Babar Azam is among the best in the world, but does Pakistan know that?

Babar Azam flicks behind square on the way to his 11th ODI century Getty Images

Pakistan have found themselves lagging behind most other top-tier cricket teams a little too often over the past decade. The fielding and fitness standards, especially, have been well below the best for long patches, while as recently as at the 2016 World T20, they looked like they hadn't figured out the right approach to modern T20 cricket. ODI cricket, too, remained a similar puzzle until they found themselves holding aloft the Champions Trophy in 2017.

Another aspect where Pakistan cricket brings up the rear is marketing their players. Shortly after winning that Champions Trophy, captain Sarfaraz Ahmed appeared in a commercial for - we kid you not - a pan masala brand. It isn't the sort of thing you'd expect of Virat Kohli or Eoin Morgan, so you'd think the man who'd outsmarted those two captains en route to the title might have considered the association somewhat beneath him.

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Similarly, Babar's stature in the world game isn't nearly as high as his numbers should render it. Many in Pakistan still feel a sense of imposter syndrome creeping in if they dare mention Babar alongside Steven Smith, Kohli, Kane Williamson and Joe Root. There is no need for such sheepishness. Babar averages higher than any of them in T20Is, and is behind only Kohli in ODIs. This is a man who, with his 11th ODI century on Monday, became the third fastest to that mark, behind only the South Africans Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock.

Followers of Pakistan cricket have been predisposed to pessimism, and perhaps have cause enough to be wired that way. It is for that reason Babar's hundred today, compiled with the same uncanny inevitability that marks so many of his great innings, was a particularly salient one. This Sri Lanka bowling attack may not have been the toughest one he faced, but crucially enough for Pakistan, Babar showed when he's out in the middle, he really can block out everything else.

"When you play in front of your home crowd, you enjoy yourself; I certainly do," he said afterwards while speaking to the press. "There's no pressure associated with it, and I don't tend to burden myself with any extra pressure. I just focus on what I need to learn and improve."

"The time I spent in the county game this season made a big difference. There was a lot I learned there; I went after just a week's rest at the end of the World Cup. I played 14 matches against quality opposition, and that helped quite a lot."

This was his second ODI at home, and his first as the new vice-captain of the team - he would, again, casually dismiss the idea that it put any pressure at all on him. It was the first game for the team under the new management after the ouster of Mickey Arthur, the man under whom Babar had played nearly his entire career and who referred to Babar as like a son. Fresh from a county stint with Somerset that saw him lead the run charts in the Vitality Blast, Babar has begun to suggest that he would score runs no matter what the format of the game or the logo on his shirt.

"The time I spent in the county game this season made a big difference," he said. "There was a lot I learned there; I went after just a week's rest at the end of the World Cup. I played 14 matches against quality opposition, and that helped quite a lot."

There's little to suggest he won't be the leading batsman, perhaps even the man in charge, when the next World Cup rolls along in 2023. But Babar's innings, and what he said after, were further reminders that he wasn't thinking in those terms while dealing with a cricket ball from 22 yards away. In those moments, he's no vice-captain, no spearhead or talisman; just a batsman, batting.

Were he to retire today, he'd finish with more ODI hundreds than any Pakistani bar Saeed Anwar and Mohammad Yousuf. No Pakistan batsman in history boasts a superior ODI average, while only Amla scored 3000 ODI runs in fewer innings. The numbers suggest he is on track to perhaps becoming the greatest Pakistani ODI batsman, and while this may be an era friendlier to run-scoring than the ones his counterparts played in, Pakistan can ill-afford to talk down a prospect that bright.

Today's century won't be one for the grandkids, given how straightforward everything was. The openers had provided a solid base, with the pitch flat and the bowling harmless. There was no target to pace himself to; whatever Pakistan set would likely be too much for this young, second-string Sri Lankan team. It did, in truth, come much too easily. But Babar has made such a habit of scoring easy hundreds it's becoming difficult to tell anymore.

Whether he becomes a successful captain is one for the future, and no one will argue that he's the most strategically astute player in that change room. But it isn't yet clear whether Pakistan realise that, in Babar Azam, they have present-day cricketing royalty walking amongst them.

So when you next see the 24-year-old appearing in a Boom Boom bubblegum ad - as you might at the PSL next year - suppress that smirk tugging at the corners of your mouth. Pakistan, and even Babar, may not know it yet, but the nostalgia industry in the country 20 years on might well comprise entirely of a young man holding the pose to a front foot straight drive he could middle in his sleep.