Babar Azam is on strike. There is a tentative movement of his feet. He closes the face of his bat. Trent Boult’s ball moves but moves so late that Babar can’t adjust. It narrowly misses the edge of Babar’s bat, it somehow misses the off-stump too. Babar survives an unplayable delivery. A delivery that would normally leave a Pakistani batsman scarred, a delivery that would normally shake the confidence of many a Pakistani batting greats of the past but there is nothing remotely normal about Babar. Instead of overthinking, over analysing, Babar smashes the next ball through the point and cover-point fielders. If anyone is scarred, it is not Babar, not even Boult, yet. After all, he has bowled to Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson, Steve Smith, Joe Root and many a modern batting geniuses. He knows they can slam him for a boundary but all he needs is one good delivery to send them packing. Boult bowls another beauty, Babar survives again. Babar leaves the next ball alone and ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball commentary reads, “Boult to Babar Azam, no run, wisely, Babar shoulders arms. Boult is a threat Babar wants to negate as much as possible. No point fighting fire with fire just yet”. Babar leans into the next ball, executes a cover drive to die for. He isn’t fighting fire with fire, he has just completely put out Boult’s fire.
Babar Azam is third on the list of fastest to 10 ODI centuries ©Cricingif
Fast forward to the 42nd over, this is not your regular let's-score-runs-for-fun ODI pitch. There is so much venom in it for spinners that Willamson is deviating the ball more than peak Muttiah Muralitharan. This pitch would make most fifth-day Asian pitches feel like batting paradises. Mitchell Santner has bowled eight overs for 23 runs. How he still doesn’t have a wicket against his name is a mystery that can’t be solved, he is almost unplayable on this surface. Commentators are adamant that Santner’s remaining 18 balls will decide the fate of this match, Pakistani fans are nervously looking on. Everyone senses a wicket here would trigger a collapse; collapses similar to the earlier ones in this World Cup against Australia, India, West Indies; collapses Pakistan fans are more accustomed to than seeing their team chase down 230+ target. Santner is the key. Normally you would just try to play him out. Normally you would give him respect, on this pitch you should give him even more respect. Babar is on strike. The one thing he mustn’t do is hit him against the spin is what a normal batsman would have thought, but Babar slog sweeps him for four across the line. He doesn’t care how much the ball is spinning. He has made his statement. No need to play another shot against the spin is what a normal batsman would have thought but not Babar. He isn’t your average batsman. He hits another four again across the line, again not caring about the deviation of the ball, even more in control this time.
Fast forward to the 48th over. Babar Azam is stuck on 99. He isn’t nervous, he is in control. He doesn’t think he can finish this match off, he knows it. He has known it since that 9th over when he was facing Boult. He doesn’t need to panic, he just needs to see Pakistan home and in the process score his first World Cup century. He slashes the ball away to deep cover to bring up his hundred, first hundred by a Pakistani batsman outside the openers since 1987 in World Cups. The last time a non-opening Pakistani batsman scored a World Cup hundred, there was no world wide web. This was literally an innings of a lifetime if you are a Pakistani fan born after 1987. You have literally never seen something like this by a Pakistani batsman in a world cup match.
Babar Azam is second fastest to reach 3000 ODI runs ©Cricingif
With five balls remaining, Sarfraz scores the winning runs. This is the first time since 1999 that Pakistan have managed to chase down a 230+ score against a Test-playing nation in World Cups. Immediately parallels are being drawn with the 1992 World Cup, immediately a country rejoices, immediately a country believes. Pakistan is a team built on believing in miracles, something unexpected happening, someone out of nowhere performing. It is about unpredictability, mostly mediocrity rising up and playing out of its skin. But there is nothing mediocre about Babar Azam. This was not an innings out of nowhere. He treated Boult like he has treated the likes of Dale Steyn before. Babar is predictable. He is consistent and for once the country should rejoice predictability and stability. We are not used to it so we might not even be able to process it. To see Babar’s innings as an outlier is an injustice to what he has done over the last four years. He is a world-class Pakistan batsman. Yes, Pakistan and the world-class batsman can go together.