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No.1 ODI ranking: Babar Azam adds spice to greatness debate with Virat Kohli

Kolkata: While most of the top batsmen of the world are thriving in the Indian Premier League (IPL) which started last week, Pakistan captain Babar Azam is ruling in a parallel cricket universe. He had been simply unstoppable in the white ball series now underway in South Africa and has, almost without a fuss, displaced Virat Kohli as the world No.1 batsman in One-day Internationals on Wednesday.

As if on cue to celebrate his feat of dislodging Kohli from the top of ODI rankings, the touch artist from Karachi scored a quickfire 122 in a T20 International to help Pakistan overhaul a target of 203 at the Centurion and win the match by nine wickets. The number one ranking for Kohli in ODIs had been, what Novak Djokovic had been to men’s tennis, for the Indian captain had been at the top of the heap since 2017.

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‘‘Words cannot define the gratitude I have for my fans & especially the people of my country. This couldn’t have been possible without your unwavering support & trust. Thank you for making me feel blessed & honoured. Keep supporting. Keep praying. Keep believing. #PakistanZindabad,’’ Azam tweeted after completing his maiden century in T20s.

The 26-year-old, who had been the best thing that happened to Pakistan batting since his arrival in the international scene in 2015, has evoked frequent comparisons with Kohli - who had been easily the most influential batsman in world cricket over the last decade. Azam, meanwhile, had broken a number of landmarks of Kohli in white ball cricket, occupied the top spot in T20 rankings till England’s Dawid Malan replaced him as the No.1 batsman and now wants to gun for the top honours in the longest format of the game.

When Azam overtook Kohli as the top batsman in ODIs earlier this week, he became only the fourth Pakistan batsman to achieve the feat. A look at three of his predecessors and one will realise that he has already created his niche in the pantheon on batting greats from that country - Zaheer Abbas (1983), Javed Miandad (1988) and Mohammed Yousuf (2003).

Virat Kohli exchanges pleasantries with Pakistan players at the India-Pakistan league match in the 2019 World Cup in England. Image Credit: AP

There is no doubt that Azam, younger in age to the Big Four whose names pop up in the best batsman’s debate: Kohli, Steve Smith, Kane Williamson and Joe Root - is the man who would be the king. The former greats of Pakistan have been effusive in praise for him, though each of them has got a different take in evoking any comparison between Kohli and Azam.

While Younis Khan, the Pakistan batting coach and owner of 10,000 Test runs, told Gulf News last year that Azam should continue in the same vein for another five years before any comparison with Kohli, former pace ace Aqib Javed has an interesting take on the issue. ‘‘(Virat) Kohli has a better range of shots as compared to Babar Azam but he also has one area of weakness. If the ball swings, he tends to get trapped around the off stump such as against (James) Anderson in England,’’ Javed said in a recent interview.

Subjectively speaking, rankings or records are not often the best yardstrick for comparison between batsmen, but fact remains Azam has so far lowered three of Kohli’s feats in white ball cricket. The Pakistan batsman overtook Kohli to become the fastest to score 1000 runs in T20Is in November 2018, bettering Kohli’s record of reaching the milestone (27 innings) by one innings.

Lowering Kohli's records

Azam slammed a match-winning 103 against South Africa in Centurion earlier this month to become the fastest batsman to complete 13 ODI centuries. The Pakistan captain took 76 innings, compared to Kohli’s 86 and Hashim Amla’s 83 to reach the milestone.

During the 2019 ICC World Cup, Azam scored a match-winning ton against New Zealand to become the second-fastest to 3000 ODI runs and overtake Kohli.

The sub-continental rivalry, between these two extraordinary men, can spice up the India-Pakistan rivalry on a cricket pitch and enrich world cricket.