By Hardik Vyas
(Reuters) – Comparisons with Virat Kohli have been a stumbling block for many batsmen in world cricket but Pakistan’s Babar Azam has embraced the challenge wholeheartedly and will carry his country’s hopes at the World Cup.
Pakistan head coach Mickey Arthur first mentioned Azam, the world’s top-ranked Twenty20 international batsman, in the same breath as Indian skipper Kohli early last year, based on the 24-year-old’s potential across formats.
Azam’s international career is just over 100 matches old, but his prowess with the bat has already broken several records.
He is the fastest batsman to reach 1,000 T20I runs, taking 26 innings to get there and dethroning Kohli in the process.
He also reached 1,000 ODI runs in 21 innings, a record he shared with an elite group of players, including West Indies great Viv Richards and England power-hitter Kevin Pietersen, until his Pakistan team mate Fakhar Zaman broke it last year.
Azam’s classy stroke-making has provided the platform for his record-breaking run spree, and he often single-handedly drives Pakistan to competitive totals in sluggish conditions in the United Arab Emirates, the national team’s adopted home.
“We have some serious batsmen in our team but he has the ability to be as good as anyone in the world,” Arthur said of the right-handed batsman. “If he’s getting us a 100, we’re comfortable we have the batsmen around him to get 300-320.
“Over the last two years, his strike rate is around 80 and he knows he needs to increase that, as do some of the other batsmen and we’ve spoken about that.”
Pakistan have come up short since the start of 2019, beaten by South Africa, Australia and England. Some impressive totals on small grounds against England this month do not disguise the fact that the team needs more runs in the middle overs.
That again encourages comparisons with Kohli, who has often had to hold a thin Indian middle order together and use every opportunity to score in the powerplays.
Azam is confident he can switch gears if the situation demands more aggression.
“If I can be number one in the world without power hitting, then I don’t need power hitting,” he said. “But when I need to, I utilise it well.
“My individual role is to take the innings as deep as I can and perform in a way that benefits the team most.”
(Reporting by Hardik Vyas in Bengaluru; Editing by Patrick Graham/Simon Jennings/Pritha Sarkar)