A statistical titbit that flashed on-screen during the Pakistan chase against New Zealand yesterday caught my eye: Babar Azam, it read, was the second fastest to 3000 ODI runs. Not bad to be just behind Virat Kohli in any batting list, I thought — until I did the basic fact check and realized that Kohli was only the 10th fastest to the landmark. Azam had shaded not just Kohli, but also de Kock, Root, Williamson and Dhawan among contemporaries, and Gary Kirsten, Richards and Greenidge among the giants who had come before; only Hashim Amla was quicker to the mark.

It was one of those moments where you realize how much your sensibilities, your understanding, is affected by what appears in the media. Kohli has birthed a million words for every run he has scored, and hence in the imagination — even of someone like me, who no longer follows cricket either for a living or for run — he looms over everything; Azam, on the other hand, has no court poets singing his praises, and so his accomplishments come as a surprise. Babar who, what, wait, he did what?!

He did plenty. Scored a century, played the lead in two partnerships — one reviving, the other match-winning; he occupied the number three slot like one to the manner born, in the way a Kohli or a Root does, only with the added pressure of knowing that above him and below are batsmen who on any given day can collapse for no visible reason.

But what caught my eye was this: His play was marked by a complete absence of ego. The wicket was, in ODI terms, a minefield — spiteful bounce, wicked seam, 45-degree turn even for a Kane Williamson… You can’t bat beautifully on such a surface, you can’t rely on grace, artistry. To thrive on a pitch of this kind, where every other ball can make you look like a novice, requires mental strength of the highest order; it requires that you come to terms with your fallibility, that you take guard knowing the next ball coming at you could make you look like an idiot.

Azam did that. He adapted. He absorbed. He got turned inside out, put it out of his mind, and took fresh guard. And through all this, he kept his wits about him to such a degree that at the slightest error of line or length, he was alert enough, and his game supple enough, to take toll with grace and finesse.

One reason I don’t watch as much cricket as I used to is because I’ve had it up to here with the hype and the hyperbole that accompanies even routine innings on batsman-friendly tracks; I’m bored by a game where every shot is the best ever, every innings the greatest of all time; a game where brands are able to influence country boards and even the ICC into issuing edicts against criticism, even when merited. I find I no longer derive the same amount of pleasure in a game that treats its “stars” like the holiest of cows (the parallel is not inapt — in India, you can get lynched on the suspicion that you might be a consumer of beef; also in India, you can lose jobs for saying something mildly uncomplimentary about one of the players).

Azam’s century is not the “greatest innings I have seen”; I don’t feel the immediate temptation to class him with the Terrific Three or Fab Four or whoever. But there is this: I watched every moment of the innings; I watched the batsman struggle, admonish himself, and face up again; I saw the nuggets of class he produced whenever chance afforded, and in that innings I saw what I rarely see these days of pyrotechnic ODI cricket: I saw a human being struggle against odds and triumph; I saw a story, a narrative. And that, for me, is what sport is about — or should be: a story, with a human (filled with all the abilities and foibles that being human implies) at the center of it.

After the game was over I went looking. Here is a curated reading list:

Un-related, Jarrod Kimber on England’s fallibility against left-arm pace (India doesn’t have that weapon, but the Kiwis do); Siddarth Monga on Neesham’s boy on the burning bridge knock against Pakistan yesterday; and Monga, again, on Pakistan’s setting the calendar back to 1992.

PS: This is a website under development. Sporadic development, because I am also doing a day-job that takes up a lot of time. So things happen in little increments — for instance, the commenting facility is now open.