Pakistan head coach Misbah-ul-Haq isn’t averse to bone dry gallows humour, but this is the one thing you don’t joke about in Pakistan cricket these days. The absence of Babar Azam from the T20I series against New Zealand would appear to be the loss not just of a player but of an entire strategy of late. Few sides in world cricket are quite as reliant on one batsman as Pakistan have been on Azam in T20Is; he has papered over enough cracks to have turned a fifth-day Galle pitch into a featherbed. Pakistan’s batting plan in the shortest format at times rests entirely on watching Azam do the batting, while they plan to develop a system that one day might produce more of his kind.
Of course, it’s not just the T20I leg of the tour that Azam’s absence spells trouble for Pakistan, unless the medical prognosis is so precise it can accurately determine his injured thumb will heal between December 22 and 25, the interregnum between the end of the T20Is and the start of the first Test. The fact Azam could be a doubt for the first Test spells significant trouble for that side, too, given he was just awarded the captaincy in that format, and his replacement – Mohammad Rizwan, has played fewer than 10 Tests.
Indeed, you can perhaps track the moment Azam finally worked out Test cricket’s cheat codes – a little bit later than he’d managed in the limited-overs formats – because it’s the instant cricket fans in Pakistan finally gave up on Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq ever stepping into MisYou’s shoes, and pinning their hopes entirely on Azam replacing all of them. The PCB has gone all in too, turning him, within 12 months, from a young player who needed to be carefully managed into their all-format captain.
But it is in T20 cricket that Azam has proved himself most indispensable. This is perhaps odd in the modern game, given that Azam isn’t some renegade power-hitter and that the anchor role has suffered something of a reputation hit among elite T20 sides. In fact, Pakistan appeared to set such little store by his power hitting they sent in Iftikhar Ahmed and Khushdil Shah out for a Super Over last month, minutes after Azam had just scored 125 against Zimbabwe.
Azam was captain so would have had a say in that decision, of course, but was passive enough post-match to suggest the decision had been made elsewhere. That Ahmed ended up falling off the first ball of that Super Over is by the by. And either way, Misbah has developed a reputation of placing the sort of faith in Ahmed middle children could only dream of.
Despite the distractions, chaos and self-destruction Pakistan are prone to, Azam and T20 cricket has been a match made in heaven. Since he made his T20I debut, he has scored 23% of his entire team’s runs – no other side in this period has relied on one man so heavily for their runs. Colin Munro is the closest with 20%, with Aaron Finch and Rohit Sharma at 19% and 16% respectively. He has scored 16 of the 39 T20I half-centuries Pakistan have scored in this period, with no other individual batsman even managing five. He has played every single match except a tri-series he missed in Zimbabwe.
Over in domestic cricket, he was the leading run-scorer at the recently-concluded PSL, having scored almost 50% more runs than Fakhar Zaman in second place. He’s just 21 runs off most PSL runs in history, trailing Kamran Akmal, who has played ten more innings. And if you’re wondering whether the PSL alone is enough evidence of his prowess in franchise cricket, he was the top scorer in the Natwest T20 Blast last year, with Tom Banton the only player in the top 10 who bettered his strike rate of 149.35. And unlike England, who currently can’t move for stumbling upon another elite T20 gem, Pakistan don’t have too many coming down the carousel.
Haider Ali is one, though he recently remarked at a press conference he had been told to “preserve my wicket”, spend “more time at the crease” and “rotate the strike”. These are infuriatingly Pakistani euphemisms for playing T20 cricket conservatively, and frankly inspire little confidence in the current coaching and management staff’s ability to take this T20 side back to the top. Everyone simply can’t be Azam, who somehow does all the things Haider seems to have been told to do, while maintaining a strike rate that is acceptable in modern T20 cricket. Expecting someone to simply copy what Azam does with the same level of success is as much a strategy as rubbing a lamp, intending to wish the genie does appear.
Still Pakistan might be able to extract some hope from what looks like a hopeless situation. Remember that T20I tri-series in Zimbabwe, the only one Azam has missed since his debut? Well, Pakistan ended up winning the trophy, coming back from 2-2 in the final to chase 183 against Australia. It did, to be fair, require contributions of 61, 47, 73 and 91 across the tournament from Fakhar Zaman, who has since crossed 25 just once in 16 T20Is, and indeed isn’t a part of this tour anyway.
In case you wanted further flickering signs of encouragement, Azam scoring big runs of late hasn’t always translated into T20 victories. Until February 2019, Pakistan had won every T20I in which Azam scored a half-century, but they have since lost four of eight such games – with three of the victories coming against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. None of that is to suggest Azam’s absence does the Pakistan side much good on paper. But Mohammad Hafeez, who seems to reinvent himself every time retirement looms large, has found sparkling form once more. And if Haider, and younger colleagues like Khushdil Shah, who has shown promise, and Shadab Khan – provided he is fit – can hold off on the management’s advice to become more conservative, their natural firepower may just end up having a more telling impact on the series than Azam’s anchoring presence might have done.
And what if Azam isn’t fit by the Tests? Well, there might be a joke there, but don’t expect Misbah, or indeed anyone else in Pakistan, to feed you the punchline.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000