Scenario No 1: A tricky run-chase at the 2019 World Cup for Pakistan. Fakhar Zaman was dismissed cheaply in the third over. Babar Azam walked in at No 3, as he does. He played some of the most stunning shots you will see at this World Cup against a potent pace attack. Off the first 27 balls he faced, he hit seven boundaries and two singles to reach one of the prettiest 30s you will see all tournament. But he was dismissed off the 28th delivery, throwing his wicket away going for another boundary. Azam scored 93.33% of his runs with boundaries that made the highlight reel. Pakistan lost the match.

Scenario No 2: A tricky run-chase at the 2019 World Cup for Pakistan. Fakhar Zaman was dismissed cheaply in the third over. Babar Azam walked in at No 3, as he does. By the time he faced his 30th ball, he had hit just three boundaries (all glorious shots, no doubt) and had quietly moved on to 25. And he was just getting started. He went on to face 99 more deliveries, scoring an unbeaten century. Azam scored 43.56% of his with boundaries that made the highlight reel. Pakistan won the match.

The first instance was in Taunton on June 12, against Australia. Few would have thought Sarfaraz Ahmed and Co would be in with a shout to reach the semi-finals back then. Fast forward a fortnight, the second instance was in Birmingham on June 27, against New Zealand. Sarfaraz and Co are now in the middle (or start?) of a hot-streak after back-to-back wins that puts them in touching distance of a spot in the final four, with two winnable matches to come.

From Taunton to Birmingham, Azam came a long way in doing justice to his unquestioned talent. For the first time since 1987, a Pakistan middle-order batsman (non-opener) had scored a World Cup century. And it came against the bowling attack that had not tasted defeat in the tournament thus far.

Much-needed for Babar

There is no doubting that Azam is Pakistan’s star batsman at the moment but one number sticks out in his short-yet-impressive career so far. Among the nine centuries he had scored coming into the match against New Zealand on Wednesday, only one had come in the second innings of a match: in a massive defeat against Australia in Adelaide at the start of 2017. His highest score in a successful run-chase for Pakistan was 69* against Sri Lanka, coming in October 2017. In fact, he had scored only three out of his 23 fifty-plus scores in a winning cause for Pakistan while batting second.

For someone who is so often compared to Virat Kohli, for someone who idolises Virat Kohli, those were not impressive numbers.

At Edgbaston against an as-yet undefeated New Zealand side, he went about setting those numbers straight and pointing in the right direction: his ODI batting average while batting second jumped from 42.77 to 46.51 after his classy, unbeaten ton against a potent New Zealand attack on a difficult pitch. This was also the first time in his career that he remained unbeaten in a successful run-chase while scoring 70-plus. As he became the second fastest after Hashim Amla to reach 3000 ODI runs, Azam showed just why pundits and fans expect him to expand the ‘Fab Four’ of modern cricket to ‘Fab Five.’

But, it could all have gone wrong very early in the innings for Azam, when he played a rash front-foot pull shot off the fourth ball he faced. Sure, the intention might have been to put Matt Henry (struggling for rhythm since the West Indies match) under pressure, but he almost skied one to mid-on: it was timed just well enough to evade the grasps of a diving Colin de Grandhomme. That was how Azam got off the mark, but rash shots from that point on were few and far between.

Nothing exemplified how focussed Azam was than the ninth over of the innings bowled by Trent Boult. First ball, Boult send down the perfect outswinger that Azam expected to move back into him, shaping to play the flick. The ball missed the bat, missed the off-stump by less than an inch perhaps and thudded into the gloves of the ‘keeper. Second ball, Boult missed his line a fraction and Azam played a rasping square drive for four. Third ball, Azam got beaten again, outside his off-stump. Fifth ball, the 24-year-old drove Boult on the other side of the fielder at cover for another four.

If the hallmark of a good batsman is how quickly he moves on from getting beaten... dusting himself off, taking guard to the next ball in blissful ignorance of what came before... then Azam passed that test in flying colours.

‘Best innings’

From there on, Azam was barely troubled, except for a testing phase from Mitchell Santner — Tom Latham put down an outside edge when the Pakistan batsman was on 38, but it was one of those catches that a non sub-continent ’keeper would have trouble gathering. The deviation was late and significant; Azam pounced on the reprieve by taking apart the New Zealand bowlers with clinical precision from thereon.

Often when you ask cricketers who win the player of the match awards whether that was their best performance, the response invariably is a variation of “one of the best” but Babar Azam had no such hesitation at Edgbaston in front of a raucous crowd.

“This is my best innings,” he told Ramiz Raja. “The wicket was difficult and turned a lot in the second half. The plan was to go through to the end and give my 100%. When we started, the plan was to see out Ferguson. But when Santner came on, the plan became not to give wickets to him and cover up later when the fast bowlers come on.”

It was one thing to have the perfect plan but entirely another to execute it in front of vociferous fans, at the World Cup, with your team’s future in the tournament at stake. And he did just that.

With his best innings yet, Babar Azam has taken the first step from being a brilliant cricketer towards becoming a brilliant match-winner. Pakistan fans, and indeed cricket lovers, will be hoping for many more of these from his bat.