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Babar on Afridi: 'We support each other in every situation'

Pakistan's captain said the team would look to experiment during the T20Is against New Zealand as part of their World Cup preparations

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Babar Azar is back in the hot seat as Pakistan build-up to the T20 World Cup  •  AFP via Getty Images

Babar Azar is back in the hot seat as Pakistan build-up to the T20 World Cup  •  AFP via Getty Images

It took right until the end of the press conference, but Pakistan's reinstated captain Babar Azam addressed the elephant in the room before he left.
"I want to make clear that Shaheen [Afridi] and my bond is not recent, it goes back a long way," Babar said on the eve of the T20I series opener against New Zealand in Rawalpindi. "We support each other in every situation. Our aim is to put Pakistan first, and how to put Pakistan's name up in lights. We don't think of individual glory, and thankfully, those elements are not present in my team."
Despite the chaotic manner in which the captaincy handover was managed, it appears the relationship between Pakistan's two biggest cricketing stars just about holds firm for now. As ESPNcricinfo reported in the wake of Afridi's stripping of the captaincy, the fast bowler's grievances were primarily addressed towards the PCB and not towards Babar, whom Afridi said he backed despite the turn things had taken. A year ago, when rumours around a threat to Babar's captaincy swirled, Afridi was among the first to publicly back Babar.
For Babar, this would have felt like something he was doing for the first time all over again. He has sat for the captain's press conference dozens of times, but this is his first since his reappointment, something he acknowledged with a terse opening greeting.
"Good to see you again."
The rest was routine, typically uneventful, even. Babar is often accused of being anodyne in his treatment of such media events, but in Pakistan, ensuring there's no news to be made when the biggest name in cricket speaks is an art form in itself. He talked about "giving 100%", "learning from mistakes" and to "keep improving".
There were the individual affirmations as Babar grew into the event, almost naturally adopting a leadership role as he spoke of "my team". This was especially notable when asked about Usman Khan, who has taken a huge leap of faith in switching allegiances back to Pakistan from the UAE, burning his bridges with the Emirates Cricket Board, who handed him a five-year ban.
"Usman needs to keep doing the things that got him here," Babar said. "We put expectations on every player. I expect certain things from myself as well as my players. It pleases me when a young player gets an opportunity and the senior players back him. We try and take young players under our wings because when you come to international cricket, you initially struggle and need support and confidence. And then those players go on to serve Pakistan."
There wasn't much talk about the New Zealand side; the feeling of the press conference was this was an event whose relevance could be contained within Pakistan cricket, and perhaps within Babar himself. However, he did suggest Pakistan would experiment across the five games, keeping an eye on the T20 World Cup and gearing all their preparation towards that.
"Our line-up is flexible," he said. "We're trying to give opportunities to our young players and bench strength. You'll see different combinations in this series and check what works for us. You'll see that in the bowling as well as batting, and in every spot. By the time we get to the Ireland and England series, we'll have a clearer picture.
"I always believe the players we have here are here on the basis of performance. Sometimes it becomes difficult when you have so much talent at your disposal to produce a playing XI. We try and do the best for Pakistan. All of this is preparation for the World Cup and it all starts tomorrow."
What also starts tomorrow is the next era in Babar's captaincy story. He is set to become the only player to lead his side to all three T20 World Cups in the 2020s, and likely recognises the good fortune that's allowed him to make amends for what was at times was a frustrating first stint. He will, perhaps, also find himself better equipped to deal with all the external pressures that the captaincy brings, particularly when that crown rests on the head of the man who bears so much of his nation's hopes.
"When you're a batter, you're thinking differently, and the same when you're a fielder," Babar reflected. "And that's also true when you're captain. Whatever role you have you try and enjoy it, and to try and show your ability.
"I try to stay upbeat," he said. And then, though a smile creased his face, a moment of poignant candour followed. "Even though sometimes you feel people don't want to see you happy."

Danyal Rasool is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent. @Danny61000