Azhar Ali believes his Pakistan batsmen are ready to take on Test cricket’s toughest away conditions and has tipped Babar Azam to show why he now belongs in the same bracket as Steve Smith and Virat Kohli.
Until late last year such an endorsement of Babar’s credentials against the red ball would have been slightly fanciful with the right-hander, so formidable in the white-ball formats, having taken 17 Tests to register his maiden century.
But the floodgates truly burst open in November, with Babar’s stylish 104 in an otherwise one-sided defeat to Australia at the Gabba followed by scores of 97, eight, 102 not out, 60, an unbeaten 100 and 143 that saw him break into the world’s top 10.
Having seen his last tour of England in 2018 ended after just one innings when, on 68 at Lord’s, a wrist was broken by Ben Stokes, the 25-year-old Babar is not short on motivation to make his mark this time around either.
“I think he is right up there with [Smith and Kohli] already,” said Azhar, a captain not usually prone to hyperbole. “People are thinking and talking about it. I know him though, and he is not focused on anything like that, he is just hungry for runs.
“People thought he was only a white-ball player but he took on that challenge and played with a lot of freedom and flair. He is a very important player for us but I would like him to be free from any pressure and just enjoy his game.”
Azhar, a veteran of 78 Tests and a former Somerset player, is one of a number of players in the Pakistan line-up with experience of English conditions – not that this lessens the size of the task ahead.
He said: “They are rightly called the toughest conditions for overseas batsmen. They are quite tough for batting with a Dukes ball and the weather that makes it swing around.
“We have guys who have experienced it in the past, like Babar and myself who played cricket in England before, and so we want to try and use that to our advantage and transfer that knowledge to other players as well.
“We have coaches like Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq who have played a lot in England and performed, so we know how to play. But it is always a challenge for us, especially for an Asian batsman to come here and perform.”
Though Azhar held off from naming his team for Old Trafford on Wednesday, amid talk of playing two spinners, he confirmed that Naseem Shah will play. The 17-year-old bowls with a beautiful side-on action that generates serious pace and already boasts a Test hat-trick, against Bangladesh in February this year.
Azhar added: “He is a young talent who came up and played Test cricket from nowhere. He’s impressed all of us and is in our No 1 choice bowling attack. He is young and talented and over time he will get the experience he needs. In terms of his potential, he is very threatening and hopefully he will be very good for us in this series.”