West is best, says Babar Azam

Babar Azam is ready to continue his love affair with Somerset and he wants to return to the county as soon as possible.

Pakistan’s ODI captain was due for a second season in the west country this summer, playing in both the County Championship and the T20 Blast.

Global circumstances have dictated that that won’t be possible – although English audiences should have the opportunity to watch him play if Pakistan’s tour of England still goes ahead.

His Taunton comeback, though, will have to wait, much to the frustration of a player who endeared himself to the locals in 2019 with a series of scintillating displays.

The Wurzels were so impressed that they even penned a song about him, with their musical tribute to Azam being viewed 126,000 times on Somerset’s Twitter feed.

That welcome was the precursor to a season that saw Azam top the T20 run charts, scoring 578 runs in just 13 innings.

Little wonder that the locals couldn’t get enough of him – and the feeling was entirely mutual.

“Taunton is love – I felt a very strong bond with the supporters of the club,” he tells TheCC.

“When you are playing, it was always like I am playing in front of the home crowd. I am grateful to all the supporters for their love and support.

“It was a wonderful experience.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Somerset and felt at home among the wonderful supporters.”

Somerset announced back in January that Azam had been lined up for a reprise of last year’s heroics, with the 25-year-old due back at the county to play two County Championship fixtures and 12 T20 Blast matches.

The coronavirus has put pay to that, but Azam insists that the lessons he learnt from last season will remain with him for a lifetime.

“I always heard it from my seniors in Pakistan that county is a must-have experience,” he says. “It teaches you the decorum, discipline, responsibility and improve the game in more than one way. I always wanted to have this experience.

“When you are one of the two overseas players, you feel extra pressure on your shoulders to perform. This teaches you how to handle the pressure, build up the innings and most importantly finish the game. This discipline and sense of responsibility were my two important lessons from county.

“The T20 Blast is a unique experience. It would be unfair to compare it with the T20 leagues, but it has a different atmosphere, a certain number of overseas players and a rich legacy. It is definitely one of the best tournaments in the world.”

Despite Azam’s brilliance – which included a jaw-dropping 55 ball century against Hampshire at the Ageas Bowl last June – Somerset narrowly missed out on qualification to the knockout stages, despite boasting a superior net run rate to any other team with the exception of table toppers Sussex Sharks and Lancashire Lightning.

“Taunton is love – I felt a very strong bond with the supporters of the club. I always heard it from my seniors in Pakistan that county is a must-have experience. It teaches you the decorum, discipline, responsibility and improve the game in more than one way. I always wanted to have this experience.”

Such was his impact at Taunton that Cricinfo reported that Somerset had had to upgrade their server capacity to cope with the number of hits that Babar’s arrival had generated. His 83 against Sussex back in July attracted over 1.5m views on YouTube.

A sensation in Pakistan and a cult figure at his new county, a little dash of Somerset culture will also have been an eye-opening experience for Azam, particularly after that Wurzels’ welcome.

“It (the Wurzels’ song) was a great honour, especially as it had never been done before for any other player.

“A very special shout out to them for giving me such a heart-felt welcome. I was humbled.”

Clearly, Somerset members will be aching for Azam to return sooner rather than later, with his performances having already drawn parallels with the club’s most famous import, Viv Richards, who played at Taunton between 1974 and 1986.

That’s some comparison, but his international statistics bear comparison to the Master Blaster.

He currently averages 45 in the longest format but over 50 in both ODI and T20 cricket. His strike rate in the latter is 128, which puts him in elite company.

His one Test innings in England so far saw him score of 68 not out at Lords before injury intervened. Now, as Pakistan prepare to return, he would love to add to that tally, on pitches and in conditions that are now more familiar to him.

“We always look forward to playing in England,” he says. “The support and love Pakistan get from the local crowd is just phenomenal. And this time we need to entertain the people who are badly affected by the pandemic and are in lockdown for a while.

“This is what athletes have always been doing. They bring nations closer to each other and bind them in a very strong and special bond.”

He certainly won’t be short of Somerset support when he’s at the crease, regardless of whether he’s playing in front of an empty stadium or not.

And he hopes that those fans will get to see him in the flesh again soon.

“This pandemic has affected people worldwide,” he says.

“However, after the darkest night, there is always a brighter day. Once things are back to normal, I would love to come back and play county cricket again.”

The Wurzels will be ready to welcome him back.