August 7, 2014

The old-world virtue of Younis Khan

There's something dated, and comforting, about the security he represents for Pakistan, and when he is gone they will be truly bereft

Maybe I'm getting old but these days a Younis Khan hundred hits a sweeter spot than usual inside me. Somehow, when he scores a hundred the whole of Pakistan cricket feels like a more secure, comforting place. Hell, even the whole of Pakistan seems like a safer, more welcoming place. His hundreds are like a motion-sickness prevention pill, after which all the winding, roundabout insanity of Pakistan cricket matters less and less. Who's retiring? Who's in court? Who's the chairman? What's the domestic structure? Who cares? Younis is in.

I guess it's natural to start feeling like this now that he is coming to the end of his career. He wants to play in next year's World Cup and he may play on another year, maybe two, maybe even three, of Test cricket. But he's basically going to be gone soon. And then the one link Pakistan has to a past that it doesn't fetishise enough will be gone too: Misbah-ul-Haq is from the same space spiritually, he is older and the captain as well, but everyone knows Younis is the real institution in the side.

Don't get me wrong. Younis is very much a modern Pakistan product. But the ethos by which he has played his cricket - at every level - has always pre-dated the mores that have defined the period in which he has played. It is easy to imagine Younis as a cricketer in 1970s Pakistan; on the verge of superstardom, fighting for the economic rights of his comrades, nobly tending to local cricket. Some time ago he was talking about starting up a grassroots club in Karachi, where he could breed a certain kind of cricket culture - the kind that he represents. Who does that anymore, especially when it is more profitable to buy a franchise? He still turns up for his domestic side as often as he can, and his excursions into domestic cricket abroad have always been in the four-day formats. If Pakistan ever does get serious about setting up a players' association, you can be sure he will be right at its centre.

Even the stories involving potential violence from his early career sound somehow safer now. He used to travel to his Karachi club, the legendary Malir Gymkhana, through conflict-ridden areas of Karachi, on crowded buses that were lucky not to be struck by bullets. The city's inflammability of that era I could at least understand: to be in danger, generally you had to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, between warring political parties or ethnicities in specific areas. There was order to that, even if it was bloody and brutal. Now it feels like the whole country is in the wrong place at the wrong time. The violence is bloodier, more brutal, and worst of all, random.

That sense is what I've gradually come to love most about Younis, that he is the fading echo of a more wholesome time. I sense it every time he bats with an Asad Shafiq or an Azhar Ali, for whom he isn't so much a batting partner as a counselor or a guide. Much more than run-making, he is teaching them about resilience. He is teaching them how to soak up the pressures of the insecure early existence of a Pakistan international, and how to survive an environment where a young player is not an asset but a cheap, expendable resource.

He had to learn it himself. He had to learn - though he still hasn't fully - which battles to pick and which to ignore. It wasn't until 2005, after all, that he became secure in the side, five years after his debut. That moment came after a Test hundred in Kolkata, when a realisation struck him: "Even if I didn't succeed," he said in an interview after that India tour, "it wouldn't matter. I've always wanted to play good cricket - I don't want to play more, but try and play with my dignity intact."

One day soon Pakistan will field a team in which nobody has played Test cricket in Pakistan, and that is when I think the virtue of Younis Khan will become clear

By modern measures, it's kind of ridiculous that he has only played 90 Tests in 15 years (Alastair Cook is beginning his 107th in eight years today). But back in 2002-03 few - including Younis - would have thought he would get even that many. Perhaps that is what he wants Shafiq and Azhar to understand the most. He has lived through 15 of the grimiest years in Pakistan's cricket, a fair shit-storm of an age, and sure, there's a spot or two on his whites, but they are mostly still white. If he can teach Shafiq, Azhar and anyone else how to do that, it will really be something.

This latest hundred itself? It hardly mattered how it was made, except that it progressed like many of his hundreds, like the trajectory of his career, in fact: a becalmed start, fortunate to survive, but increasingly assured as it went on. I used to think he was too fidgety and skittish to ever be the rock that Pakistan needed, forever in perpetual, slightly neurotic motion at the crease. Mohammad Yousuf and Inzamam-ul-Haq, by contrast, were so still that they were obviously gifted. But Younis managed just fine. Statistically at least he is getting to be the equal of both.

In my older and more partial moments (usually when considering his slip catching and the fact that he stands a couple away from becoming the first Pakistani to 100 Test snaffles) he may even sneak ahead. He saved Pakistan on the first day, as he has done, not always, but enough times for all of us to feel sure and secure around him.

I'm going to bottle up that glow because one day soon Pakistan will field a team in which nobody has played Test cricket in Pakistan, and that is when I think the virtue of Younis Khan will become clear. For a team that has no home, the late-career hundreds of Younis Khan have felt like home. Only when he's gone will Pakistan be truly homeless.

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Shokin on October 14, 2015, 7:31 GMT

    Exceptionally Well,

  • Mashuq on August 12, 2014, 19:03 GMT

    A wonderfully appropriate tribute to a modern great. Long live the spirit of Younis Khan: dignity and respect!

  • Dummy4 on August 11, 2014, 19:29 GMT

    Excellent article, great job done. Pakistan is very unfortunate not to play too many test /odi's under Younis Khan's captaincy. He is a dedicated player and honest leader and he would have developed fighting cricketers if he had captained the side more like Imran khan developed Inzamam, Waseem n Waqar after his retirement.

  • Nasser on August 9, 2014, 11:58 GMT

    Another excellent article by Osman - touched my heart too. Essentialy, you are talking of a TEST batsman, which is a very rare commodity in Pakistan (since the 70's and early 80's). The fact that you also refer to Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali and not others is also because these too are TEST batsmen; not quite of the calibre of Younis, but hopefully shal get there. Your article also correctly points out that many of the performances of Asad and Azhar have been while batting with Younis (and Misbah too) because of an assuring reliance needed to stay at the wicket in tough conditions. Hopefully these two would have matured by the time Younis and Misbah leave Pakistan cricket. There is no other TEST batsmen in Pakistan cricket and this will hurt Pakistan's performances in TEST cricket, which is the ONLY TRUE cricket form.

  • asad on August 8, 2014, 17:30 GMT

    @haqster499: Don't you think 7 bowling options is a bit overkill. If you're going to make Younis open then drop Hafeez, push Misbah and Umar one spot down and put Fawad Alam in at 4. Remember the world cup is happening in Australia so 3 spinners aren't needed. I think the wc squad should be: Ahmed Shehzad, Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-haq, Sohaib Maqsood, Umar Akmal, Fawad Alam, Saeed Ajmal, Junaid Khan, Mohammad Irfan, Shahid Afridi, Hammad Azam, Anwar Ali, Sharjeel Khan, Umar Gul, Wahab Riaz. I'm saying Wahab Riaz because I believe that Waqar Younis can make him a Pakistani Mitchell Johnson.

  • James on August 8, 2014, 17:08 GMT

    From an England fan, his 2nd inns hundred in the 3rd Test at Dubai on England's last tur there was majestic. On that day I could imagine him counselling Azhar Ali as the author states. Given everything that has happened to hm and Pakistani cricket in the last ten years, he is a modern great.

  • Dummy4 on August 8, 2014, 12:11 GMT

    As we turn older, (is 36 really OLD???), the value of more and more things dawn on us. I used to abhor his batting style which seemed way, way too heavy around the loose limbed shots and the bloody sweep. I remember my analogy that he was to Muhammad Yousuf, what Chanderpaul was to B.C. Lara: the ugly crow in the presence of the most regal of swans. Time has however changed that. Muhammad Yousuf, sadly, no longer mesmerises us and also Younis is all that we, the forlorn Pakistan OLD cricket enthusiasts seemingly have left. Ryan Giggs has finally hung his holy boots and the pressure on Misbah is unfairly immense to make way. Younis has outlived the storms and long may this continue. Osman has almost brought a nostalgic tear to the eyes.

  • Naresh on August 8, 2014, 6:46 GMT

    WELL DONE YOUNIS KHAN - you are there amongst the best - there is no doubt. Indian fan.

  • aman on August 8, 2014, 5:50 GMT

    World cup is round the corner in Aus where most of our players have not played.

    I would start getting Younis Khan to open in ODIs with Ahmed Shahzad. He's always coming in early anyway -- why dont we put him at No1 in his ODI comeback? He can stablize the innings, see off the new ball and the other batsman should bat around him. He can take the singles, doubles and guide the youngsters in the middle on bouncy wickets. Plus he is great in the field.

    ODI team: Ahmed Shahzad, Younis Khan, Sohaib Maqsood, Misbah, Umar Akmal, Mohammad Hafeez, Afridi, Bilalwal Bhatti, Umar Gul, Saeed Ajmal, Junaid Khan or Mohammad Irfan

  • Jawwad on August 8, 2014, 4:18 GMT

    The poignancy in your article is truly heart wrenching. And I thought calling desert our home was diabolic. This love affair with Team Pakistan has cost the fan dearly.