November 27, 2014

A song called Younis

For a country torn by internal strife, he offers hope with his magnanimity, humility and cheerful disposition

A closer examination of Younis' numerous scrapes with the PCB reveals not a troublesome character but rather a man who always stands up for his principles © AFP

A few years ago, the popular Pakistani singer Sajjad Ali was asked why he had never released a "patriotic" song, an essential part of every local pop musician's repertoire. With a sly smile, Sajjad replied that he had released a few songs that he certainly felt were patriotic. The audience laughed at the inside joke, since Sajjad was making a reference to his song "Chief Saab". Ostensibly, the song uses typical Karachi slang to call out a bully, yet this song came out when Karachi was in the midst of essentially a civil war, and "Chief Saab" referred to a very powerful and dangerous man. The song was courting death.

Yet despite the fact that such foolhardy provocation is an essential aspect of his persona, Pakistan celebrates Sajjad for his remarkable versatility, his astonishing longevity, his grasp of the hopes and dreams of ordinary Pakistanis, and his ever-present smile. Last week, a fortuitous change of channels meant that I went from a Sajjad Ali song to a Younis Khan innings, and the similarity between these great men had me floored.

For a man Michael Clarke recently called "a true gentleman of the game", Younis certainly has his share of crazy. His "Chief Saab moment" came during the 2005 tour of India, when a PCB official told him after a bad match that his career was khalaas - finished. Younis smacked a century in his next innings, jabbed a defiant fist at the dressing room before rubbing his palms in a gesture whose meaning everyone understood: khalaas.

A closer examination of Younis' numerous scrapes with the PCB reveals not a troublesome character but rather a man who always stands up for his principles. Pakistan's most successful Test batsman missed an entire year of his prime after being spuriously banned by the board. Rather than pull the strings every Pakistani cricketer controls, Younis was caught on camera making a living as a shopkeeper.

The reason I have begun with recounting these details is because they truly give an idea of the magnanimity of this inspirational cricketer. Because most people, and almost no other Pakistani, would react to such repeated injustices with absolute professionalism and an unprecedented level of performance. The rock around which not one but two great Pakistan captaincy eras were built, he is one of those underrated, underappreciated heroes who ensures this broken, warring country continues to hope.

There is a song named after a popular phrase that audiences in local cinemas yell out when they want to see a song. I have no doubt that if this song were a person, it would be Younis Khan

A quick look at the statistics to justify this praise - he's the first Pakistani to score hundreds against all Test sides, the first to average 50 in each innings of a Test match. No Pakistani even comes close to his tally of runs or centuries in the fourth innings, and he also has the most hundreds when Pakistan have lost the toss and been sent in to bat. Moreover, no Pakistan batsman with at least five matches against India averages higher than him. In other words, this is a man who rises to the tough occasions, in those moments that matter the most, regardless of the conditions.

Yet it took Younis' decimation of Australia (and the record books) for us to finally realise his worth. And it was this feeling, that Younis isn't properly appreciated, that made me think of Sajjad. The singer has been around since the first golden age of Pakistani pop (almost 30 years ago), and while his peers have all become caricatures of their former selves, trading on past glories, he continues to produce music that is popular, relevant and much-loved. Like Younis, he was the only star in his field who didn't turn to big-money endorsements from cola giants.

You can spot the same humility, self-awareness and professionalism in Younis. A deeply religious man, he didn't partake of the much publicised overt religiosity of his team-mates, nor did he get involved in the perennial politics of the side. At the same time, he never feigned ignorance of injustice or was apathetic about it, instead speaking out at great cost. Not being greedy or pliant meant that despite being one of Pakistan's finest cricketing brains and a repeatedly proven performer, he never really got a proper run as captain. That is a crying shame, since his only full stint as Pakistan captain resulted in the second world title in the country's history.

And the 2009 World T20 is one of my favourite facets of Younis' career. Heading a fragile, factitious team that had narrowly escaped being victims of a terrorist attack weeks earlier, he led like a tiger on the field, famously chastising Mohammad Amir after he missed a run-out in a match Pakistan had already effectively won. At the same time, Younis put on a jovial, non-serious façade to the world to protect his young side. People laughed when he made his comment about the tournament (which Pakistan would win) being akin to the WWF, yet the genius of the comment lay in how it took pressure off his side - it is no exaggeration to say that the "T20s are WWF" comment was as iconic a moment in Pakistani cricket oration as Imran Khan's "cornered tigers" speech.

This past week, Sajjad released a song named after a popular phrase that audiences in local cinemas yell out when they want to see a song. At once playful and populist, the lyrics express the simple aspirations of the common Pakistani and the obstacles he faces. I have no doubt that if this song were a person, it would be Younis Khan. A man that we call out to when we feel the need for someone to comfort us, to guide us and to furnish our dreams; a man who doesn't polarise but instead brings us together; a man who is the father figure this nation never had.

So yell it with me: "Younis Khan - zindabad!"

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @karachikhatmal

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