How to survive as a batsman in Pakistan, parrying blows, fighting the system, soaring to greatness. Aka, the Younis Khan story
Last year in mid-July, as Ramzan was coming to an end, felicitations were in order for Younis Khan. A few weeks previously, in Colombo, he had played his 100th Test. In the next Test, in Pallekele, he had led a record-breaking chase to win the series. An unbeaten 171 had left him 19 short of becoming Pakistan's leading Test run scorer. Karachi is not unusual as a subcontinent city that still believes in the idea of a felicitation ceremony, and this one stormed ahead as if unaware that the 1980s, when such events were in vogue, had long gone. Younis was given a gold medal, a small shield and Rs 500,000 (approximately US$5000) by Nadeem Omar, conceiver of this felicitation and a prominent local businessman and sports organiser (and now owner of the Quetta Gladiators in the Pakistan Super League). We were in the ballroom of a once grand hotel and the stage looked as if a school play might look down its nose at it. The tawdry suits and slightly contrived celebration gave the evening the unmistakable air of a wedding, except, of course, it was Ramzan, so there was no food.
Yahya Hussaini, a well-known sports broadcaster was MC. He called upon a young man to start with a recitation from the Quran. Omar made a short speech (subject: no heroes in Pakistan, except Younis). No Karachi cricket story is complete without a Rashid Latif cameo. Duly, the guru of Younis and spiritual don of the city's cricket appeared. "He learnt from us when he was young, but within five years we were all learning from him," he mumbled, because even with his deep voice, Latif only ever mumbles.
Salahuddin "Sallu" Ahmed followed. Sallu bhai is a former Test player but has achieved greater renown for multiple stints as a regional and national selector; a conservative estimate has him on nearly 20 national selection committees over the years. Otherwise, he is loved for his impromptu shairi, or poetry, skills. He has one such bomb ready for any situation he finds himself in, including, I suspect, a phonejacking. Usually they veer towards surface-level wit rather than deep philosophy. This evening he recited a couple, one specifically for Younis (and while the lyricism gets lost in translation, the message was that life is better with Younis in it).
"If someone throws rubbish at me, I don't ask why, I have to see what reaction I give. That is why I smile so much. I smile at myself, at other things, sometimes even I wonder what I'm smiling at"
Most of the city's prominent cricketing sons were in attendance: Basit Ali, Hanif, Sadiq and Shoaib Mohammad, Moin Khan, Abdur Raqib, Jalaluddin, and the long-time Karachi administrator Siraj-ul-Islam Bukhari. Each came with an entourage, guys who have made careers hanging around the guys who have actually made careers.
Before Younis came on stage, a large screen played highlights of his Pallekele hundred. For aural pleasure: Junoon's "Jazba-e-Junoon", the modern anthem of Pakistan cricket. Someone must have thought this perfect for the occasion: passion, spirit, Younis has both and what can go wrong when you have both? Younis came on and thanked a long list of people, most of them with genuine affection and gratitude, and foremost Latif.
"Rashid bhai is here. Whatever I am, the way I act, I copy him in many places, the way he is humble, how he was captain, how to deal with youngsters, with needy people."
Some of those he thanked, well, it was worth wondering at the degree of his obeisance. He thanked former Pakistan left-arm spinner Iqbal Qasim, for instance, who could not give him a job with National Bank of Pakistan when a young Younis was looking for a team; who, as chief selector, dropped him from the ODI team once. Both were slights a man like Younis does not forget.
He thanked [Abdur] Raqib, who once gave him a secure job with Habib Bank but was also manager during that toxic period in late 2009 when Younis gave up the Pakistan captaincy, and whose report led the PCB to ban Younis. Still, Younis thanked him. He was grateful, he said, to Bukhari saab, even though under Bukhari saab he never got selected for Karachi, a snub that prompted a move back to Mardan.
If you live long enough in Pakistan cricket, those who helped you and those who burnt you each become as important as the other, maybe even the same thing.
The next afternoon, a couple of days before Eid, Younis was at the studios of Geo TV on II Chundrigar Road, a central Karachi avenue on - and around - which reside the country's main business and media houses. Blue skies are great, but when the July clouds appear, as they had on this day, they bring out a truer sense of Karachi; older buildings, otherwise inconspicuous, stand accentuated; trees appear greener; roads stretch out confidently, as if breaking out from the tyranny the sun has kept them under. I trust Karachi under clouds; sunny days do not suit its disposition.
No bracket required: Younis has been vehement about not being compared to Misbah-ul-Haq, as a batsman and person
No bracket required: Younis has been vehement about not being compared to Misbah-ul-Haq, as a batsman and person © AFP
Younis was at the studios to record an interview with Yahya Hussaini. I had arranged to meet Younis there and we chatted during and around his interview. He told me that while washing his car that morning, he had considered turning up at my house unannounced and starting our interview there. But, he said, he had too much on and wasn't sure how I would react. I wasn't sure either.
Hussaini has the razor-sharp instincts of a tabloid journalist, especially expert at imagining smouldering but inconsequential tiffs into great-balls-of-fire disputes. He can smell an aggrieved player a mile away and turn him into the day's major news. Cricketers understand this; a player who complains to him is far likelier to be heard and noticed.
I sat down in the production room to watch the recording, thinking it would be in the mode of the previous evening's felicitations, part of a loosely organised PR whirl. I was with Saqib, who is well known to anyone who knows Younis as The Guy Who Always Knows Where Younis Is. He is impassive by nature and appearance, though you can't miss the almost permanent look of resignation on his face. He has a job, a surname and a life outside work, but I know nothing about those. I like him. He looks like someone who will not screw you over.
If the scorecard of the Pallekele Test was the only one you ever saw, you would not need to see any more to be able to understand Younis' worth
Hussaini's interview began promisingly. Younis recalled the February day in 2000 that confirmed his Pakistan selection - a side game against Sri Lanka at the UBL ground, a 45-minute drive away from the studio where we were sitting. The PCB XI was first bowled out for 48 on a damp pitch (from unexpected rain) and lost the 50-over match (Younis made 3). A 25-over exhibition game was hurriedly arranged in which Younis hit 68 off 58 balls. I expected more of this memoirish tone through the interview.
Hussaini did not. For him, the highlights of a 15-year career were simply too many for this show, so they would concentrate on some of the complaints and grievances of that career. First up, the palaver over the 2015 World Cup and Younis' place within it. Now in the big picture of Younis Khan, his awkward 50-over career and fade is hardly the headline. Yet less than five minutes in, this naked flame was coming hard at the fuel.
It's worth lingering on this because it documents the mood Younis was in at the time and the mood he has been in for some time. You could argue it is more than a mood - a trait, maybe, without which he would not be what he is.
Younis' World Cup had become an unwitting homage to his ODI career: in and out of the XI, prompting questions about whether he should have been there at all, shuffled around the order, and no outstanding performance in three games. In 2013 he had been dropped from the ODI plans, seemingly permanently, and replaced by younger batsmen. It became a wound, which grew as he was dropped one game into a recall a year later. After that he asked the selectors whether "a player like me should shoot myself?" Their response, presumably to avoid culpability in suicide, was to bring him back into their World Cup plans.
We have lift-off: if it's short and wide outside off, Younis might punch you through cover in a style that defines him and defies physics
© Associated Press
We have lift-off: if it's short and wide outside off, Younis might punch you through cover in a style that defines him and defies physics © Associated Press
At the World Cup, Younis began with 6 and 0 against India and West Indies, both heavy losses. He was then dropped for the next two games. "If you were captain instead of Misbah, would you have picked Younis Khan in the next match [after the West Indies loss]?" Hussaini asked. Younis said yes, ignoring the longer sequence of which these poor numbers were a part: since the start of 2013, he had nine scores of ten or less in 17 ODIs and just one over 50, a 103 against New Zealand in Abu Dhabi.
What now of your ODI future? Nothing, said Younis, bemused, I still have one. Did I run badly? Do I field badly? Would I not have performed better than some younger players, he asked. (Not really: of the 18 batsmen, Nos. 1 to 6, who have played ten or more ODIs since the 2011 World Cup for Pakistan, Younis' average is 14th on the list.)
When I asked him whether he thought himself to be a Karachiite, he didn't pause before saying no. "Inside, I still think of myself as a kid from Mardan. A Pathan"
Hussaini moved to Sri Lanka, not to the century but to calls for Younis and Misbah-ul-Haq to retire after the loss in the second Test. This was a major exaggeration. Only Asif Iqbal said it, and in the hierarchy of sniping former cricketers, Asif Iqbal is pretty low. If there were others, they were not important enough for history to note and band together as a movement. Younis ignored Hussaini's lit match, and next to it started his own fire.
"One thing I want to make clear here," Younis said. "Don't compare me to Misbah-ul-Haq. I've been playing cricket for a long time. But I have big performances, a lot of them, everywhere. I'm the only Pakistani with hundreds against every country. My style is also not like Misbah-ul-Haq. So please. I'm also four years younger than him. Everyone knows my style also, I am of an aggressive frame of mind. [Cut to a shot of Hussaini giggling heartily, as if at some in-joke.] The kind of player that he is, the kind of person he is, that is in front of everyone. So please don't compare me."
His expression oscillated between being offended by the thought of the comparison, and being bewildered by it, like why compare an apple to an orange in the first place? It never occurred to him that nobody, not even Hussaini, was actually comparing, just grouping them for the purposes of a question about the two oldest batsmen in the Test side, which they are.
The captain's peak: winning the 2009 World T20 was Younis' finest leadership achievement
© Getty Images
The captain's peak: winning the 2009 World T20 was Younis' finest leadership achievement © Getty Images
Hussaini had his headline and, exultant, immediately aimed for another. Playing on names, he asked whether batsman Younis and coach Waqar Younis were on the same wavelength. Who knows what might have happened had he not scored in Pallekele, Younis said. He smiled his way through that, and because there is no such thing as a fake Younis smile, it is often difficult to know how to read such responses. Separately he told me that the amount of pressure he felt from team management, having gone five innings without a fifty, "Aap ki soch hai" [You can only imagine]. It is one of his favourite phrases.
One last bit. Towards the end of the 35-minute recording, Hussaini asked him why he does not get the respect the other great Pakistani batsmen do. I wondered: 1) was it even true? And 2) see 1. It was designed to perpetuate Younis' victimhood, to force a seed deeper into his mind, that Pakistan does not respect him enough.
Maybe, Younis laughed, if he went on TV more to say he should get more respect, then he would. But he won't do that. And then he narrated an anecdote showcasing the respect he was accorded, about how the South African franchise Dolphins wanted to sign him as a mentor-player for their young side at the same time as he was banned by Pakistan.
Younis is shaped by his reach. It gives his batting that distinct elastic quality, stretching out into shapes it shouldn't, utilising a catapulting force
Just before the recording, when we had begun our interview, I had put it to Younis that, as prolific as he had been in the last five years after the ban, his on-field presence had changed. He smiled and mingled less, looked more alone. He agreed. "You are saying I have become a bit reserved, yes? If you look at the last four to five years, whatever has happened, the way the management behaved, either I fight with them or stay silent.
"I can't fight anymore. Now I'm getting closer to Javed [Miandad] bhai's records, I'm thinking I don't want to fight. The energy I have I want to use towards my fitness and work. Because if you look at the last four to five years… "
We can skip this bit because it segued into extensive, discursive and blinkered venting about his exclusion from the ODI side. He spoke quickly, gobbling up whole words, relying on popular Urdu and English phrases. Then he came to the point, namely that he could not believe, after all he had done, that people still questioned his place in the Test side.
"Now I am seeing that when Younis Khan doesn't perform in a couple of matches, they start comparisons, that he is like this, like that, that he should leave now. I get very surprised by this. If somebody comes and says this, I say, look at my performances, my records. It's like if somebody in India says to Sachin, 'Sachin bhai aapne pichle match me kya kara?' [What did you do in your last match?] I get surprised by that."
Forever the griping crowd: Younis is mobbed at Karachi airport after Pakistan's early exit from the 2007 World Cup
Forever the griping crowd: Younis is mobbed at Karachi airport after Pakistan's early exit from the 2007 World Cup © AFP
I didn't know what to make of this illeism, or drawing equivalence with Tendulkar, so I asked him whether people really did say stuff like this to him.
"Does it prick you still?"
"No, because the day I started playing for Pakistan, my seniors and elders told me this. My mother always said to me something even I didn't understand at the beginning.
"She said: 'What is the love of a donkey? When he falls in love, he starts kicking.' So I have taken that formula and I move on. Anyone can do or say anything, it is no issue. When matters are in my hand, I will do what is right. I will not see what people are saying about me, I see what I have to do. Not even what they have done, I look at what I have done. I see how Younis Khan has reacted and what Younis Khan has done. If someone throws rubbish at me, I don't ask why, I have to see what reaction I give. That is why I smile so much, I smile at myself, at other things, sometimes even I wonder what I'm smiling at."
So this is what it was three weeks after the innings of Younis' career, one that put him on the verge of becoming, statistically, Pakistan's greatest batsman. The 171 not out was his 30th Test hundred, already five ahead of Inzamam-ul-Haq. His average at the end of the game was 54.07, one and a half runs better than Miandad. The only significant record that was not his was of most Test runs by a Pakistani, and he was only three sixes away from equalling that.
On dusty, uneven grounds he often fielded entire innings, developing such love for the duty that he resolved to always do it with so much commitment
Pallekele was much more, though. Of Younis' many exceptional innings, it is difficult to pick one through which you could explain to someone with sufficient accuracy the meaning of Younis. Not the 313 in Karachi because on that pitch Coldplay's Chris Martin could have scored runs, let alone New Zealand's Chris Martin. The 267 in Bangalore maybe, but that was in the tone-setting first innings of a match. A pair of 190s against India - meh, dead tracks in dead Tests in Lahore and Faisalabad. The unbeaten, chase-completing 67 in Port Elizabeth is close but not quite it.
If the scorecard of the Pallekele Test was the only one you ever saw, you would not need to see any more to be able to understand Younis' worth. Did he usually arrive with his side tottering, like in this case, at 13 for 2? You bet. Was he expert at batting on the final days of Tests, as he did here, thriving in the last two sessions of the fourth and the first two of the fifth day? Yessir. Was he daunted by distant and difficult match objectives, like chasing 377 or batting out for a draw? Kidding, right? Was he good to bat with, because I see two pretty big stands with him in it? Hell yes. I see young Shan Masood got his maiden hundred - that happens often in the company of Younis? Damn straight. In short: Younis Khan? See Pallekele '15.
In long: see Slumdog Millionaire. Or that, at least, is how Younis - an avid movie-watcher, Bollywood and otherwise - understands his life: as a neat construction of episodes and experiences, each of which provides the answers that, collectively, reap the prize that is his career.
Smile No. 67: Younis has an array of them, none fake
© Getty Images
Smile No. 67: Younis has an array of them, none fake © Getty Images
So the first answer is his brothers. In 1979, Yusuf Khan secured a managerial position at the state-owned Pakistan Steel Mills, moving from Mardan in the country's north-west to the eastern outskirts of Karachi, a migration of more than 1500 kilometres. Younis, the youngest of six brothers, and the rest of the family followed a year later, settling in Steel Town, a serene mini-city built for employees on the edges of this larger, less serene city. Younis and much of the family have lived there since, as citizens of Karachi but not its sons. When I asked him whether he thought himself to be a Karachiite, he didn't pause before saying no. "Inside, I still think of myself as a kid from Mardan. A Pathan." This despite having hardly lived in Mardan, though he did move back briefly in the mid-'90s, in part for cricket, in part to fulfil the obligations of a son: his retired father had returned and had only the women of the family around him. Younis' "no" was so unhesitating that the identity needed no further probing: a Pathan, goes the beloved stereotype, is a kaifiyat, a state of mind, impenetrable to piddling forces such as geography.
His brothers played cricket with unfettered spirit. "My eldest brother Ayub Khan, and after him Sharif Khan and Shamshad Khan, were real shaukeen [fanatics]. Sharif bhai was an allrounder. Ayub bhai was a wicketkeeper and a very dashing batsman. He used to sweep really well, even fast bowlers, and the faster the bowler, the more he would sweep. I used to watch him a lot. He had a formula. My father used to say, 'Watch out, you will get hit on the face.' Ayub bhai used to say, it has to bounce first to hit me in the face. He was so quick and fast - he used to play hockey as well - he used to sweep before it even pitched."
The brothers took him to their club games around Karachi. None of the grounds had dressing rooms, so young Younis was in charge of looking after team kits and other valuables. Young Younis also loved eating food that was not the food he ate at home. Lunch, even at this level, could get fancy: niharis and chicken kormas with hot naans. As he grew older, his duties expanded. He became responsible for knocking bats. Then, when he was 11, he started substituting as a fielder for those who didn't like fielding, of whom there were plenty. On dusty, uneven grounds he often fielded entire innings, developing such love for the duty that he resolved to always do it with so much commitment "even the ground enjoys it, that this guy was diving on me". See why he's the only Pakistani with over 100 Test catches?
When he failed to break through into first-class cricket in Karachi and went back to Mardan, he practised on potholed tennis courts with a hard ball. It was lottery batting
The answer to a lot else is Malir Gymkhana, an old, established club that has given Karachi some of its finest cricketers, including Taslim Arif, Saeed Anwar, Latif, and a host of first-class champions. It used to be more than just a club, serving as the most lucid expression of the city's cricket. Malir Gymkhana prescribed philosophies, about how batsmen should bat, how individuals fit into collectives, how younger players should be nurtured, how individual causes subjugate themselves to the team's purpose. It was the kind of club where the captain would impart such lessons after games at, say, Nannay ka Hotel, a famous teahouse in Khokrapar (a Malir locality). Once, after returning from a tour of Sri Lanka with the national side, Latif came to play. He was by then an established international. He arrived at the ground, opened his kitbag and told the players to take whatever they wanted. It was that kind of club.
Younis was taken there in 1993. By then he had shed youthful flirtations with legspin and, as he got more opportunities with a club in Steel Town, turned himself into an opener. Pakistan Steel Mills had a team that played Grade II (a grade below first-class) in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, and one of its players, Mohammad Ali, also played at Malir Gymkhana. He liked what he saw of Younis at a trial and took him as well as another player, Nazeem Abbasi, to Malir.
Waheed Mirza was club captain at the time and his name still resonates around Karachi's club circuit, so influential was his leadership. You might remember him as one half of a first-class world-record opening stand. His problem was that he could only register one of the two as a player.
With Shan Masood in Pallekele. Younis said when asked about why he wasn't in his younger partner's ear: "When a guy is playing, why should I put pressure on him unnecessarily?"
With Shan Masood in Pallekele. Younis said when asked about why he wasn't in his younger partner's ear: "When a guy is playing, why should I put pressure on him unnecessarily?" © AFP
"So I played both in a game, and made it like a trial," Mirza told me over phone. "Younis made 30 in that game and the other boy scored a hundred and he hit lots of sixes as well.
"I was asked whom I will pick. I said Younis. They asked why, that other guy was hitting so well, he scored a hundred. I said I liked one thing about this Younis. What? I liked the boy's reach. The other kid doesn't have it. So I picked him."
His reach. Come on this brief detour. This is an unexpected trait to have identified, at least to a non-technical eye. Cricket rarely scrutinises reach, though clearly it must be an essential part of a batsman's game. Until Mirza told me this, I had always struggled to place Younis' batting in technical terms. He is not a classicist, though neither is he unorthodox. He is not a cavalier stylist, though neither is he a dour accumulator. Often it has just been easier to talk about his batting in terms of personality - he has character, he is brave, and so on.
It is difficult to describe that idiosyncratic bodily strain that produces shots in unusual areas from an unusual combination of movements that leave him, ultimately, in unusual post-shot positions. Now it makes sense - Younis is shaped by his reach. It gives his batting that distinct elastic quality, stretching out into shapes it shouldn't, utilising a catapulting force. See those cover drives when, even though his front foot is not that close to the ball, he stretches those long arms and torso out to reach it. Against spinners he drives balls that are not even full, because he can reach out that far. It is actually more important - and noticeable - than his footwork.
The best effect of his reach is seen in the shot he picked up from watching his brother Ayub. There is no better player of the sweep in the modern game than Younis, and his reach is why there are few better players of spin. Google "Younis Khan sweep shot" and study the images. He does play it conventionally, where his upper body remains upright as he goes down on one knee. The images that really stand out though are those where his left leg is planted further out and upper body is bent forward so low that his left knee must be touching the chest. Already that is a yogic stretch. But the bend allows his arms to go even further so that he can sweep lengths and lines others simply cannot. It allows him to slog-sweep, to sweep straight, to sweep fine, to lap, to roll his wrists over, and to reverse. It is a shot, he told me in Abu Dhabi last year, he never practises specifically.
"In that one year that I played domestic cricket, I came back and thought, I don't want to be Inzamam, I don't want to be Miandad, I don't want to be Imran. I want to be Younis Khan"
"If I have to play the sweep, I just play it. I trust my ability to play it. Sometimes if a fielder isn't there, if a game is being played with me, the ball is coming in and if the bowler thinks he can get me out sweeping, I will start playing it. I compel him.
"I don't [always] premeditate. I look at the body language of the bowler and I work out what might happen. Will he bowl slower, quicker? Sometimes, I can identify. Sometimes I have decided what balls to sweep, if I feel the bowler has relaxed a bit or he goes outside off stump."
Back at Malir, Mirza also believed that a batsman is only a batsman if he can bat in any position, in any situation, against any bowler. He pushed Younis around the order; if he made a hundred at No. 3, he would move him to No. 6 in the next game. In one game Mirza stopped Younis from going higher in a chase they were destined to lose. Younis went in at No. 7, hit 69 and won the game.
"There are many such situations a player faces and if he is to become a successful player, he will overcome these and win it," reasoned Mirza. "If you keep coming at the same number, what will you ever do? If you are very good against fast bowling, if someone puts on a spinner, what will you do? You have to be a master of everything, that is the player. That is a batsman."
The Institute: Younis has his own drills and is never shy of passing on tips to team-mates
The Institute: Younis has his own drills and is never shy of passing on tips to team-mates © AFP
Years later, as captain on the 2009 tour to Sri Lanka, Younis told Fawad Alam he would be opening in the second Test, in Colombo. Debutant Alam, whose father Tariq was another Malir mentor, was by trade a middle-order batsman. He had never opened in first-class cricket. He made 168 in the second innings. Younis prophesied that he would make a century, scribbled it on a taped tennis ball, which he later gifted to Alam.
Though he has predominantly batted in Tests at one or two down, Younis himself has never seemed too wedded to one position. There was no fuss about moving up permanently to No. 3 at Bob Woolmer's prompting in late 2004, and certainly no complaint that he had spent nearly half his career until then as a middle-order plug, thrust into whatever hole needed plugging. And when, during his year-long absence from the Test side across 2009-10, Azhar Ali established himself as Pakistan's one down, Younis moved down to No. 4 without protestation.
One other answer, a crucial one actually, the one that really makes Younis Younis. Those five hundreds in the fourth innings - the most by any batsman ever - the highest average of all time in the fourth innings (over a minimum of 25 Tests), an average of 65.85 on the fifth day (since 2006), second only to Misbah. In Steel Town, Younis would often make himself the last man to bat in the nets, just before maghrib. Mainly he wanted to make sure that the others would remain till the end of the session, by letting them all have a go first. But he became perversely attracted to batting in fading light, creating in his mind scenarios of extreme pressure.
"At least, when tomorrow my children say to me, 'Baba you talk so big, what did you do?' at least I can say to them, 'When I was made captain, in trying to change things I got kicked out and got a life ban'"
"I told myself I was batting to save the game. I got it so dark for myself, and there's a fast bowler bowling on cement pitches. This is before I even really understood cricket. But I'm thinking to myself, I could get hit anywhere. There are 24 fielders surrounding me."
Later, when he failed to break through into first-class cricket in Karachi and went back to Mardan, he practised on potholed tennis courts with a hard ball. It was lottery batting: if the ball found a crack, it could break your face or your toe. He wasn't deterred. He just put those hours into the bank.
"This was a process I started 20 years ago. And now when I see a match is stuck, the pitch is breaking, up-and-down bounce, fielders surrounding me and bugging me, and janaab-e-wala bouncers are flying around, these are things I recreated 20 years ago. And actually now that [challenge] is more enjoyable for me."
The career of Younis Khan is really the story of how to survive as a batsman in Pakistan. The rate of non-survival has little to do with batsmen. If we can equate a rare batting talent with an exceptional piece of music, then think of Pakistan cricket as a tone-deaf listener. They will move him around the order. They will drop him after his first failure. They will call him back only to drop him after his first failure again. They will make him play under threat of axing. They will play him on an away tour, against quality bowling attacks, and drop him when a home series beckons. They will force him to retire. They will prolong the career of a has-been who is keeping out a will-surely-be. They will take him as standby on tours, and then, when the opportunity arises, fly someone else in to take his place. They will play him in the wrong format. They will turn him into a wicketkeeper. They will ignore his best seasons.
It took over four years, and the arrival of Bob Woolmer, for Younis to really cement a place and position (he missed 14 of the 42 Tests Pakistan played from his debut to the end of October 2004, in Woolmer's first Test). Even then, when he made 147 in Kolkata the following March, a duck in the following innings prompted the team manager to warn him he was finished. To which Younis' response was 267 and 84 not out in the very next Test. And if true, then the claim that he thought he might be dropped had he not scored the Pallekele hundred tops them all - in the 11 Tests leading up to it, Younis had made six hundreds.
The man with the broom: Younis' sweep shot exemplifies the importance of his outlandish reach to his game
© Associated Press
The man with the broom: Younis' sweep shot exemplifies the importance of his outlandish reach to his game © Associated Press
It is a fraught existence to which Younis has responded in the brooding, ominous pose of Johnny Cash's "Ain't No Grave (Can Hold My Body Down)": defiance, defiance until I die, defiance especially when I'm dead. When he made his international debut, in an ODI, his first act was to protest being pushed down to No. 7 as Pakistan searched for quick runs in a chase of 275 against Sri Lanka. He couldn't believe they were discussing the possibility of a youngster spoiling the chase in front of him. Twice when a wicket fell he was determined to just stand up and go, in defiance of the plans, only for the captain, Saeed Anwar, to tell him each time to relax. When he did go, he made a 41-ball 46, though Pakistan lost by 29 runs.
"When I first played, I really struggled. For the first one or two years, I tried really hard, tried to stay in the team, because I wanted to do something for my family, for my country. I stood like this, I stood like that, I stood like Javed bhai.
"But I figured it out after 2001. When I performed a little bit and got sidelined and then came back, in that one year that I played domestic cricket, I came back and thought, I don't want to be Inzamam, I don't want to be Miandad, I don't want to be Imran. I want to be Younis Khan. Whatever my style is, however I am, I want to stick to it. What I am, I am."
Specifically it was after a Test in Auckland, when he made 91 and an unbeaten 149, that Younis says he found himself, or at least began that process of discovery. He determined not to listen to anyone about how he should bat. Woolmer was an exception but only because he was an enabler, an encouragement for Younis to explore his own game.
He learnt. He read. He took coaching courses. He started watching videos of his batting. He sought out other players, like Rahul Dravid, who urged him to expand his mind and keep the sport in one corner of it, quarantined from the rest. He sought opportunities to play domestic cricket in England and, most unusually for a Pakistan batsman, Australia. He threw himself into the life in South Australia in a two-month stay in 2008-09, cooking breakfast for team-mates. In the middle of the stint, he flew back to Pakistan to play a domestic game, then returned to finish his contract in South Australia and was then back again right into the Pakistan season. He lost 10kgs from the travel and play, and thought it was something he needed to do.
He created an ascetic lifestyle. He brought discipline into it. He began picking a corner in dressing rooms wherever he went, put his world into order around it, and didn't take kindly to others littering his space. If he wasn't training or playing, he wasn't seen. He cut out lunch. He started eating dinner by 6pm, which in many homes in Pakistan is when lunches are still finishing. He cut the Pakistani out of his diet, eating grilled and steamed food. He took up fishing, taking advantage of his proximity to Port Qasim with its great fishing spots. He developed unique netting routines and methods of practice so different that younger players, like Shan Masood, speak of them almost in awe.
Being a great Pakistani batsman is, by and large, a lonely business. They don't come in pairs or threes or fab fives. In the most fortunate times there has only ever been one
"Some of his sessions are basic because he's done Level 1 and Level 2 coaching courses, but very technical, and a lot of people would struggle to do them," Masood, also a team-mate of Younis at United Bank, told me. "When you're playing professionally, you want to face bowlers who are bowling well in the nets. You want to face proper throwdowns.
"But with Younis it would be [exercises like] his backlift already up and somebody looping balls up to him. A lot of people think you don't get those kind of balls out in the field [but it comes] from his understanding of the game. Those are routines he is very particular about."
You might remember an extraordinary shot Younis played off Shaminda Eranga in a Test in Abu Dhabi two Januaries ago, so extraordinary it has its own thread on pakpassion.com. Eranga was bowling with the second new ball and Younis was already a hundred to the good. This delivery landed well short of a good length, a couple of stumps outside off, and got as high, maybe, as Younis' hips. Most batsmen would think it fodder for their cut. Younis, however, straightened from his crouch and punched the ball through covers, and if that wasn't a remarkable enough option to take, he actually jumped at the moment he connected. Jumped, not skipped on his toes, but jumped high, like he was clearing a hurdle with both legs, knee-first, back arching simultaneously. It was a shot, thought Masood, that defied the laws of physics.
That shot was the result of a variation of the marble-slab practice common among batsmen the world over to prepare for fast bowling. Coaches throw the ball hard at the slab, placed at a good length away from the batsman, to recreate zip and bounce. Younis doesn't use the slab in the same way. He puts stumps flat underneath it to create an angle so that the slab becomes a little ramp facing up to him. On this the balls come at an even steeper angle, at his chest and throat, allowing Younis to hone this levitation shot.
"He's not that much into [team] nets," said Masood. "He'll go face two rounds of the fast bowlers' nets, two rounds of the spinners' nets and that's it. The rest of it are his own personal drills and he does it every single day, whether he's batting or fielding."
Now he has reached the point where Waqar Younis, the coach, refers to him within the team as the "Institute": go there, learn. It is this status that elevates Younis - in some opinions - above other batsmen in Pakistan's history. Nobody has scored runs and at the same enabled others to bloom.
Months after the 2009 World T20 title win, Younis' career and captaincy came full circle when he was banned by the PCB
© Associated Press
Months after the 2009 World T20 title win, Younis' career and captaincy came full circle when he was banned by the PCB © Associated Press
A superficial study will confirm that Younis stands among the best partnership-builders ever. He has been involved in 63 century stands, putting him joint-ninth on the all-time list. Since he became a permanent presence, he has been involved in 51 out of the 114 that have been made in Tests he has played; in that period, as a percentage, that is the highest. But the relevant detail lies in the identity of his most prolific partners beyond the top two (Misbah and Yousuf). Fourteen of the stands have been made with Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq, Ahmed Shehzad and Masood, a younger, inexperienced core, whose careers are still nascent.
Azhar and Shafiq, especially, feel like the Children of Younis. "Generally he keeps things very simple, he doesn't complicate when he comes in," Azhar, with whom Younis has seven hundred-plus stands, explained to me. "He doesn't mess with my game too much. Unless you do something really wrong, he doesn't say much. Whatever you do, do it with a clear mind. That is what he says."
In their 242-run stand in Pallekele, over more than 65 overs, Masood can't remember a conversation they might have had in the middle. And the pair knows each other well away from the field. When Masood reached his hundred, Younis joked about how bad his picture looked on the big screen but that was it. Masood did, however, recall that between 66 and 96 he didn't hit a single boundary and Younis hit only one (he hit two). Wordlessly they kept rotating strike so that, in that 18-over spell, the run rate was some way north of three. Later the coaching staff joked with Younis about his lack of communication with Masood. "When a guy is playing, why should I put pressure on him unnecessarily?" he responded.
Off the field, technical advice tends to be in its simplest formulation; it's not given unsolicited but meant to be extracted, upon request. Be a little more open-chested against this bowler, he told Azhar once, or loosen your shoulders against him. Stand a little more upright he told Masood, narrowing the base a little. In a domestic game in Faisalabad a few years ago, a team-mate, Ahmed Shehzad, was dismissed lbw. Shehzad came to the dressing room complaining that the pitch was unfit, the umpire incompetent. He continued moaning about the decision over the next day.
After a while Younis had had enough. He called Shehzad in, asking him to bring his laptop. Shehzad is not, as is becoming evident in a stagnating career, a keen learner. He is, furthermore, not an easy man to convince of anything. Younis told Shehzad to watch the video of his dismissal, and the lead-up to it. After a while Shehzad became frustrated, unable to see what was wrong. Younis told him to be quiet, to listen, and talked him through the video, explaining step by step where he - and not the pitch or the umpire or God - had gone wrong.
Younis repeatedly referred to the respect and honour he has earned, yet still seemed in a continuing search for both. He pointed to his selflessness and sacrifice as virtues that warranted recognition
"They have to become what they are," Younis told me in Karachi. "Whatever they are, only they can know. They cannot become what they are not. They have to be strong, or make themselves stronger. Because even Allah says he will not help those who don't help themselves.
"At some point all these guys will have a day, one day, when one will stand up and say: enough. Bus, bahut hogaye [enough is enough]. I said that to myself in 2001 and I didn't listen to anyone after that. My cricket changed. I mean, I struggled, but that is life, it will happen. But I just went about becoming what I am."
Why fight? As we drove along to a hospital in Karachi where he was due to make an appearance, I asked this of Younis. He was sitting, I couldn't help but think, in stiff defiance of the space offered in the back seat of my Suzuki Liana, squeezed awkwardly in the corner against the door. His face must have made the shortlist for Mount Rushmore, so patently is it carved out of granite. And if his eyes were bigger, their indeterminate colour and translucence would make their beauty obvious and undeniable, but they are small and deep-set, hidden within a protruding face.
Much was made of Younis' inclusion for the 2015 World Cup, and he flopped in all three innings, hastening his ODI retirement
© Getty Images
Much was made of Younis' inclusion for the 2015 World Cup, and he flopped in all three innings, hastening his ODI retirement © Getty Images
His outburst to Hussaini about Misbah had caught me off guard. I thought the two got on, as guiding older lights in a progressing side. In a previous interview in 2012, in fact, Younis had only unconditional praise for Misbah. Marriage is one kind of union, as is wartime camaraderie, but 14 century stands? You'd have to have a deep bond with someone to do that right?
Why was Younis fighting now, during the best days of his career, and with Misbah, with whom he had wrought so much success and who is so passive he could make peace break out in the Middle East? And though the question may have been prompted by this episode, I really meant it to apply to his entire career: why do you fight?
"Look, at some point it has to be done, right?" he began, slowing down to emphasise the point he was making, his mouth stretching to accommodate each word, much in the unusual fashion his body does to play shots. The "it" in question, I quickly gathered, meant a general righting of the system. "Somebody has to do it, so why shouldn't I? I tried to do things differently, but I achieved something, right? The 2009 World T20 title, with the same captaincy and the same team.
His face must have made the shortlist for Mount Rushmore, so patently is it carved out of granite
"But what I couldn't learn, which is in the system, is 'wait and see'. That is why when I became captain, I didn't do what a lot of captains do - 'wait and see'. That is why, with my captaincy, I couldn't grow properly in this system. I said, when you have to do one thing and if it is a good thing, then you have to do it. You can't say, 'Okay, wait, we'll look at it tomorrow.' In this system where Pakistan stands right now, you see… this is why, 60 years later, even now, we are doing mobile registration [he was referring to a belated campaign to register every SIM card in the country]. That is what we are doing, right? Today. This year. In other countries how long has this already been in place?
"If you look at many people now, they survive because they don't do anything. Pakistan is the only country where your survival is good, or you last so long because you don't do anything. Keep going, with your job. What's that Nana Patekar movie? Yeshwant, I think, in which he says, 'I will not say anything now, I will stay quiet. My house, my kids, my money, whatever is happening is happening.'
"It doesn't make a difference to me if I win or lose in the fight. But at least, when tomorrow my children say to me, 'Baba, you talk so big, what did you do?' at least I can say to them, 'When I was made captain, in trying to change things I got kicked out and got a life ban.'"
At this point, it occurred to me that Misbah's legacy, as the most successful Test captain in Pakistan's history while being a man who doesn't fight, a man of the system who does wait and see - it occurred to me that this reality might be eating away at Younis. How could such a man, who doesn't even fight for selections let alone resign over them, be so successful? I put this theory to Younis in as roundabout and delicate a way as I could. He either missed the point or chose to ignore it, but cited Misbah's public and post-hoc unhappiness with the team he was given for the World Cup. Months later, in Dubai, I asked Misbah about Younis' TV comments. He was unconcerned: happens, great player, doesn't matter - exactly the non-confrontational response that might wind up Younis even more.
This period has become a slightly gauche coda to Younis' career. I can't make total sense of the self-congratulatory celebrations surrounding his breaking Miandad's record. There was another felicitation in Dubai when he finally went past it. Yahya Hussaini was the MC.
One way to understand it, or at least frame it within some kind of broader reference, could be through two Miandad anecdotes. When Inzamam came out to bat in his final innings, at the Gaddafi Stadium, he needed six runs to go past Miandad's aggregate. Saad Shafqat, who ghosted Miandad's autobiography and reads the great man's moods expertly, had called him the day before. He wanted to know how Miandad was feeling about his record being broken.
"I'm not bothered," Miandad said.
The next day when Inzamam fell short, Shafqat called Miandad again. Yes, he had seen the dismissal, and no, he didn't get the fuss. "Even if Inzamam had broken my record, he still wouldn't have become Miandad."
Bob Woolmer's arrival as coach transformed Younis' career for the better
Bob Woolmer's arrival as coach transformed Younis' career for the better © AFP
Seventeen months later, Younis ended the fourth day of a Test against Sri Lanka unbeaten on 306. He became only the third Pakistani triple-centurion, a landmark that had eluded Miandad. Actually it was not elusiveness as much as denial; Imran Khan famously declared with Miandad on 280, and it still stings like it was yesterday. Shafqat is a professor of neurology and studies the complex functioning of the brain, so I guess calling Miandad again constituted research. On the flattest track Karachi had seen for years, a whole day to go and no point to the Test, all records were within sight. Miandad didn't say much. The next morning, when Younis was bowled for 313 and broke neither Hanif's Pakistan record nor Brian Lara's world record, it was Miandad who called Shafqat. "In Miandad's voice, however, there was a certain degree of levity," wrote Shafqat in Nightwatchman. "It seemed the voice of a man who has suddenly been relieved of an onerous burden."
In our interviews the complicated duality that defined Miandad was evident. Younis repeatedly referred to the respect and honour he has earned, yet still seemed in a continuing search for both; repeatedly he pointed to his selflessness and sacrifice as virtues that warranted recognition. They do, of course, only that if we have to be constantly reminded of them, then…
The final, unseemly end of his ODI career was a manifestation of this. He was selected in the ODI squad for the series against England last winter, after more public agitation (of which the Hussaini interview can now be seen as one vital component). Hours before the first game, in Abu Dhabi, he announced it would be his last. Just a few days before, he had told me: "If you look at my career, a player like myself, he should leave the game with honour." All that agitation, it now was clear, just for an on-field guard of honour and a neat little TV package.
Another way to square this is to see it as a truth about the greatest athletes, or a truth according to Kobe Bryant at least. Two years ago Bryant identified with an obnoxious, infamous post-game rant by Richard Sherman, an American football player, about an opponent he had just bested in an NFC title game ("When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you gonna get! Don't you ever talk about me"). With simple yet commanding eloquence, Bryant called it "the ugliness of greatness". Sherman was simply letting out what was inside him and what is inside him is what makes him the best in the first place.
This inner ugliness, the craving and restlessness, the fighting and insecurity, has driven Younis. Along the way, no question, there has been plenty of external fuel. His players conspired against him. He was treated like a suspect in the death of Woolmer. Protestors turned up with donkeys at his wedding. A politician accused him of match-fixing. He was demoted in a central-contracts system that somehow calculated him to be less valuable than Junaid Khan and Mohammad Hafeez. He was banned because as captain he had dropped players. Instead of investigating his accusation that players deliberately underperformed under him, the board punished him for relinquishing the captaincy. And these are just the ones we remember.
Being a great Pakistani batsman is, by and large, a lonely business. They don't come in pairs or threes or fab fives. In the most fortunate times there has only ever been one. It places extraordinary burdens in expectations of success and ramifications of defeat. Many curl inwards in age, to tend to those slights they were born with or accumulated and stored long ago and left festering. Hanif, Zaheer, Miandad, Yousuf - there's an identifiable pattern there, right?
As we ended our final interview in Abu Dhabi, Younis admitted Miandad's record had occupied him, which is a natural admission but also an unusual one in an age when athletes play down the pursuit of personal milestones. He said he had thought a lot about the shot that would take him past it, though did not say whether he visualised the shot he actually played - a six off Moeen Ali. It was placed, unusually, between long-on and deep midwicket, and though he skipped down the pitch, he still had to reach out to it.
Maybe now peace awaits. I tested those waters. He had understood what he had done, but had we? "I think people have not realised [the significance] yet because I am still around. I am still on screen. When I leave, then everyone will understand."
Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National and the author of The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket
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