Yousuf rediscovers fluency with authoritative display
"Contest!" cried the cricket fan to Pakistan all summer. Finally, Mohammad Yousuf answered the prayers. All those doubts about his match fitness, those suspicions about his mindset, those questions over whether it was right to recall him, slid away like the passing clouds above The Oval. What became clear by the end of the day was Pakistan need Yousuf. No jury could decree otherwise.
Thursday morning began for the tourists as so many others on this tour have - with early wickets. Yasir Hameed and Salman Butt were back in the dressing room less than ten overs into the morning. A four-day finish looked imminent. Though Pakistan still clung on to a sense of hope, it was Yousuf who transformed that into belief.
Coming into this innings it was almost like another debut for Pakistan's best batsman of the generation. Earlier in the year, in a rush of blood, he abruptly announced his retirement with scant explanation after the PCB inquiry committee held him as one of the players responsible for the disastrous tour of Australia, where Pakistan came second in every match, across every format. Yousuf was the captain then. But in July he volunteered to join the ranks once more and made himself available for an SOS.
Just as Pakistan are struggling to find donors after floods have submerged one-fifth of the landmass in the country, their cricket team was struggling to find a saviour in the batting line-up - somebody who could be the bulwark. There were some grins, and a few grimaces too, but Yousuf was quickly embraced back into the dressing room.
Bending, stretching and squatting, he loosened those stiff muscles as he prepared to face his first delivery. He defended stoutly against a loopy one from Swann first up and then slid one behind the keeper for a leg bye. A much sterner test was on its way.
Jimmy Anderson on an overcast morning, at home, with a fairly new ball, possesses a sting worse than the most dangerous snake on the planet. His first delivery was a perfectly shaped outswinger, which pitched fuller and moved late, prompting Yousuf to play and miss. The restless ritual of skipping and stretching followed.
It took 14 further deliveries before Yousuf opened his account with a tuck to the leg side for a single. But the examination was getting tougher as Stuart Broad took over form Anderson and kept Yousuf on the hook. Still he held himself together.
The first four came off the 34th delivery as he clipped a leg-side delivery from Steven Finn past square-leg. England were desperately trying to get rid of him before lunch but he applied himself and countered the mixture of short-pitch and slower deliveries from Broad in the final over of the first session.
There were few plays and misses - about eight in the hour into the second session - but as the minutes passed by, his heartbeat steadied and with that returned the old fluency. A few overs after lunch he read Anderson's late inswing cleverly, waiting until the last moment before playing the ball. After a few watchful dots, he steered Anderson past the empty third man pocket for his third boundary. With Yousuf's momentum building, Strauss was forced to abandon the attacking field - pushing second slip down to the boundary and reinforcing the cover ring with an extra fielder. England were suddenly flustered.
Yousuf is that rare breed of batsman who is artistic and stylish, and who uses the bat like a conductor uses his baton. VVS Laxman, Mahela Jayawardene and Michael Clarke are other players in this select bunch. As his captain Salman Butt said later, the beauty of Yousuf, when he is on song, is the amount of time he has to play his strokes. Yousuf can create this (false) sense of extra time because he's in the perfect position to decide which shot to play.
As Michael Holding smartly spotted on TV, never once did Yousuf play a shot out of his crease. He was bolted to his position, knew where he was standing, understood which deliveries were to be left alone, before unleashing those late and silky drives without notice. The bowlers were forced to change their lines and angles. Strauss retreated to his predecessor Kevin Pietersen at gully to discuss a different strategy. Graeme Swann, the best spinner in the game, tried to bowl from both sides of the wicket but could not tempt Yousuf into anything ill-judicious. For the first time in the series, an absorbing battle was taking place. The crowd enjoyed the contest and Swann did as well.
"I am delighted to get Yousuf," Swann said of his 100th Test victim. "He would probably be the name on their team sheet I'd have picked at the start of the game. He is a world-class player. Having not played any cricket for four to five months and to look as calm and authoritative as he did is all credit to him, and it helps guys around him."
Yousuf's sense of calm was indeed contagious as Azhar Ali started playing with gusto at the other end. Though he had a fifty under his belt in his five Tests, on this tour Azhar, like his Pakistani peers, has looked uncertain about which road to take whenever Pakistan found themselves at crossroads. Today he appeared more decisive and less fallible. Even when Yousuf departed, for the first time attempting an expansive stroke against Swann, Azhar guarded against any collapse with aplomb.
"Mohammad [Yousuf] was very helpful," Azhar said. "When I was in the middle he was guiding me, calming me down, saying 'just stay in and the runs will come'."
Yousuf held his head in embarrassment and disgust at the mode of his dismissal. It was not the first time he had got distracted after assuming control. In his last two series, in New Zealand and Australia, he had worked hard to get a foothold before relinquishing it with a rash decision. But he will have more chances to correct the wrongs. Pakistan's heads still need to remain calm. That will help the team move ahead in the right direction.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo