Every time Babar Azam scores a run (or even breathes) there are scores of fanatic Pakistan cricket fans running amok on social media, not being able to wrap their head around the fact that Azam isn't still part of the ‘Fab Four’ of world cricket – not that there's an official membership/induction criteria.
With Joe Root going through an extended patch of poor form in 2020, there was a recurring demand for him to be removed from the Fab Four and induct Babar Azam instead. Now that Root has smashed a couple of centuries, the narrative has been intricately shifted to turning the Fab Four into Fab Five (I actually agree; it has a better ring to it) to accommodate Azam.
In the same breath, there are comparisons between him and India’s captain Virat Kohli.
Frankly, with the two batting greats hailing from either side of the Radcliffe Line and the subcontinent totally crazy about batting finesse, comparisons between the two are inevitable.
Before we deep dive into any such discussion, a disclaimer is warranted.
Babar Azam is 26 and made his international debut in 2015 while Virat Kohli, who is six years older to him, played his first international match in 2008. Hence, we are not comparing apples and apples or oranges and oranges here.
For perspective, a comparison between the career graphs of Kohli and Rohit Sharma makes a lot of sense because their international careers overlap each other. The same cannot be said about Azam and Kohli, as they are not necessarily part of the same era.
But, when Babar cut short Kohli's 41-month reign at the top of the ICC ODI batting charts and became the fourth Pakistan player after Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad and Mohammad Yousuf to do so, a comparative analysis between the two became too low-hanging a fruit to resist.
First Steps in International Cricket
Azam got off the blocks quickly in international cricket and became the seventh-quickest batsman to 1,000 ODI runs when he registered the feat against Australia at Perth in January 2017, after making his ODI debut in May 2015.
Even Kohli's dash to 1,000 runs from 24 innings pales in comparison to Azam's 21.
What stood out with Azam was not just his consistency, but his class as well. The finesse with which he creamed boundaries and effortlessly pierced gaps instantly made him the critics' favourite. Compare him with Kohli, who is a bottom-hand heavy player and while it may come with its own set of aesthetics, Azam's batting technique clearly had the purists going gaga.
With Kohli having played 91 Tests, 254 ODIs and 90 T20Is, it won't be fair to compare him with Azam's aggregate of 31 Tests, 80 ODIs and 50 T20Is. What is possible though is to have a look at where Kohli stood after having played the same number of matches as Azam currently has.
After 31 Tests, Kohli had scored 2,111 runs at 43.08 with the help of seven centuries and nine half-centuries. Azam stands at 2,167 runs from 53 innings with the best of 143. His runs have come at an average of 44.42 with five centuries and 16 half-centuries.
It is noticeable that while the overall runs and averages do not have a lot between them, Azam has been consistent in raking up fifties, which, at the same time, is an indication that when he does not get going, he gets out cheaply. Kohli may not have got half-centuries on a regular basis in the initial part of his Test career, but got starts more often than not. Additionally, with seven centuries and nine half-centuries, his conversion rate was also a lot better.
To add to it, Kohli went on to tremendously improve as a Test batsman and now sits with nearly 7,500 runs at an average of 52.37, which include 27 centuries.
After 80 ODIs, Azam has raced to 3,808 runs at 56.83 with 13 centuries. From the same number of matches, Kohli scored 3,079 runs at 45.95 with 8 centuries.
Based on the outlined stats, the Pakistan captain is the clear winner. But one must not forget that Kohli went on to become the best limited-overs batsman of his generation and currently stands over the mountain of more than 12,000 ODI runs at an average of a shade under 60 and an impressive strike rate of 93.17 with an eye-watering 43 centuries and 62 half-centuries.
Even if Azam manages to achieve 70% of this by the end of his career, he will finish as a modern-day great.
Azam is currently ranked the third-highest batsman in ICC T20I rankings, after having held the top spot for the longest time. Kohli, too, is on an incline in the rankings and is at the fifth spot.
Bear in mind that T20 International cricket was not nearly as much in vogue when Kohli kicked off his international career and, hence, a comparison between the initial years of the two batting greats in the format is an exercise in futility.
Still, Kohli runs Azam close, having reached 1,000 T20I runs from 27 innings as opposed to Azam’s 26. However, Azam achieved it in 2 years and 58 days while Kohli took 5 years and 112 days – clearly due to the difference in frequency of T20 Internationals.
Again, Azam's 1,916 T20I runs at 49.12 and a strike rate of 132.04 stand nowhere close to Kohli's 3,159 runs (the most in T20Is, Martin Guptill is next with 2,939) at 52.65 and a strike rate of 139.04. To make some sense of their career graphs in the format, it is best to compare Kohli's numbers after 50 T20 Internationals – Azam's current T20I count.
The numbers are quite similar at this juncture, with Azam having scored 1,916 runs at 49.12 as compared to Kohli's 1,830 (avg: 53.82) with 17 half centuries a piece. Azam, however, has something that Kohli still doesn't have, a T20I ton.
Mt Kohli, a Slope Too Steep for Azam
Why more and more parallels continue to be drawn between the two batting sensations is because there really isn't a lot to choose between them, apart from Kohli's obvious longevity. It makes for a fascinating study that fundamentally, both batsmen fine-tuned their techniques in First-Class cricket with the red ball – irrespective of them finding more success in ODI cricket to begin with – and how they have successfully remodeled that very technique to suit the demands of the cutthroat pace of white-ball cricket, both one-day and T20.
Clearly, Kohli is head and shoulders ahead of the Pakistan captain in terms of overall stats. But, that is only obvious, given the difference in the age of the two batsmen. However, anyone who recently saw Azam's blistering 59-ball 122 at Centurion, will vehemently agree that he has all the ingredients to run Kohli close. Taking over, perhaps, will be too big a gap to bridge.