. Babar is a player of immense talent, clearly, and he is more than likely going to develop into a good Test batsman. However, whilst the 99 runs he scored today suggest that he has solved his issues, closer inspection doesn’t agree. Going forward, is simply not attacking full deliveries a sustainable approach for a batsman who builds his success on those strokes in other formats of the game? Given the magnitude of this flaw in his technique, can any innings where falls to a full pitched delivery be considered a genuine success? Are runs in such a dead stage of the game (he arrived with WinViz at 88% for the hosts, and departed with it on 89%) a great barometer of a player’s ability? The answer to all three, to varying degrees, is likely no.
With New Zealand the next team on the horizon for Pakistan, and with their semi-iconic new ball attack of Trent Boult and Tim Southee unlikely to leave Babar’s weakness unexamined in the manner of Australia, we may soon have a clearer idea of how close Pakistan’s ODI gun is to firing in Tests. For now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.