This month's cover star has a complex, ever-present grin
April is here. Cricket of all stripes will be renewed. The IPL will bootyshake its way into its ninth season, the County Championship gently thaw into its 126th - and for much longer than that, it seems, Younis Khan has been smiling at the world.
That is the eternal montage in my head anyway. I am reasonably confident that baby Younis announced his arrival with a smile rather than a wail, and ever since, it has been all smiles. Wholehearted, full-bodied smiles. Goofy smiles to go with jokes, wry smiles after dropped catches. Radiant, honourable smiles accompanying moments of triumph. Smiling in disaffected rage is how I imagine him registering protests against the PCB, flouncing out, rejecting, declining, resisting something or the other. The Younis smile has been as much an emblem of Pakistan cricket this century as the Inzamam and the Misbah non-smiles.
Lately, climbing final peaks in a stellar career, Younis' smile is bending under its burdens. And in fact, he tells Osman Samiuddin in this month's exceptional cover story, it was never a smiley smile to begin with. It was a mechanism, a kind of substitute middle finger, but not precisely that; a blunting tool, but not precisely that either; a smile as balm, a smile as forbearance, but not so straightforward; nor exactly a smile as "chosen vehicle of all ambiguities" as Herman Melville had it.
"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."
Osman reckons that "there is no such thing as a fake Younis smile", and the interrogation of his recent mood is one of the many joys and insights of the story. He encounters a Younis who has small scores to settle, old wounds to nurture, underappreciation to counter, records to achieve, and the flames are leaping out of him. Few sportsmen are genuinely indifferent to recognition (publicity is a different thing). Even somebody as bindaas as Virender Sehwag was hurt that he was not given a farewell match. As much as a study of Younis Khan the cricketer, the profile is a kind of play of ambitions and frustrations in the most Shakespearean of cricket's theatres. It will, however, make you smile.
Elsewhere, in keeping with new beginnings, there is Daniel Brigham's wonderful weave of conversations with cricketers about their Test debuts. To go with the IPL, try Prayaag Akbar's essay - the rare examination written by a fan, believer and critic. Do not under any circumstances miss Vaneisa Baksh's personal history of sexism in cricket, perhaps the frankest article we have published and maybe the most necessary.
Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan and the novel The Sly Company of People Who Care
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.