Ben Jones analyses a genius in-waiting.
The sound that a cricket bat makes when striking a cricket ball, when striking it sweetly, is among the most iconic in all of sport. No other game can claim to have a moment, a single sound, as filled with both poetry and quality, both style and substance. A well-struck boundary counts on the scoreboard, but a middled drive, a middled drive right out of the middle, a middled drive that flies and soars, that counts more. That counts on a different level. That’s Babar.
One of the wonderful things about modern cricket, and modern cricketing culture, is how much more accessible it is than previous generations. Within minutes of Babar nailing a first-ball drive against Australia A, a drive through mid-on which could have barely been more of a statement had he rolled out a scroll and read a prepared manifesto, the shot was out on social media. Fox Cricket’s decision to telecast the warm-up meant that everyone saw it, first hand, no messing. This wasn’t rumour, or folklore, this was an impeccable technique swatting an early assault to the rope. It was dismissive, politely dismissive, but dismissive nonetheless. It was Babar.
Yet perhaps the most immediately impressive thing about that drive was not the way that the ball flew to the boundary, but the fact it was a red ball, not a white one.
Right now, Babar is one of the best white ball batsmen in the world. a high-scoring and stable ODI and T20 anchor. However, typically, as the colour of the ball changes so do Babar’s fortunes. Since he debuted in Test cricket, there have been 35 players to make as many runs as Babar – 23 of those men have done so with a higher batting average. Whilst the last 18 months or so have seen his form develop, and his record begin to improve (an average of just over 50 in his last 10 Tests is testament to this), it is not yet the sustained success that we would expect of such a radically talented player. It’s confusing to the casual fan, who has dipped into the game this year and been seduced by his brilliance, but Babar Azam is not right now one of the best red ball batsmen in the world.
Why is this?
Well, he does appear to have a substantial technical issue with the full ball. Whilst he has a strong record against both short and good length deliveries (the latter being the most dangerous in the game), Babar averages just 22.33 when seamers pitch the ball up. That’s a frustrating statistic as it reveals a chink in his armour, but it’s more frustrating given that in ODIs, Babar averages 39.31 against full pitched deliveries.
The obvious reason for this difference is that the white ball moves less, and so the risk of a mistake is less; however, closer inspection suggests this isn’t really the key. In his ODI career, the average delivery that Babar has faced from a pace bowler has swung 0.59°; the equivalent in Test cricket is 0.8°. In ODI cricket, when Babar faces more than that standard amount of swing, he averages 31.90; in Test cricket, it’s 26.89. That is a difference, of course, but it’s not as pronounced as you might expect.
Perhaps, instead, the difference comes in the way these deliveries form part of a coherent bowling plan. The movement alone does not cause the problem for Babar – the direction is just as important. Yes, swing troubles him, but when that swing is taking the ball away from him, his record is elite. However, when the ball is swinging into him, his record is terrible.
Babar does face slightly more in-swinging deliveries in Test cricket than in ODIs, 27% of the balls bowled to him compared to 22%. Those deliveries are moving the same amount through the air and, in theory at least, they carry broadly similar levels of threat. Yet as with full deliveries, Babar’s record against them in ODIs is so, so much better than it is in Tests.
In a way, there’s a limit to this sort of analysis. There has just been something intangibly different about the way Babar has gone about his Test career, some lack of swagger.
For Babar, those sweetly struck shots are fewer and farther between in red ball cricket. Using detailed shot-type data, CricViz have developed a metric for measuring a player’s Timing Ability, essentially the frequency with which they make a good connection when attempting to score. As you may well expect, in ODIs Babar Azam has the second best Timing Rating in the format, (the only man with a higher rating is AB de Villiers, a man with a decent shout of being the best white-ball batsman ever), a whopping 148 which dwarfs the average of 100 for all players. The consistency of Babar’s crisp, clean strokeplay can be distilled into a single figure, which attempts to quantify his particular brilliance.
In Test cricket, that simply isn’t the case. In the longest form of the game, Babar’s Timing Rating sinks to just 115 – still better than average, but nothing more. Of those 35 players we referenced earlier, those players that have made as many runs as Babar since his debut, a comparatively astonishing 17 have exceeded his Timing Rating. Babar’s super-power in ODI cricket is his ability to make sweet contact with the ball when he plays an attacking shot; in Test cricket, that superpower does not translate.
The challenge to Babar is to overcome this flaw, be it mental or technical. Whilst it is true to say that only the very best modern batsmen have been able to have significant success in each of the three main formats, it is also fair to say – is Babar not among that group? Is he not talented, focused, and rounded enough to dominate in all of T20s, ODIs, and Tests?
The question on the lips of Pakistan cricket right now, is simple. When all the caveats are taken into consideration, and the quirks of the player are put to one side, what everyone is interested in and what everyone is trying to work out, is the same thing. It is a question of potential as yet unfulfilled. It’s a question where the majority can only guess, only a minority can claim to know, and the barest few can influence the answer.
What can Babar Azam become?
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.