Two back-to-back home series losses.
Not a single test match won in either series.
Four consecutive defeats.
At receiving end of the first whitewash at home in history.
Calls for Babar Azam to be replaced as captain have not exactly become loud enough to bring the house down, but the volume is increasing.
Babar has had a mixed record as captain so far.
In T20s, he has led the team 66 times, winning 40. This includes two final losses in the recent Asia Cup and World Cup, and a semi-final loss in the 2021 world cup. In ODIs, he has led the team 18 times with 12 wins. He is yet to captain the team in a major tournament such as the Asia Cup, World Cup or Champions Trophy, however. In terms of percentage of wins, he is Pakistan’s 3rd most successful captain in T20 history, and the most successful in the ODI format. Both these statistics are from a sample size of players to have captained Pakistan in 10 or more T20 and ODI games.
Last, and perhaps the format where his captaincy is most under threat, is his Test record. He has led the team in 16 matches, winning 8, losing 6 and drawing the remaining 2. Surprisingly, his winning percentage of 50% in test matches is among the highest in Pakistan’s history (from players who led the team in 10 matches or more). Only Saleem Malik (58.3%) and Waqar Younis (58.8%) have a better win percentage than him. For comparison, the great Imran Khan had a win percentage of 16.6% and Misbah-Ul-Haq, the most statistically successful captain in Pakistan’s history, had a win percentage of 33.9%. But here’s the catch – both Imran and Misbah drew a large number of matches too. For example, Imran had a losing percentage of only 16.6%. Babar on the other hand, has a losing percentage of 37.5%, which is the 3rd worst in Pakistan’s history.
Babar is arguably the biggest draw in Pakistan’s current team. He is adored from the coasts of Karachi to the mountains in Pakistan’s north. He is the only batter ranked in the top 5 of all 3 formats, and could have a legitimate claim to being the best all-format player in the world. By the time he retires, he will likely end up breaking every batting record in Pakistan’s history. And there are few, if any, who can match his exquisiteness when in full flow. However, as cricket has shown us time and time again, great players do not necessarily make great captains, or vice versa.
A few names come to mind immediately. The legendary Sachin Tendulkar is an example. He is one of the greatest to have ever picked up a bat, but with a captaincy stint that left much to be desired. Brian Lara is another one who comes to mind from the same ara. On the opposite end there are players like Mike Brearly, one of the greatest captains in history, but with a very modest record as an individual player. There are some who are able to master the art of both captaincy and individual skill, of course, such as Imran Khan, M.S. Dhoni and Allan Border to name a few – but it’s not something that happens every time your best player is handed leadership duties.
As things stand currently, Babar’s leadership skills leave much to be desired. It is entirely possible that he will be able to develop these with time, since he is still 28, with perhaps his best years ahead of him. One also needs to take into account that in the recently concluded England series, he was without his front-line pace attack, and more importantly, he will be without his best bowler, Shaheen Afridi, for a while.
But that should not take away from the fact that at times his captaincy has lacked imagination, and the required aggression. This became even more evident in the England series: where his opposite number Ben Stokes was thinking out of the box at every step possible, while Babar stuck to orthodox methods.
If he is to be replaced, the million-dollar question is: who should be put in charge?
Shadab Khan is usually the first name on a lot of people’s lips. He is widely considered one of the sharpest minds in Pakistan’s side, with a penchant to be more aggressive and creative as a captain. However, Shadab barely plays any test cricket – with his last outing coming in 2020. If he ever replaces Babar as captain, it is likely to be in the white ball formats. Other options as test captains include Shaheen Afridi, Mohammad Rizwan and perhaps even Shan Masood, who was recently appointed captain for Yorkshire’s 2023 season. Out of these players, only Shaheen (when fit) and Rizwan are regulars in Pakistan’s test lineup. Of late, Shan Masood’s career has seen a resurgence of sorts, and he might get more playing time with Azhar Ali’s retirement. However he is not a mainstay of the team yet. Shaheen, despite being a PSL-winning captain, is still only 22 years old and giving him test leadership duties so early might be overburdening him with expectation, on top of his ongoing fitness issues. Lastly, Rizwan, the current vice captain of the test time, appears to have much same approach to captaincy as Babar. Very standard, with little imagination. Of course this could change if he is given the job full time, but there is little evidence to suggest that he would lead drastically differently than Babar.
With all this considered, perhaps Pakistan’s best bet would be to continue with Babar as test captain for the time being, and hope that he has a fully fit bowling lineup available soon, and is able to change his approach too. If there existed an obvious alternative that was readily available, then this decision might have been easier – but that does not seem to be the case right now, as far as Pakistan’s test team is concerned.