BRISBANE - He's had a tour he'd rather forget, but Pakistan's Babar Azam heads into the VB ODI series against Australia on the verge of breaking one of the oldest records in one-day cricket. The 22-year-old enters the first ODI against Australia on Friday needing 114 runs in two innings to become the fastest man to 1000 career runs, with the mark of 21 innings first set 37 years ago by the legendary Viv Richards still the target to beat.
It's far from an impossible task, but Azam will need to drag himself out of a significant form slump in order to do it. Before today, the right-hander had registered a top score of 23 in eight innings in Australia this summer and averaged just 11.33 in the 3-0 Test series defeat over the past month.
But he showed signs of getting back to his best today with a composed innings of 98 in Pakistan's only warm-up match ahead of the series, against a young Cricket Australia XI in Brisbane.
Azam's current tally of 886 runs in 18 ODI innings is the most by any player at this point of his career, three more than Richards. And if he can knock off the remaining 114 runs in his next two innings, he'll do it faster than Richards, Quinton de Kock, Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott, who share the current record of 1000 runs in 21 innings.
"I'm aware of the record, but I'm putting emphasis on the performances of my team," Azam told cricket.com.au after he struck 12 boundaries during his side's thumping 196-run win at Allan Border Field.
"For Pakistan to do well in the ODIs, that's my first priority. The Test series was difficult and I didn't get an opportunity to score a lot of runs, so this practice match was good for me to spend time in the middle. I'm grateful that I got an opportunity today to do better."
A regular part of the ODI side since his debut against Zimbabwe in 2015, Azam had played a handful of promising knocks before he enjoyed a breakout series against the West Indies last October. The cousin of ODI squad member Umar Akmal, Azam peeled off scores of 120, 123 and 117 against the Windies in the space of eight days, becoming just the second player after de Kock to amass three hundreds in a three-match series.
His tally of 360 runs for the series was also a record and helped to propel him into the Test side for the first time. But having started with an innings of 69 on debut and then a defiant unbeaten 90 against New Zealand last November, Babar will enter Pakistan's next Test assignment with an average of just 27.
His chances of a form resurgence in the one-day series opener on Friday were given a further boost on Sunday when Australia announced the resting of paceman Josh Hazlewood, who removed Azam four times in six innings during the Test series.
The pair have long been rivals on the international stage having faced each other at the 2010 Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand, which Australia won, and Azam is hoping for an improved performance against the Aussie quick when they meet again later in the series.
"I played against him in the Under-19s and he was a very good bowler then," Azam said of Hazlewood, who this week moved to number three on the ICC's Test bowling rankings. "Hopefully in the future I'll do much better against him than he does against me."
Should Azam end his run drought in the next week and erase Richards from the top of the charts, it would continue a noticeable trend in ODI cricket. The West Indian is the only 20th century player to hold a record as the fastest to a milestone of 1000 ODI runs, on outlier in the history books of a game that has transformed dramatically in the past decade.
The record for the fastest to every run milestone of 2000 runs onwards has been set since 2001, with South Africa's Hashim Amla the fastest to each milestone between 2000 and 6000 and Sachin Tendulkar holding every record from 10,000 runs onwards. And Azam has the opening two matches of this series to join such illustrious company.
Fastest to 1000 ODI runs
INNINGS Player Team
21 Sir Viv Richards West Indies
21 Kevin Pietersen England
21 Jonathan Trott England
21 Quinton de Kock South Africa