‘The top four is a small goal’ – Babar Azam wants Pakistan to go all the way at the 2023 World Cup

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Pakistan may have endured a tumultuous Asia Cup campaign where they finished last in the Super Four stage, but Babar Azam was keen to remind everyone they were the top-ranked ODI side in the world just days earlier. And while Pakistan missed out on a semi-final spot at the last ODI World Cup, Babar was adamant that their goal this time around was not just making it to the top four but going beyond.

“The top four is a small goal for us,” he said at a pre-departure press conference. “We want to come out as winners. We did not have enough time to put together a camp before the World Cup because we had been playing for too long continuously. Instead, we gave the players a break so they could come back refreshed and with the hunger to win. You play well when you have that hunger.

“Before the last two games in the Asia Cup, we were doing really well with the same team. Although we could not deliver the way we could, we have learned from our mistakes, as individuals and as a team. We have discussed all our mistakes as a team with the support staff and put it behind us. Asia Cup was a different tournament, the World Cup is entirely different.”

The build-up to the tournament has been rife with on and off-field disruptions for Pakistan. A side that looked among the favourites just weeks ago has had to play whack-a-mole with issues that began to suddenly snowball. A chastening defeat to India at the Asia Cup was followed by injuries to Naseem Shah and Haris Rauf, with the former being ruled out of the World Cup. Shadab Khan’s loss of form has also led Pakistan to shore up their legspin ranks by retaining Usama Mir rather than Faheem Ashraf.
In addition, problems off the pitch have also rumbled along in the background. Pakistan were forced to cancel a training and bonding camp in Dubai before the World Cup because visas to India were not finalised until Monday, less than 48 hours before the team was due to depart for the tournament. To boot, the players and the PCB remain in a deadlock, which is now approaching its fourth month, over the signing of new central contracts.

“We try our best to block out the noise and play with our 100% attention,” Babar said. “I try to make sure that the noise does not get to the team and I handle all issues I can outside the dressing room. The visas are now here, so we are good to go. As far as the contracts are concerned, they are still being negotiated, but we are hopeful we will get a good outcome as I believe the PCB always has our interests at heart.

“There is no ill will in the dressing room. There are discussions after every loss but they get twisted into something else entirely [in the media]. The entire team is like a family and there is love and respect there.”

“I am excited to play in Ahmedabad as it will be jam-packed. I will try my best to perform up to my potential.”

Babar Azam

Pakistan’s clash against India, on October 14 in Ahmedabad, remains a major talking point. Even the professionally media-trained Babar wasn’t able to hide his excitement at the prospect of playing in front of a potentially record crowd in Ahmedabad. Despite going much of the press conference stressing that this World Cup was about the whole competition and not just one marquee game, he couldn’t help drawing attention to the very game he had earlier tried to downplay when asked about his personal goals.

“I am excited to play in Ahmedabad as it will be jam-packed,” Babar said. “I will try my best to perform up to my potential. Whenever you are playing a big tournament, it is a very exciting opportunity. It is a chance to become a hero as every World Cup performance gives you a different kind of confidence. Everyone is at their best during the World Cup, so whenever you perform there, it is an altogether different feeling. Performances come when you do not take pressure.”

But Babar was quick to rein himself back in. “I am not worried about my individual accolades,” he said, settling back into that familiar rhythm. “I want to make sure whatever I do helps the result for the team.”

And with that, he was off, to be seen next in India, virgin territory to be trod for all but two of his team-mates. Pakistan were vocal about their desire not to play in Ahmedabad a few weeks ago, but it says something about their captain’s ambitions that he’s now adamant he wants to lead his team out in that stadium twice.

Danyal Rasool is ESPNcricinfo’s Pakistan correspondent. @Danny61000

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