Younis Khan August 3, 2012

Howard Roark via Atticus Finch

Not lovable on first sight, Younis Khan grows on you with his determination and commitment

The private adulation of a sports fan may be a one-sided and self-contained mental activity, but it still bears the contours of an emotional relationship. When as a boy I became besotted with Javed Miandad, the experience played out inside my head like a thrilling adventure. With Younis Khan, to whom I lost my cricketing heart after his 267 and 84 not out in Bangalore, it has been more nuanced and intense. Idolising Miandad felt like a back-slapping camaraderie; with Younis it feels more like a brooding bromance.

There are certainly enough reasons to fall in love with Younis - a Test average above 50, a triple-hundred, that double-hundred against India in India, some unforgettable rearguards, and captaincy of Pakistan's title-winning T20 team. But Younis does not make it easy for anyone.

At the crease, he is not especially attractive: too much bottom hand for the Asian aesthetic, a coarse forward-defensive, and - early in the innings - a wobble in the arc of his bat. As a captain, he has been aloof and reserved; as a person he is rumoured to be a social recluse. None of these are particularly endearing traits.

Yet he exudes a silent magnetism that, combined with his cricketing feats, can be quite overpowering. If he were a character in a novel, he would be something of a meld between Ayn Rand's Howard Roark and Harper Lee's Atticus Finch - dignified, dedicated, fiercely individualistic, and unquestioningly committed, albeit in his own idiosyncratic way, to the greater good.

As with any complex package, when you peel away the layers, Younis' persona becomes ever more compelling. He was born in Mardan, a prominent city in Pakistan's northern region, but then moved southwards, and his cricketing life began at the opposite end of the country, in Karachi. A perpetually restless city, in the mid-nineties Karachi's restlessness was at its peak. Political ferment had spilled over into violence, on a larger scale than had happened before or has since. Pitched battles were fought on major thoroughfares, and the army had been called in. People still went about their daily business, but in a stifling atmosphere of struggle and siege.

At the time, Younis was an energetic Karachi teenager whose daily business was mastering cricket. Ambitious, talented, and driven, he had caught the eye of Rashid Latif at Malir Gymkhana, one of the city's famous sports clubs. Multiple stages lay ahead - Under-19, Karachi probables, domestic first-class and beyond. This was a foot in the door.

Younis' daily commute was nearly 20 miles, along the city's eastern outskirts. He would set out from the employees' colony at Pakistan Steel, where his father worked, and make his way through a series of tough neighbourhoods to reach the suburb of Malir. According to Latif, Younis never missed a match. Even if he was 12th man, he would show up. Latif found him to be industrious and determined. He felt he had spotted a gem.

If and when Younis narrates his story, we will know first-hand the kind of risks he took. The lore, for now, is that he dodged bullets to play cricket. What makes his early history truly captivating is that Younis' relationship with Latif straddled the very faultline on which Karachi was aflame. A Pushto-speaking Pathan, Younis' lineage is firmly placed in Pakistan's northwestern frontier; Latif, in contrast, belongs to Karachi's Urdu-speaking community, which migrated from India at the time of Partition and has tended to claim the city as its own.

At the crease, Younis is not especially attractive: too much bottom hand, a coarse forward-defensive, and - early in the innings - a wobble in the arc of his bat. As a captain, he has been aloof and reserved. Yet he exudes a silent magnetism that, combined with his cricketing feats, can be quite overpowering

The bond between the two men provides an important window into Younis' character, his honesty and warmth, and his capacity to accord and receive respect. Forged as a mentorship that prepared Younis for entry onto the world stage, over the years it has sustained him through the ups and downs of his career. It is said that Younis does not take any major decision without consulting Latif. And if you get Latif speaking about Younis, he will talk your ear off with heartfelt praise.

Younis is now officially 34, which places his real age anywhere between 34 and 36. The talk these days is of his legacy. After runs at 51.69 in 79 Tests, there is no denying that he has carved for himself a spot in Pakistan's batting pantheon. But what ultimately distinguishes him is not so much the size of his scores as the manner and circumstances in which they were made.

The Bangalore performance was triggered by a sarcastic remark - leaked to the press - from the Pakistan team manager that undermined Younis. His captaincy of Pakistan in the 2009 World Twenty20 championship came weeks after the terror attacks outside Gaddafi Stadium; in many ways, most of all emotionally and in terms of morale, this was the lowest point in Pakistan's cricket history, and it proved the perfect setting for Younis' crusading streak to kick in. Even his triple-hundred, although made on a flat track in Karachi, came under pressure, after he, eschewing the nightwatchman, stepped out in the dying moments of the second day with Pakistan staring at a huge Sri Lankan total.

This resilient spirit of confronting obstacles head-on and quietly fighting his way through is perhaps Younis' most enduring trait. There is something very tough in it, as well as very noble, and it has marked him from an early age. In his teenage years, despite his ability and Latif's unflinching patronage, Younis' ethnicity was held against him when he was trying to break into one of the Karachi teams. Frustrated with the high-handedness of Karachi's selectors, he travelled north to try his luck in Peshawar, the capital of his ancestral province. With Younis in the side, Peshawar won the Quaid-e-Azam trophy, Pakistan's flagship domestic tournament, for the first time. Later in life, it is this same streak that has made Younis a rearguard specialist, something to which his remarkable fourth-innings record in Tests bears ample testimony.

The closest I have come to meeting him is when I once caught his attention by yelling from the stands at the Dubai Cricket Stadium. At the end of the second day during the third Test against England earlier this year, Younis was walking back to the pavilion after making a hundred in the second innings on what had been a lethal pitch. Head bowed, face dripping with sweat, helmet nestled in the crook of his arm, he cut a figure of dignity and poise. Two friends and I had positioned ourselves on the upper stand balcony, immediately above the Pakistan dressing room. We lavished praise on Younis and his innings but he kept quietly walking on, seemingly unaware and unmoved. It wasn't until I shouted that he had saved his team that he finally looked up. And he flashed a smile.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi