Breaking down Babar Azam, the ODI batsman

Old hat: Babar Azam after his seventh ODI hundred in 13 months Getty Images

Babar Azam has had a big Test year, yes. Babar has been having some big white-ball years for a while, also yes. How big? A lot of the talk around Babar's ODI - and T20 - batting has centered on the records he has broken, some records which have acquired greater value by dint of the men he has gone past.

Last year, for instance, he didn't just become the fastest in terms of innings to 1000 T20I runs, he beat Virat Kohli. Not long ago he was the joint-fastest to 1000 ODI runs, sharing that record with two all-time greats, Sir Viv Richards and Mr Kevin Pietersen.

Some are not really records, just mildly interesting trivia: he's the only player to have scored a career's first three ODI centuries in successive innings; he's the only player to score five hundreds in a row in one country (the UAE, in this case); he already has more ODI hundreds at No. 3 than any Pakistan batsman ever.

What isn't discussed in enough depth is what kind of ODI batsman he is, and how good - or not, yet - is he really? On the surface, it is patently absurd to even ask how good he is. Of course he is very good - only a cursory glance at his record confirms that, as well as the simple observational method of watching him play most anywhere - New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, the UAE and England.

Beyond that there is surface-level acknowledgment about shortcomings, like his record against the top four ODI teams in the rankings (against England, India, New Zealand, South Africa he averages 36.5), his strike rate (broadly, not great), his dot-ball issues (generally, needs work) and his boundary-hitting ability (could be sexier). The identification is not wrong, but in this World Cup year, when he will be so critical to Pakistan, it's worth going deeper into this.

First that strike-rate. At 84.66, the polite way to look at it is that there might be room for improvement, especially by the standards of the modern game. In an admittedly limited but fairly elite club of batsmen who have scored at least 2000 ODI runs and maintained a 50-plus average, Babar's strike rate is only higher than those of Michael Bevan and Jonathan Trott - the former from a different era and the latter stuck slap-bang in the middle of two eras and so, seen as both hero and fall guy and still nobody is sure what he ended up as.

It's worth breaking that down further although the reading doesn't get any prettier. Batting in the first Powerplay, of the 36 batsmen who have scored at least 300 runs in that phase since the start of 2016, Babar's strike rate of 63.67 puts him at 35th (and it really doesn't help that one man who bats above him in the order, Imam-ul-Haq, sits at 34th).

Ok, he's not an opener so cut him a little slack (not too much though, as he does open in T20s). In the middle overs (11-40) and using the same cut-offs, you'd think Babar fares better. As a one-down, this phase, after all, should be his patch. It's not. He scores at a strike rate of 83.67 in this period, placing him 50th out of the 103 who qualify. And Pakistan's problems are evident from those around him: Mohammad Hafeez is one place above him and Shoaib Malik and Sarfraz Ahmed - Pakistan's middle order essentially - comfortably slower than him.

He's better in the death overs, where he goes at 142.67, but given the slowness of his start and build-up and the batsmen around him, it doesn't ever feel enough.

From these numbers, and especially in terms of the progression of an innings, there does at least emerge a clearer identity of the kind of ODI batsman he is currently. Think Ross Taylor, think Kane Williamson, think Steven Smith, think Joe Root. In fact, the similarities with Taylor and Williamson are stark.

Breaking down their strike rates over the first 50 balls of an innings and then post-50 balls, Babar first scores at 75 and 103.39 thereafter. Taylor scores at 74.3 initially and then 104.13; Williamson 73.63 and 100.85. Smith is not too different, with 75.11 and 95.91. You could actually argue both, that Babar's differential is simultaneously too big and not big enough: Rohit Sharma's differential is 36.09 and Virat Kohli's is 27.06 (Babar is 28.39). But Rohit and Kohli go considerably harder over both the first 50 balls and after it.

So this is what Babar is, a quality anchor, and most sides still need one of them to play off of. But there's one metric that gets to the heart of Babar's batting. One especially useful way of looking at strike rates is for innings that last 50 balls or more; that is, innings in which a batsman is well set and of a duration long enough across which you expect the best to be going at a run a ball or more.

With a minimum of 50 balls faced, and 1000 runs scored across those innings since January 2016, the names at the very top in terms of strike rates are no surprise: Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Quinton de Kock, David Warner and the Indian top three all go at over a run a ball.

Babar's strike rate is 88.5 here and again finds himself alongside the likes of Williamson, Root, Hashim Amla and Smith. But note how these anchors have team-mates above them (in terms of strike rates). Smith is five runs slower per 100 balls (83.17) but he has Warner above him, and Glenn Maxwell below. Amla has Faf du Plessis, de Kock and David Miller.

Root, meanwhile, is the straight man in the most insanely destructive ODI batting line-up ever assembled. (India are an anomaly in that Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli are anchors of a kind we've not really seen before.) These are all batsmen who make the anchor look good, who, more importantly, make the anchor look useful.

Until Fakhar Zaman's 70 in Cape Town on Wednesday, Babar had nobody above him in this list. And for Fakhar's presence, he also has Imam-ul-Haq to offset it, given that Imam goes slower at 85.17. He is, in effect, another anchor at the top of the order. You could argue this is much like Williamson, who may have Martin Guptill above him but anchors in Taylor and Tom Latham around him. But he also has Colin Munro up top, and the likes of Corey Anderson, Jimmy Neesham and Colin de Grandhomme to come. Babar has Hafeez, Malik and Sarfraz following him. Imad Wasim, you might say (averaging 43 and striking at over 100), but in his last 16 matches, he hasn't gotten a turn to bat in half.

This is why Babar's strike rate becomes more of a problem than it should be for the kind of batsman he is. It is as much, if not more, about the batsmen around him as it is about him.

Still, there are areas for improvement. One of the earliest issues coach Mickey Arthur identified was his dot-ball percentage. But over three years the trend has not gone in the direction he, or Pakistan, would wish. Year on year since 2016 it has actually gone up, where you would imagine he would be working to bring it down. Circumstances define these numbers of course. Losing an early wicket for Babar and Pakistan does not mean the same thing as losing an early wicket for Root and England, or Williamson and New Zealand. It makes sense if Babar, by dint of the batting around him, plays more cautiously early in his innings.

And naturally the dot-ball percentages fall the longer he stays at the crease so that, after he's played 40 balls, that percentage comes down to 35.7.

Compared to other anchors, since 2016, that dot-ball percentage is actually excellent and as a result, his strike rate the highest.

But this is where his boundary-hitting abilities also begin to matter. Year on year, his balls per boundary rate has fluctuated: as high as 16.18 in 2017, as low as 10.77 in 2016 and 12.47 since 2018. Again, it's more instructive to break that down over phases of an innings and look especially at his boundary rate after he has been at the crease for more than 40 balls - that is, settled enough to start imposing his game on the situation.

This is where he suffers even against other anchors. Since 2016, and in innings of 40+ balls, he hits a boundary every 12.74 balls. In a group of six anchors, that places him second from bottom. To Babar's credit, that figure is down to 10.67 since 2018: greatly improved boundary-hitting frequency, but still high at that stage of an innings compared to the who's who of ODI hitting - the likes of Rohit (6.75), Roy (8.4), Jonny Bairstow (6.05), Jos Buttler (8.30).

Mitigating factors could be argued, such as that he plays a lot in the UAE, where grounds are not given to boundary hitting. Except that even there he is in the bottom ten (of 52 batsmen who have scored at least 200 runs in the UAE since January 2014) for balls per boundary (14.97), behind even those infamously low strike-raters and boundary-hitters Ahmed Shehzad and Azhar Ali.

Ultimately there's no doubting his quality, or that there are aspects upon which he can improve. But perhaps there needs to be greater recognition that the batting order around him is helping neither him, nor Pakistan, realise his full potential.