Breaking down Babar Azam, the ODI batsman

Babar Azam has had a big Test year, yes. Babar has been having some big white-ball years for a while, also yes. How big? A lot of the talk around Babar’s ODI – and T20 – batting has centered on the records he has broken, some records which have acquired greater value by dint of the men he has gone past.
Last year, for instance, he didn’t just become the fastest in terms of innings to 1000 T20I runs, he beat Virat Kohli. Not long ago he was the joint-fastest to 1000 ODI runs, sharing that record with two all-time greats, Sir Viv Richards and Mr Kevin Pietersen.
Some are not really records, just mildly interesting trivia: he’s the only player to have scored a career’s first three ODI centuries in successive innings; he’s the only player to score five hundreds in a row in one country (the UAE, in this case); he already has more ODI hundreds at No. 3 than any Pakistan batsman ever.
What isn’t discussed in enough depth is what kind of ODI batsman he is, and how good – or not, yet – is he really? On the surface, it is patently absurd to even ask how good he is. Of course he is very good – only a cursory glance at his record confirms that, as well as the simple observational method of watching him play most anywhere – New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, the UAE and England.
Beyond that there is surface-level acknowledgment about shortcomings, like his record against the top four ODI teams in the rankings (against England, India, New Zealand, South Africa he averages 36.5), his strike rate (broadly, not great), his dot-ball issues (generally, needs work) and his boundary-hitting ability (could be sexier). The identification is not wrong, but in this World Cup year, when he will be so critical to Pakistan, it’s worth going deeper into this.
First that strike-rate. At 84.66, the polite way to look at it is that there might be room for improvement, especially by the standards of the modern game. In an admittedly limited but fairly elite club of batsmen who have scored at least 2000 ODI runs and maintained a 50-plus average, Babar’s strike rate is only higher than those of Michael Bevan and Jonathan Trott – the former from a different era and the latter stuck slap-bang in the middle of two eras and so, seen as both hero and fall guy and still nobody is sure what he ended up as.
It’s worth breaking that down further although the reading doesn’t get any prettier. Batting in the first Powerplay, of the 36 batsmen who have scored at least 300 runs in that phase since the start of 2016, Babar’s strike rate of 63.67 puts him at 35th (and it really doesn’t help that one man who bats above him in the order, Imam-ul-Haq, sits at 34th).
Ok, he’s not an opener so cut him a little slack (not too much though, as he does open in T20s). In the middle overs (11-40) and using the same cut-offs, you’d think Babar fares better. As a one-down, this phase, after all, should be his patch. It’s not. He scores at a strike rate of 83.67 in this period, placing him 50th out of the 103 who qualify. And Pakistan’s problems are evident from those around him: Mohammad Hafeez is one place above him and Shoaib Malik and Sarfraz Ahmed – Pakistan’s middle order essentially – comfortably slower than him.
He’s better in the death overs, where he goes at 142.67, but given the slowness of his start and build-up and the batsmen around him, it doesn’t ever feel enough.
From these numbers, and especially in terms of the progression of an innings, there does at least emerge a clearer identity of the kind of ODI batsman he is currently. Think Ross Taylor, think Kane Williamson, think Steven Smith, think Joe Root. In fact, the similarities with Taylor and Williamson are stark.
Breaking down their strike rates over the first 50 balls of an innings and then post-50 balls, Babar first scores at 75 and 103.39 thereafter. Taylor scores at 74.3 initially and then 104.13; Williamson 73.63 and 100.85. Smith is not too different, with 75.11 and 95.91. You could actually argue both, that Babar’s differential is simultaneously too big and not big enough: Rohit Sharma’s differential is 36.09 and Virat Kohli’s is 27.06 (Babar is 28.39). But Rohit and Kohli go considerably harder over both the first 50 balls and after it.