August 2006

Lofty elegance

Mohammad Yousuf: elegant, and mighty effective too © Getty Images

There was a time in Mohammad Yousuf's career when Rameez Raja could not resist bracketing "lazy elegance" next to his name. Yousuf and lazy elegance were joined at the hip, inseparable. Whenever Yousuf stroked a boundary, it was a triumph of lazy elegance. Whenever the same method chipped the ball into the hands of cover point or edged it to slip, lazy elegance was the culprit. Yousuf and lazy elegance were united in an eternal tussle between glory and damnation. Which would emerge victorious, sloth or style?

Yousuf had spent some considerable time cultivating this batting methodology. He was 23 years old before he made his debut for Pakistan, an age by which the careers of some Pakistan cricketers have been made and destroyed several times over - take his fellow beardsman Shahid Afridi for example. What happened before is a fascinating line of inquiry for an earnest historian or Yousuf's future biographer. Was his delayed debut a consequence of stark poverty - extreme even by Pakistani standards? Was it a payback for his passion for crossing himself as he stepped on a cricket pitch or passed a milestone? Was he simply late to mature (although for a batsman of such exquisite timing this explanation strikes one as fantastical)?

For whatever prompted a reversal in Yousuf's fortunes, we must now offer thanks. Within a decade he has become Pakistan's most sparkling batsman, a joy to the eye and a cool hand in the heat of battle. Inzamam-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, unusually - no, incredibly - for Pakistan cricket, offer similar powers of crisis resolution but neither can match the sheer beauty of Yousuf's batting, a throwback to a wristy perfection introduced by India's ancient masters and executed most notably for Pakistan by Zaheer Abbas, the Asian Bradman. Zaheer is held in such esteem in Pakistan, and more widely, that it will come as a shock to many that Yousuf has moved comfortably past him in terms of career statistics with some time to go before he exhausts the crackle in his wrists. If he continues in this vein, Yousuf will surpass even Inzamam and Javed Miandad.

Yousuf's international career was born in 1998, a little before Pakistan cricket began to be ripped apart by the match-fixing scandal. After a failure on debut in South Africa, Yousuf - then Youhana - helped Pakistan avoid an embarrassing first Test defeat in Zimbabwe and win the second Test with three fifties in four innings. Indeed, his first four fifties and first hundred were all against Zimbabwe, who themselves then aspired to something better. Despite the nature of the opposition, Yousuf was already distinguishing himself as somebody who could succeed when his more illustrious team-mates failed.

With more than 5500 Test runs at an average of more than 52, Yousuf is one of the most successful batsmen ever for Pakistan © Getty Images

By 1999 he was an exhilarating performer in Pakistan's ultimately doomed bid to win the World Cup. He collected runs with panache, effortless, brimful of classical strokeplay, bludgeoning occasionally. Notwithstanding some dodgy calling, he was something of a hare between the wickets and in the field. Indeed, his meteoric form in one-day cricket ensured that Pakistan persisted with him even though his early Test fortunes were mixed. Pakistan fans took him to their hearts over the course of that World Cup, and even his Ave Marias were endearing. I can remember how my heart sank when I learned that he would miss the final against Australia with a hamstring injury. Pakistan sank, too, in that final and returned home to a hell created from the playing and administrative indiscretions of the 1990s.

Yousuf had entered that murky world too late to be properly embroiled in the match-fixing scandal, another blessing. His Test breakthrough came in the West Indies in 2000 where he scored back-to-back centuries and Pakistan were robbed of a first ever series win in the Caribbean by some outstandingly poor umpiring. Later that year he produced two further centuries, this time at home against England, the second of which, at the National Stadium in Karachi, nudged his Test average back over 40, where it has stayed ever since.

Early in the following year Yousuf scored his first double-hundred, in New Zealand, completing a sequence of four hundreds and a double-hundred in 14 innings. The subsequent short and ill- conceived tour of England was one of his poorest, and with George Bush's war on terrorism destroying Pakistan's cricket calendar, Yousuf's performances became a little up and down - a yoyo in nickname and in contribution. He would usually get a start, and usually throw it away. If Yousuf had been one of life's grafters, he might have been forgiven. But a quick 30 or half-century seemed to come too easily to him. Where was the lid on this lazy elegance? Where was the responsibility? Where was the mental strength? Some called him a flat-track bully. Others called him a wastrel. What good was this style without a hint of substance to make it meaningful?

And then we saw it. A hundred at Melbourne in 2004 after Pakistan had been destroyed at Perth. It was an exquisite innings of dash and defence against the world's leading attack. This was pure elegance, no laziness in sight, and this would be his future. He was captain, too, in Inzamam's absence. A cull following the 2003 World Cup had entrusted the pair of them with Pakistan's integrity. Soon after, Yousuf picked up a hundred in India and then he picked up a beard. YoYo was dust, MoYo emerged, proud of his new religion and proclaiming a new inner calm.

Whether Yousuf's gush of runs is because of his religious conversion (he has an average of 47.46 as a Christian and around 80 as a Muslim), Bob Woolmer's "yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery" mantra, a pure coincidence, or a combination of all three, is a question unlikely ever to be answered satisfactorily. But let's be clear: his double-hundred at Lord's was the most serene, flawless, and composed innings I have ever seen by a Pakistani batsman under pressure. For Pakistan's sake, as Inzamam begins to disappear over the horizon, Yousuf's conversion to lofty elegance could not have been better timed.

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Kamran Abbasi is the editor of Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine