Where did it all go wrong for Pakistan’s bowlers?

If you saw Pakistan’s pace bowlers reduce England to 12 for 3 in five overs earlier this month, and wondered how it was possible that very attack appeared so comprehensively helpless against a 22-year-old and a supposed imposter in Test cricket for the best part of a hundred overs, a stat about Babar Azam might shed some light.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic shut down all cricket, Babar was the world’s most in-form Test batsman, and had scored five hundreds and six half-centuries in 10 Tests. The centuries had come in Pakistan and the UAE, as well as Brisbane, with a 97 in Adelaide. That was to say nothing of the demolition Dale Steyn suffered at his hands at Supersport Park in a Test series in 2018-19 where the pitches were, even by South African standards, exceptionally spicy. He smashed 10 boundaries in a 24-ball burst against Steyn, scoring a breezy 79-ball 71. Around him, 15 wickets fell on the first day, and the game was done before tea on the third.

While he seems to have found the keys to Test batting, the same player has managed just three hundreds in 36 first-class games in Pakistan. He averages four runs fewer in first-class cricket than Test cricket – where his average is already depressed by a surprisingly slow start to his career. And none of this is unusual.