DUBAI: For a domestic cricketer, the journey into international cricket is not always a smooth one, and some have to wait an eternity before they can finally don national colours. But for 35-year-old left-arm spinner Zulfiqar Babar, the long 12-year journey has been well worth the wait.
For those 12 years, Babar faced plenty of ifs and buts but he has outlasted them all and now, finally, he has made it.
Babar made his first-class debut in 2001, but it was in 2013 that he was finally named in an international squad when he was part of the T20 side that travelled to West Indies. There he took to international cricket like a duck to water and it seemed that he had been playing on the grandest of all stages his entire life. He took three important wickets and also contributed with the bat, scoring 13 vital runs, including a six off the final ball with the scores tied.
However, the instant impact was not enough for him to cement his place in the side as he suffered from injuries and the misfortune of having to vie for a place with Saeed Ajmal.
But one man’s loss is another man’s gain and Ajmal’s suspension has thrown Babar into the limelight, ahead of Abdur Rehman. Suddenly, he is the country’s premium spinner.
Paired alongside debutant Yasir Shah against Australia in the first Test, the pressure to deliver was firmly on Babar’s shoulders as the more senior spinner. Many would have buckled under the massive pressure; instead, he claimed his first ever five-wicket haul in the second innings to help guide Pakistan to a historic 221-run win.
Now more is expected of him, but the 35-year-old is relishing the added pressure that comes with success. “I am loving the role of being the main spinner for Pakistan because it provides me with a different sort of challenge and the pressure is bringing the best out of me,” Babar told The Express Tribune.
“The first Test victory against Australia is a memory which will live on with me forever. It was a really special match, with Younus Khan scoring century in each innings and Sarfaraz Ahmed reaching his hundred in just 80 balls so several rare occurrences took place. Ahmed Shehzad also scored a superb hundred, Yasir and I took seven wickets apiece, while the close fielding was also brilliant.”
An invented spinner
The spinning rippers that tormented the Australians have not always been Babar’s forte though. He started club cricket as an opener, bowling gentle medium-pacers on the side until club captain Shahid Munir asked him to become a spinner in 1996 after seeing him bowl spin in the nets. “In my early days, I was an opener and used to score centuries for fun,” claimed Babar. “But one day, I was bowling spin to my captain and from there on, he strictly told me to stick to left-arm spin.”
Since then, he has tried to model himself on the bowling of New Zealand’s Daniel Vettori. “I improved my bowling by watching hundreds of videos of Vettori because he is a world class bowler and a legend.”
Despite early glimpses of talent, Babar was unable to represent Pakistan at the lower age groups. “I topped for Multan U19 for three consecutive years but never got to represent Pakistan U19,” he said. “The selectors took me off during the Pakistan U19 trials after just six balls.”
In a career defined by adversary and hurdles, Babar feels the catalyst to inspire him to become an international cricketer was the death of two of the most important men in his life; his brother Iftikhar and his captain Munir, the man who had turned him into a spinner in the first place.
A car accident claimed the life of the two, along with that of four others. From then on, Babar’s fate was sealed. “My father was an international footballer and wanted my brother to play top-class cricket,” he said. “But when he died, my father said to me that now you have to become an international cricketer for your brother. That remained an inspiration throughout the tough times.”
Babar has finally fulfilled the destiny that he claims was not his, but his brother’s, but he still misses the man he looked up to. “Today I’m proud that I’ve been able to fulfil the dream of my father and my late brother, but I can only wish that he was alive to see me play for Pakistan.”
A proud father
“My son has given me a new life now,” said Zulfiqar Babar’s father Haji Abdul Ghaffar on the phone from Okara. “He’s stood by his commitment to the family really. I wanted my sons to represent Pakistan, and today Babar has just done that. I was lost for 33 years, a forgotten national footballer, and it is because of Babar that people are asking about me again.”
Ghaffar added that Babar has lived up to his promise. “Iftikhar and Babar both wanted to play cricket,” he said. “So I encouraged them. Iftikhar had made his name as a good batsman in Punjab but he passed away in 2000. Babar lived up to his word. Both brothers had vowed that if one of them was able to make it to the national team, he would help sustain the other’s family. Sadly, it never came to that.”
Babar has finally fulfilled the destiny that he claims was not his, but his brother’s, yet he still continues to miss the man he once looked up to. “Today I’m proud that I’ve been able to fulfil the dream of my father and my late brother, but I can only wish that he was alive to see me play for Pakistan.”
But with every ball that Babar bowls in Pakistan colours, the spirit and memory of Iftikhar lives on. (WITH ADDITIONAL INPUT FROM NATASHA RAHEEL)
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