Overlooking Rizwan, reinstating Babar, PCB continues to confound | Crickit
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Overlooking Rizwan, reinstating Babar, PCB continues to confound

Apr 01, 2024 09:56 PM IST

To not allow Shaheen Shah Afridi learn on the job was hasty, but more regressive could be turning to Azam again for white-ball captaincy

Babar Azam is back as Pakistan’s white-ball captain, a move neither surprising nor unprecedented. Also not unexpected, though shocking, are reports that the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) press release has quoted a Shaheen Shah Afridi statement which the fast bowler has said he didn’t make. It all fits into the narrative of PCB continuing to confound, a trait loathed by its countrymen but also an enduring reason behind its charm as cricket’s most mercurial shareholder.

PCB has reappointed Babar Azam as the white-ball captain of Pakistan team.(AFP) PREMIUM
PCB has reappointed Babar Azam as the white-ball captain of Pakistan team.(AFP)

It doesn’t however conceal the fact that it’s a regressive decision, underpinning Pakistan’s refusal to think out of the box; and in this case, picking the right leader hiding in plain sight: Mohammad Rizwan. That Rizwan was a leader in the making was apparent from the 2021 T20 World Cup where he opening the batting with Azam, throwing himself across the ground to pull off sensational catches, sprinting all the way to the bowler to share his two cents and chewing the heads of batters from behind the stumps every ball.

That year was also the rebirth of sorts for Rizwan, who kicked it off with a doughty 104* against South Africa in a T20I that eased him into a spectacular run with the bat. No Pakistan batter has scored more than Rizwan (2668 runs in 60 innings -- Azam has 2017 runs in 61 innings) in T20Is since 2021, nor at a better strike rate (130.20 compared to Azam’s 128) and average (56.76-Azam’s is 36). That he was also coming into his own in ODIs was evident from the way Rizwan became Pakistan’s top scorer at the 2023 World Cup with 395 runs, including a swashbuckling hundred that was the glue through an improbable — and the biggest ever in World Cup history — chase of 344 against Sri Lanka at Hyderabad.

Also Read | Shahid Afridi opposes Babar Azam's captaincy return in stern reaction to Shaheen's sacking: 'If change was necessary...'

Through it all shone a razor-sharp game awareness, limited not only to that hundred or his flawless keeping but also the ‘sometimes cramps, sometimes acting’ charade — something he later admitted to very nonchalantly — that earned Rizwan a few extra minutes of unwinding during a grating chase. For a Pakistan side less provocative than their predecessors, there couldn’t have been a better time to give the leadership to not only a solid tactician but also an instigator in the Javed Miandad mould. That opportunity however came and went last year.

To ring in changes after a failed World Cup used to be a typically subcontinent thing, till India stopped doing it post 2007. But Pakistan haven’t evolved was evident in their decision to get rid of Azam in the aftermath of not qualifying for the 2023 ODI World Cup semi-finals. Not that he was appointed to it on the basis of leadership acumen in the first place, but rather because he was Pakistan’s best batter and hence implicitly making him the only player who could waltz into the team in all the formats. And why not? India too had given the captaincy to Virat Kohli, their best batter. But unlike Kohli, Azam wasn’t groomed for the white-ball job by an MS Dhoni in a split captaincy accord.

It was more like Pakistan giving Azam what has always been assumed as the privilege of their special batters, mandating him to replicate what only Imran Khan, Younis Khan and Sarfaraz Ahmed have achieved till date. Four fifties but no hundred in a campaign where Pakistan warmed up too late for the semi-final race was strike three after the sunk T20 World Cup campaigns in 2021 and 2022, the latter even a bigger bitter pill to swallow after Kohli had schooled Pakistan in a humdinger of a tournament opener at the MCG.

Azam, reportedly, wasn’t ready to step down. And in hindsight, Afridi should have never been captain because he, like Jasprit Bumrah, was just back from a year-long injury. But having taken that leap, PCB should have shown more faith in the 23-year-old fast bowler to learn on the job instead of sacking him after just four months. Reinstating Azam couldn’t have been possible without conceding more control, which is expected to deepen the rift between Pakistan's three biggest stars.

Afridi can't be blamed for feeling exploited, given how PCB allegedly manufactured his statement in its haste for damage control. Rizwan may be a bit underwhelmed at the lack of support among the selectors. And Azam — Pakistan’s best batter — will perhaps be edgier than ever. All this can’t bode well for Pakistan cricket.

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