Middle order November 23, 2006

The nervous 190s: a nice problem to have

When Mohammad Yousuf grew his beard he also grew in stature

When Mohammad Yousuf grew his beard he also grew in stature. His stunning performance this year places him second only to Vivian Richards, a batsman so great that it seems indecent that anybody might surpass him. Another 149 runs at Karachi and Yousuf will nudge ahead of King Viv's record of 1710 runs in a calendar year.

Before any of you point out that more Test cricket is played these days, Viv set his record in 19 innings, Yousuf is on 17. Whether or not Yousuf's transformation from a gifted wastrel into a grafting wonder is anything to do with his religious conversion is a moot point and something that it will never be possible to prove convincingly. But it is clear that Yousuf has become a phenomenon.

With Inzamam's dip in form in Test cricket, Yousuf has emerged as a serene and silky leader of Pakistan's middle order. His batting has acquired a surreal quality whereby his calm state of mind dominates proceedings. Yousuf's touch and timing is such that his bat caresses and kisses the ball to the boundary, a sharp contrast to the wonderful brutality of Viv Richards.

No doubt Yousuf's zen-like performance in 2006 has won him a seat at the high table of Pakistan cricket. For much of his career he was dismissed as a flat-track bully and a man who would shrink to the occasion. But the last two years have seen Yousuf firm up his resolve and thrive under pressure. Multan may have been as flat as a paratha but it was a pressure cooker situation. On a final day when Pakistan are prone to disaster, Yousuf summoned up his will and fought a mental battle to guide his team to safety. The technical battle has rarely been a problem for him.

Yet one doubt hangs over Yousuf, just as it does over his fellow troopers in Pakistan's middle order. To raise themselves to the level of true world masters, Yousuf, Inzamam, and Younis Khan must show their class on pitches that don't favour batsmen, on pitches that spit and bounce, and against balls that swing and seam. Such a test is fast approaching in South Africa. Let's hope the final judgment is a favourable one.

In the meantime, it is fair to celebrate Yousuf's achievements of 2006, a stunning performance by a batsman of such grace and poise that he seems unfit for this age of biff and bang. Of all the mishaps in the world, a spot of bother in the nervous 190s is a nice problem to make your own.

Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here