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Cricket news - Babar well and truly arrives at Edgbaston

Thrice this World Cup, Babar has failed to build on the substantial starts he has gotten.

Babar Azam has a smile on his face. It is a smile of admiration. The admiration which springs up after the realisation that you have been outdone. Trent Boult hits the length area and Babar has no clue on how to tackle it. It moves into him before hitting the deck and angles away. It is that sort of a delivery that does everything. They don't come out often. But, when they do, they tick off a wicket in the scorebook.

The ball went tantalisingly past the off-stump. Babar decided to flick it upon noticing its early behaviour. He should consider himself lucky to have survived. He knows it. It shows from the smile. Boult already has his tail up after having removed Fakhar Zaman off his 12th ball - the last of the third over of the innings.

But, that's just one delivery. And, it doesn't have to mean anything unless Babar wants it to. He picks up the fuller-length and shuffles across the next delivery and creams the ball for a boundary through extra cover.

It is the penultimate over of the first powerplay and Pakistan need are looking to stage a recovery. The last five overs have added only 14 runs - four of which came off an edge. There's a heavy cloud cover and the ball has swung considerably in the air. The broadcasters' data shows Boult to be moving the ball at 1.4 degrees, a marked improvement from his previous outings this world cup in which his swing remained below 1.0.

The third ball angles away and Babar's is beaten all ends up in his attempt to poke at it. He is lucky to have missed it. He takes a lesson from it and lets the next one go into the keeper's gloves. Boult knows he needs to induce a shot from Babar. His wicket early in the innings guarantees a semifinal spot.

He comes around the wicket. It is another fuller-delivery, the second in this over. He is looking for swing but Babar feasts on deliveries pitching near his frontfoot. Another exquisite drive sends the ball to the boundary - this time in lesser time. Babar has truly arrived at the crease.

Boult is forced to go back over the wicket for the last ball and hits short-of-the-length which the 24-year-old blocks. It is he who has the last laugh.

***

Babar had irked many when he questioned the necessity to add power-hitting to his repertoire despite being amongst the best limited-overs batsmen prior to his team's departure for England two months ago. That most hashed out aspect of Pakistan's probable 15 for the ongoing World Cup was the dearth of power-hitters.

So when Babar was being peppered with questions regarding his scoring rate, he, once again, found himself explaining his role in the side. "My role is to play out the full overs. My individual role is to take the innings as deep as I can and perform in a way that benefits the team most of all," he had said. "If I can be number one in the world without power hitting, then I don't need power hitting. But when I need to, I utilise it well. I don't just play along the ground. I practice at hitting the ball big and when needed, I use it."

***

Pakistan need 49 from 54 to make it happen. What started as a joke but now it is being taken seriously. Very seriously. Commentators are suggesting to just hand over the trophy to Pakistan. The resemblance between Pakistan's 1992 World Cup and this one is uncanny. Like today, New Zealand were unbeaten when they met Pakistan in the group stage 27 years ago.

The win predictor had been saying that the odds of a Pakistan win outweigh New Zealand's chances significantly. But, this is Pakistan chasing, and the fickle nature of their batting means that their fans will remain at the edge of their seats until their side has been declared victorious.

Babar is at 79 off 103 balls. The only man who can materialise the dreams of 220 million people. He sits on his back-knee and spanks Santner for a boundary. He repeats the same the next ball. That pretty much nails down the chase. Eight overs later, he is standing at the non-striker's end as Sarfraz Ahmed caresses the ball through the cover for a boundary to seal the game.

***

To anchor this 238-run chase was never going to be a smooth sailing. Pakistan's confidence in their ability to chase had been shaken down to the core after their defeat to India. It is not like they have had that ability earlier. But, the backlash after the defeat, which unwrapped the team's batting failures of the past to underscore the flawed judgement to bowl had only built pressure.

Couple that with the proposition of facing one of the toughest bowling attacks on a used wicket that has turned into a minefield. It is a recipe for another batting meltdown, something Pakistan have staged frequently of late. But there's this thing with the best that the rise to the occasion on the toughest occasions. So, when Babar walked out to bat at the start of the fourth over with Matt Henry and Boult hurling scorchers, the batsman knew what was required of him.

Thrice this World Cup, Babar has failed to build on the substantial starts he has gotten. Against England, he fell while attempting to up the scoring rate towards the backend of the second powerplay. Kuldeep Yadav's ripper curtailed his innings to 48 runs when his stand with Fakhar for the second wicket seems to have all the potential to end India's dominance over Pakistan in the World Cup. Against South Africa on Sunday, he again holed out while on the hunt for boundaries.

"I have not been able to perform up to the mark and have been getting out in the 40s," Babar said after the match. "But, the last match gave me a lot of confidence. I wanted to get a hundred in the last match but I failed to get it. I was told that I don't have to take a chance and just build the innings to allow the batsmen to play around me."

Babar, however, had to deal with his fair bit of trouble. Since Santner bowled his first delivery - in the 18th over - the pitch has been looking to be more on the yellowish side. The footmarks are darkening with every delivery, turning the pitch into a rank turner. The left-arm orthodox bossed the batsmen. His first delivery spun sharply from the off-stump line to beat Babar's leading-edge as he planted his frontfoot to dead-bat it.

For the next three overs, Babar would either be beaten while flirting with the balls spinning away or rotate the strike off leading edges. He would also have a reprieve when batting on 38 off 48 balls when Tom Latham grassed a rather tough one off Santner's bowling. But, there were never any signs of nervousness despite the fact that he had been under the weather for the past two days and had come into the match without hitting any balls on the eve of the match - which is something he is keen on doing.

"It is one of the best innings for me," he said. "We needed a win here and I am very glad that I am able to score on a tough wicket. My aim is to win matches for my team rather than adding to my individual performances. What makes me happy is winning the matches for my team."

No Pakistan middle-order batsman since 1987 had scored a century in World Cup. In many ways, it was befitting for Babar to break that rut. "I've seen him get quite a few hundreds on pretty flat wickets, but this was a tough wicket - it was turning, Ferguson was bowling fast and there was a lot of pressure because of the context of the tournament," Pakistan batting coach, Grant Flower said later. "He's got Virat's hunger. I think he could be at some point in the future. He's definitely got that hunger, so if you practice as hard as he does, and you have his skills, I can't see why he can't get to the top."

The 24-year-old has a long and illustrious career ahead of him but nothing will ever beat what he pulled off at Edgbaston on Wednesday (June 26). He has put questions surrounding his capability to find the fence at will or finish off the games for his side to bed. But, they will always be around. That's how this game is.

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