January 29, 2009

The right choice by default

Younis Khan happens to be Pakistan's sole realistic choice as captain; he's probably the right one as well

To every cause Younis will bring a good, clean fight © AFP

The route has been long, it has been convoluted and it has been difficult, but the Pakistan captaincy has finally found its way to Younis Khan. Two years ago he was the best man for it. Today he is the only one for it. In that difference of detail is found a weighty novel of woe.

Of the many ifs and buts that crowd Pakistan's history, among the most intriguing is what would have happened had Younis done the decent, right and normal thing by accepting the captaincy after the 2007 World Cup. No one really knows why he didn't, but in scuppering Pakistan's first and only properly genuine succession plan, he fathered two years of gloomy stagnancy. Certainly there was less risk attached to making him captain then, but people are pardoned and forgiven worse things in Pakistan.

Beyond that, prospects are bright. Above everything, there is no dispute over his place in ODIs or Tests: even with Mohammad Yousuf in the side, Younis is the most resolute, all-conditions batsman in Pakistan, runs in Australia coming as did runs in England, South Africa and Pakistan. Crucially, his team knows it. He is also the first indigenous Pathan to lead Pakistan: Imran Khan was often romanticised as the fearless Pathan, but he was born and bred in the Punjab, where his family had settled. It is important to know this for Younis is fully hewn from an environment and people his own countrymen have always had difficulty deciphering.

Without quite applying one brush to a whole people, the codes of life Pathans abide by are of a different feel, in place long before the country they now live in came into being. Their views on honour, justice, enmity and loyalty are often views apart. It was written once that if there is an element of lawlessness about them, the flipside is an attractive consciousness of their own dignity. So when Younis walked away from the captaincy before the Champions Trophy in 2006, one of the spurs was the sacking of a peon at the National Cricket Academy. Having to then wait to meet chairman Shaharyar Khan for a meeting subsequently tipped Younis over the edge. Not everyone will understand it, but that is the way it is.

He wanted things his own way when he was first offered the post, as does everyone, but he was less willing to compromise on it than most. There was similar talk this time too, but better sense has prevailed. His basic integrity, his sense of purpose, were never doubted. He is fiercely independent, but just as fiercely committed. To whatever the cause, he will bring the fight, and a good, clean fight. Lord knows Pakistan needs more than anything right now to fight on the field; off it, fight off the danger of mediocrity and obscurity.

Younis is less likely to tolerate the mistakes that Shoaib Malik - thus revealing the limit of his ambitions - was willing to. Thankfully he is also less likely to put up with the passengers Malik carried. But grudges, rest assured, will be held. Altogether, however, he will give himself whole to the job; it was the worst of Malik's faults that it always felt like he didn't, that he was always holding something back, in words and deeds.

It must work; it must be made to work, for if there isn't Younis what is there beyond him? Can people seriously tout Shahid Afridi as an option?

Immediate impacts cannot be guessed. Younis has downplayed how much should be expected of one man, while also stressing the depths of Pakistan's ills. Realism remains preferable to the blandness of most captains stating they want to do well, or some such: the team will still be mostly the same so miracles cannot be expected.

But some fight can and should be, some sense that this is a team, in someone's image. So far have Pakistan fallen, so blah have they become, that even a return to the days when people genuinely believed they could beat anyone on their day, will represent progress. Unpredictability is still more seductive and productive than insipidity.

With Younis as captain the wheel has now turned full again. Much like in the country's politics, the policy and personnel of the last regime have been swept clean. It has given way to a dynamite-laden structure: Younis, Abdul Qadir, Aamir Sohail, Ijaz Butt are some of Pakistan cricket's wildest horses (and that says something). Javed Miandad has already gone, and though Younis wasn't the reason, Miandad was one of the men not happy with Younis' appointment. The decision, it turns out, wasn't so unanimous after all.

The edifice remains fragile, like an eggshell mind, to quote a dead man. If the whole shebang goes off without many casualties, it will be the greatest miracle since Keith Richards lived past his 60th birthday.

But it must work; it must be made to work, for if there isn't Younis what is there beyond him? Can people seriously tout Shahid Afridi as an option, when his own place in the ODI side is so insecure?

And Malik's experience confirms what Miandad's and Wasim Akram's first stints showed: in Pakistan, the young, for whatever reasons, cannot lead. In time to come this may change, but for now these are rigid and unbending structures we deal with. For now Younis is the only option. As a bonus, he might just be the right one.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo