Babar Azam is itching for international action and hopes that things fall into place so that he can lead Pakistan in this year’s Twenty20 World Cup in Australia
It’s Thursday morning and Pakistan’s players are training in the nets at Worcestershire’s New Road Ground full throttle. Babar Azam, their biggest batting star, takes centre-stage in the nets as he faces one bowler after another in an extended turn with the bat. Having been out of action for the last three months because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Babar will need a series of such sessions to regain his touch ahead of the challenging three-Test series against England next month.
That’s not all. Babar, 25, is also Pakistan’s limited-overs captain and will be leading them in the three-match Twenty20 series against England which will follow the Tests. Captaincy is usually an added burden but Babar doesn’t mind it. He took to the nets after an online press conference with Pakistani media. Immediately after the nets, he accepted my request for a one-on-one interview. In the detailed conversation, Babar spoke on a variety of issues ranging from the Covid-19 restrictions to the team’s mood and morale and whether he was ready to live up to expectations during the tour of England both as Pakistan’s numero uno batsman and their T20 captain. Following are the excerpts.
TNS: A few months back it seemed that because of the prevailing covid-19 there might not be international cricket but now you are in England preparing for an important series. How do you feel?
BA: Initially, there was a feeling of uncertainty but thanks to PCB, all of us feel safe and secure. Thorough arrangements have been made here in England to guarantee our wellbeing and safety. At the hotel (in Worcester) we are the only guests which is part of the safety precautions.
TNS: How is the mood among the players and officials? How different is the quarantine experience in England than it was in Lahore?
BA: The mood is great. We are all enjoying ourselves as cricket is finally back in our lives after a pretty long break. The players are all gelled together. They are hungry for action. As for the difference in quarantine conditions, frankly I don’t see any. We were in quarantine in Lahore for a few days and followed SOPs. We are doing the same here. All (Covid-19 related) protocols are being followed.
TNS: Unlike the past when the team travelled on commercial flights, Pakistan’s squad was flown into England on a special chartered flight. How was the experience?
BA: All of us really enjoyed the flight. We were the only ones on the plane. We chatted, played games. No one was allowed to sleep as we teased each other throughout the flight. It was great fun.
TNS: It’s just been a few days since the Pakistan team arrived in England. But you will be staying in England till early September. Don’t you think you and other players will get sick and tired of all the restrictions during that time?
BA: I see it in a different way. I mean, yes, we will be away from our families and our friends for a long time. But that’s because of the prevailing circumstances. Because we can’t meet anyone outside our own squad, we are spending more time together. We are finding ways to stay busy and focused.
TNS: So is it a good thing that you guys will be seeing each other 24/7 for the next two months?
BA: I guess yes. I mean when you are spending 24 hours together you become closer. For the next two months we will be away from our families. We will be together and I think the more time we stay like this our bond of friendship will be strengthened. We are already united but there will be greater unity (in the team). That’s why I think having all these restrictions is a blessing in disguise for us.
TNS: How will you avoid boredom and will you miss your families?
BA: We are away from our families but that doesn’t mean we are out of touch. We are very much in touch with our loved ones back home through video calls. For singles like me that’s quite normal. Yes, it might be different for the players who are married as we are not allowed to bring our families with us on this tour because of the restrictions. As for boredom, it’s been fine so far. We are just happy that cricket is back. And once the matches begin, we will all be focused on the game and there will be no time for boredom.
TNS: Pakistan have perhaps four of the best former Pakistan players in the team management - Misbah, Younis, Waqar and Mushtaq. How beneficial would their presence be for you personally?
BA: I think myself and other players will benefit immensely from their presence. They are four of our greatest legends. They have loads of experience. It’s our duty to learn from them and I’m sure all of us will do that.
TNS: Also, they were past captains. How much can you learn from them as Pakistan’s limited-overs captain?
BA: Yes they were very experienced captains and I’m keen to learn the art of captaincy from them. They know all the ups and downs and I’m looking forward to gain from their knowledge.
TNS: Former Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur had great influence during the earlier part of your career. How much do you miss him?
BA: Mickey really supported me. He gave me confidence. He rated me highly even when I was a newcomer. He backed me at all times. The best thing about him was he had great trust in my abilities. I must add that Misbah Bhai is no different. He really backs me and has confidence in me. It helps when your coach trusts you.
Mickey (Arthur) really supported me. He gave me confidence. He rated me highly even when I was very much a newcomer. He backed me all the time. The best thing about him was he had great trust in my abilities. I must add that Misbah Bhai is no different. He really backs me and has confidence in me. It really helps when your coach trusts you.
TNS: As Twenty20 captain, there has been criticism that since you have taken over leadership of the team, Pakistan’s performance graph has dipped. What do you think are the reasons behind the defeats in T20 matches?
BA: Yes we did lose a few matches and our ranking has unfortunately gone down. We did some experimentation and tried out several players. We are now sure about the combination which includes both youth and experience. I’m confident that we will do well in the T20 series against England and improve our ranking.
TNS: This year’s Twenty20 World Cup remains in doubt. Are you hoping that it is held this year and not delayed?
BA: As a professional cricketer I hope that the T20 World Cup is held according to schedule. As Pakistan’s captain I would really want that the World Cup is not delayed as it will be my first World Cup as skipper. But it’s up to the authorities to decide.
TNS: Will Pakistan be ready for the World Cup?
BA: Of course we will be ready. We are a professional team and know the importance of major ICC tournaments. As I said earlier, we are now sure about our T20 combination and I believe that our team will do well in the World Cup.
TNS: The ICC has banned the use of saliva to shine the ball. During the few days of training, how challenging was it to stop yourself from using saliva to shine the ball?
BA: We are all used to shining the ball with saliva. It’s an old habit and to unlearn such habits it takes time. But we are making progress.
TNS: As a batsman there are great expectations from you especially in the Test series against England. Are you ready for the challenge?
BA: Personally speaking, I think expectations are always there. Thankfully, expectations also come with prayers of our fans and well wishers. Such expectations give me an added boost. They help me strengthen my resolve to give my best under any conditions. They give me extra confidence.
TNS: There is an ongoing debate in international cricket as to who are currently the world’s best batsmen? Some talk about Kohli, Smith, Williamson and Root while others believe that you should also be included in the list. What are your views about it?
BA: I don’t think I’m in competition with any of these batsmen. But if you have to compare me then I would rather be compared with our own batting legends. We have greats like (Mohammad) Yousuf Bhai, Inzi (Inzamam-ul-Haq) Bhai, Younis (Khan) Bhai and Javed (Miandad) Bhai. These are the batsmen I want to emulate.
TNS: Are you setting any personal targets for the Tests against England?
BA: Yes, I have my goals. As a batsman you are always hungry for runs. Personally, I want to get better and better. If I score 100 I want to get to 200 and then 300. So yes my target is to give my best (in the Tests) but the goal is to help the team win. Our aim is for Pakistan to be the number one team in the world.
TNS: You haven’t played competitive cricket for quite some time. How difficult will it be for you to give your best in the Tests?
BA: When you don’t play cricket for three months it does make a difference. But the good thing is that we have one extra month to prepare ourselves for the Tests. I was pleasantly surprised to see each and every player was fit. That’s a good start. The next part is to play and practice as much as we can because the more you practice the better you get. We have lined up a series of training sessions and practice matches so I’m sure by the time the Test series begin we will be ready for it.
TNS: How do you rate the Pakistan team, its strengths and its weaknesses?
BA: I’ll just focus on the strengths. You see the last two times we toured England, we drew the Test series. We played well. We will give our best this time as well. The team’s mindset is to win the series. We are strong in both batting and bowling. We have exciting fast bowlers like the young Naseem Shah, Shaheen Shah Afridi and Mohammad Abbas. The batting is also pretty good. Shan Masood is in good form. Abid Ali is playing well. Azhar Bhai is there. I’m there. It’s a good combination and I believe we will do well.
TNS: There is a lot of talk about England pacer Jofra archer? Do you see him as a threat for yourself and other Pakistani batsmen?
BA: As a professional player you don’t care about the bowler’s name. You play any delivery according to its merit. Personally I’ll prepare myself for all challenges. Thankfully we have a month to get ready and I intend to use each and every day to get ready for the coming series.
TNS: Many see England as favourites to win the Test series. Do you think Pakistan have any realistic chances of winning the series?
BA: If you compare the two sides then you’ll see that both Pakistan and England are good teams so it is going to be a keenly-contested series. Both the teams will be playing in conditions that will be very different. Things are going to be unusual. There are new rules in place because of Covid-19. There will be no crowds at the matches. So let’s wait and see how it goes.
Khalid Hussain is Editor Sports of The News [email protected]