Australia v Pakistan, 2nd Test, Melbourne, 1st day December 26, 2004

The resounding riposte

Yousuf Youhana: lit up the MCG with his magical touch © Getty Images

The scene for the riposte could not have been better. Yousuf Youhana came into the MCG carrying more baggage than most. He came in on the back of two failures at Perth, in which his second-innings knock captured his essence. It was breezy, it displayed his predilection for the careless waft and his inability to assume responsibility. Above all, the 27 runs added further fuel to an argument - one that resonates outside Pakistan curiously more than it does inside - that when the cricket is hard, Youhana's appetite for the fight is not. The manner of his dismissal, suckered well and truly by Glenn McGrath's bouncer, added to the suspicion that his ostensibly accomplished Test record, when stripped of centuries on flat tracks against weak attacks, wasn't so impressive after all.

There's more context: he was leading the side in absence of the real deal in Pakistani batting - Inzamam-ul-Haq - and more importantly, the man who has instigated Pakistan's batting revivals over the last year. And he was leading them after Perth. The occasion, Boxing Day, cloaked the game with some fitting spirituality and sense of fate, given Youhana's standing as one of the few Christians to have played for, and the only one to have captained, Pakistan.

He ambled in after the loss of three quick wickets, in the midst of a post-lunch Pakistan meltdown, smile on face and immense responsibility in tow. Australia and Shane Warne were yanking at the initiative. Some batsmen are nervous starters, Youhana is a casual one and he played his first ball from Warne as if he was at a net. He started finding the middle of his bat, although not the gaps in the field, soon enough. Warne tied him up for a while, not with turn or flight, but with flippers and impeccable length. A couple of times, as Youhana shifted onto the back foot, Warne almost got through.

Then came one central moment. After missing out on two leg-side full-tosses in the 38th over, Youhana executed what at first seemed an optical illusion, a sleight of hand almost a much because of its elan as for its shock value. First, a soundless shuffle to the pitch of the ball, then a backlift so extravagant it seemed an indulgence, or just decadence, followed by a swing through the line of the ball to deposit it straight down the ground for six. It caused a double-take - Shane Warne, first day, three down, six?

From then he batted as if, not he but the viewer, was in a dream. This was as he had always promised but rarely provided, lackadaisical but dangerous. Against the best attack in the world, back to the wall, Youhana came out as skipper, punching and he did it in a sugar-coated, honey-dipped manner that were he a boxer, would've evoked comparisons with Mohammad Ali's grace. This was style with substance. Glenn McGrath was pulled for four, Warne was driven through the covers off the back foot. Michael Clarke was dismissed over his head for six, as if insulted that having hit Warne for six, he would fall to Clarke.

Every now and again he lapsed into reality. He edged Warne with an open blade through the slips, and then after having gleefully accepted a wide, full bait from McGrath through the covers, he stretched out even wider next ball and drove uppishly into Matthew Hayden's waiting hands. Except, because you sensed it was a dream, it popped out. A couple of times in attempting to repeat his earlier six, he sliced Warne unconvincingly and Kasprowicz almost undid him before tea.

Scarcely believable, it got better after tea. Four overs into it, he hit Warne again down the ground - this time with no shuffle - for maximum. Bowling round the wicket, Warne then pitched short and Youhana pulled over the midwicket boundary. Done. Next ball he hit flat and straight down the ground for another six. Dusted. Warne's hold over Pakistan's batsmen, for one day, at least, was broken. He ramped Jason Gillespie over gully for four to bring up his 12th hundred, and by some distance, his best.

He was eventually outwitted by Warne and his own lethargy, but he had provided, in a little over three hours, a stirring and eloquent retort. It might be brief; will it be the turning point, a belated one, in his career? With Pakistani players, it is foolish to attempt to answer such questions with any degree of certainty. But for now, it matters that Youhana scored his first century against Australia, in their backyard. It matters that he did it when his side was wobbling in the match and in danger of coming apart at the seams on the tour. It matters that he did it in Inzamam's absence. It matters - as Sourav Ganguly proved last year - that he did it while leading his side.

But above all it matters that he just did it, even the once, because it proved that hidden somewhere inside him is the appetite for a fight. It may not be immediately evident and it may not reveal itself often enough, but it is there. And for Pakistanis starved of batting heroes, that is enough reason to cheer.

Osman Samiuddin is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.