August 19, 2014

Younis Khan: unsung and endearing

Despite being part of a dysfunctional set-up, he has managed to get the best out of himself and players partnering him

Younis Khan has performed the No. 3 role with distinction despite never having had a solid opening pair to count on © AFP

Another series and more collapses - combined with the failure of the rain gods - meant Pakistan failed to win a Test series for the sixth time in a row. The return of Waqar Younis as coach was expected to take the team back to the early days of Misbah-ul-Haq's tenure, when they won five of his first seven series as captain. Instead, in a continuation of their performance over the last two years, they competed, even convinced, but couldn't win.

And in the midst of it all, another Younis Khan masterclass was wasted, in Galle. Yet, for two days, Younis finally got the adulation he deserves.

Younis is an odd beast by Pakistani standards. He doesn't seem to elicit the rabid fandom that the country's greats generate, nor is he subject to the vociferous, contrarian hate that every other player of his generation has faced at the tail-end of his career. Younis is different, he has always been.

Pakistanis tend to look at their great batsmen the same way as their bowlers - they arrive on the scene, establish themselves, and become leaders of the pack. It's the players one level below the true greats who tend to struggle and adapt as time goes along. A 17-year-old Hanif Mohammad top-scored in Pakistan's inaugural Test match. Zaheer Abbas scored 274 in his first away Test innings. Javed Miandad averaged over 60 in his first four years of international cricket. And while Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Yousuf may have had less-stellar starts, their greatness never seemed in doubt: it was seen as inevitable. Their claims were reinforced by their ODI exploits, where within 12 months of their debuts they had shown they belonged. That is something Younis was never able to rely on, much like Mahela Jayawardene, whose ODI record (11,000-plus runs) is always a surprise to some. Pakistani greats tend to be all-round gems, not specialists in one format.

Younis started off with a debut Test hundred but by the time he became a "senior player" his selection in the first XI wasn't guaranteed. He averaged under 40 in his first five years of Test cricket. Even when he was made vice-captain, his place wasn't secure.

Younis is an odd beast by Pakistani standards. He doesn't seem to elicit the rabid fandom that the country's greats generate, nor is he subject to the hate that every other player of his generation has faced at the tail-end of his career

But his promotion to vice-captain resulted in the rise of Younis the batsman - probably the greatest Test batsman Pakistan has produced. It began with a series in India where he tormented the bowlers like Zaheer Abbas had done. And he didn't look back. In the decade since his appointment, Younis averages nearly 58 in Tests - only Kumar Sangakkara and Shivnarine Chanderpaul average higher during this period. His record is no accident, for he has shown a willingness and desire to improve by playing domestic long-form cricket in Australia, England and South Africa - rare for an Asian batsman. He has shown an ambition that seems unfortunately absent from his successors. And he has done it all while performing probably the most difficult role in international cricket.

The Pakistani No. 3 is a position like no other. When we think of the greatest No. 3s - the likes of Viv Richards and Don Bradman, or more recently Rahul Dravid, Ricky Ponting and Sangakkara - nearly all played with great openers. Younis would be entitled to celebrate if he ever had the chance to play with a competent top order. Instead, he has had to deal with a group that puts the ass in morass. The highest average for an opener (with over ten innings) in matches that Younis has played belongs to Saeed Anwar, a man who retired when Younis' career was yet to take off. The second-highest average belongs to Shahid Afridi. This is as great an indictment of Pakistani openers as one could possibly find. Younis has had to play the majority of his career as "the third opener", often coming in when the ball is new and the bowling attack is buoyed by an early wicket or two. To perform as he has done despite this seems extraordinary. To have the average he has, having played more than half his cricket at the dreaded No. 3 spot, and having played fewer than 20 of his 91 Tests in Pakistan, makes it unfair to compare him with anyone else in world cricket.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the setbacks that Younis has faced. There's a reason why we "Younis fanboys" tend to venerate the man rather than the Test batsman. He has had to deal with all the instability that comes with being part of the Pakistan team. In addition, over the past decade he has had to deal with the death of his father, three brothers, and his mentor Bob Woolmer. He was at the centre of a Senate hearing. He has seen team-mates jailed, a mutiny to remove him as captain, and missed over a year of cricket at his peak due to the whims of the Pakistan board. We venerate Younis the man but somehow tend to overlook the fact that he has dealt with so much without letting it affect his performances.

Instead, he has become a great. The hundred in the first innings in Galle means that he's now just one shy of the Pakistani record held by Inzamam. The two century partnerships in that innings mean he now figures in 51 century stands, more than anyone in Pakistan's history (despite having played fewer Tests than both Inzaman and Miandad). Younis' ability to carry his partners, to elicit great performances from them, might be what Pakistan will miss the most once he's gone . It wasn't a surprise that Yousuf only reached his potential once Younis started performing, and that Asad Shafiq looks more secure when batting with Younis than with anyone else. And, despite not being given credit for it, Younis is also a fourth-innings legend (though when it comes to the fourth innings, Pakistani fans generally tend to associate their team with the sort of performance they put up at the SSC).

Younis has scored centuries everywhere, except in Australia. That is due to a combination of factors - the board, and shortage of Tests for Pakistan. He hasn't played Australia in a Test since January 2005, which was before he was appointed vice-captain. If he had played in Australia over the last nine years, you feel he would have conquered that mountain too.

In his debut Test, Younis battled valiantly as Pakistan failed to cope with Sri Lanka's spinners. Fifteen years later - plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose - Younis continues to stand, even when all others fail.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @mediagag