March 29, 2010

Au revoir or farewell?

Mohammad Yousuf's retirement announcement wasn't all that convincing - after all, we've been there before

Not once in his scripted spiel did Mohammad Yousuf actually say anything about quitting international cricket, which, given that the occasion was to officially announce his retirement, seemed a strange way of going about it. Having already told the biggest, most influential Urdu-language paper in Pakistan - essentially the whole country - two days ago that he was going to retire, perhaps he felt he didn't need to say he was actually retiring at the function organised for that very purpose.

It was only after he finished thanking past captains, players, God, and talking about a PCB letter, that a bemused reporter asked him, just to be sure, "So you are retiring right?"

"Yes, yes," Yousuf quickly responded. "Yes, this is my retirement. I have retired from international cricket." The whole affair has about it the permanence of an ice cube in the Sahara.

Reluctantly, Yousuf answered questions, with answers that weren't really answers at all.

'Why are you retiring?'

"After the Australia tour I got a letter from the PCB which said that me staying in the team is harmful to the team and Pakistan cricket," he answered. "I don't want to cause harm to Pakistan cricket. Everyone has their own thinking and the disciplinary committee has its own thinking and I haven't understood the reasons for it, or senior players, or the public."

'Is this a final decision?' asked another.

"Filhaal, this is what I can see, that my playing for Pakistan is damaging."

Filhaal means, essentially, "for now". Four times over the next 15 minutes, as he was asked variants of the same question - if there is a change in administration will you come back, if captain, coach, PCB, selector call will you come back, if the public want you back, will you come back? - he said the same thing: "For now, this is it, for now this is my retirement."

For now: so here we had retirement as a temporary state of being. Heavyweight boxers have sounded more serious about farewells. Some time into it, journalists started taking bets as to when they'd be here again, covering the return of Yousuf. One even went and told Yousuf he better book the Press Club now for whenever he announces his return, so busy can the calendar get. The response, other than a smile, wasn't recorded.

Yousuf was asked whether he will now appeal against the indefinite ban imposed on him by the PCB, and if it seemed an irrelevant question, it gained significance with the answer. "Retirement I have given but as far as the appeal is concerned I will speak to my elders and if they allow me to, I will appeal." So if the elders approve - the very same who advised him to retire - Yousuf will appeal to have an indefinite ban lifted so that he can what? Stay retired? He'll even continue playing first-class and league cricket, "to stay in touch and keep my fitness".

Even the whole function at the Karachi Press Club was decidedly non-retirement in spirit. It could have been a belated meet for his feats of 2006, the year of Yousuf. Press club officials made impassioned speeches about his greatness and gave him gifts before he finally came on to speak, like a homecoming hero, and not, as was the case, a departing one.

He didn't moan openly about the PCB; he insisted that because the letter said he would be harmful to the team, he would not play for the team. So, came the assumption, you agree you were harmful to the team? "What the PCB is saying, that is what they are saying," he didn't explain. "I don't have answers to what you guys are asking."

The whole function was decidedly non-retirement in spirit. It could have been a belated meet for his feats of 2006, the year of Yousuf. Press club officials made impassioned speeches about his greatness and gave him gifts before he finally came on to speak, like a homecoming hero, and not, as was the case, a departing one

Finally, when everyone reluctantly decided that this was actually a farewell press conference and not the kind of pressure tactic everyone suspected it to be, someone asked him, half-heartedly, to recall his most memorable performances. Usually it is the first question in such situations. "I always tried for Pakistan to benefit from my batting, and if people feel that, then I am happy. Any innings through which I saved Pakistan or won a Test, I am most satisfied with."

It might be final, it might not. Presumably, Yousuf will surely tell us, it is not in any mortal's hands. If it is to be - and the PCB so far seems monumentally unconcerned - then Yousuf leaves behind a comprehensive body of work, though not perhaps unadulterated acclaim.

Undoubtedly, he was Pakistan's best batsman behind Inzamam-ul-Haq this decade, and that he was so good to watch was, in these overcoached times of the stiff elbow, sweet mercy. But an ordinary record against Australia and South Africa will hound him forever (though the beauty of an MCG, Boxing Day special against Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath can never be erased).

After his record year, he never kicked on, mired in petty distractions. And it is strangely fitting that of his 24 Test hundreds, eight were in Pakistan wins, eight in draws and eight in losses; enough ammunition for those who think he didn't win too many games for Pakistan and just as much for those who think he saved them sufficient times and for there never to be a completely clear verdict.

But one day, when all is finally said and done, we will perhaps remember him for his quite extraordinary story. His rise to where he is, to the captain of Pakistan, to become one of their best batsmen ever, is a singularly heartening tale of how sometimes, somehow, talent alone is enough to overcome just about anything. It is testament to a spirit; a spirit that should never die in this land.

If only so that he can go out with the grace that his batting deserves, it is hoped this is not final.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

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