Death is a strange thing. It is at once one of the most fundamental realities that shapes our culture, rituals and beliefs, and yet it also makes most of us uncomfortable, and often makes us act in denial or misplaced bravado. Sportswriters often like to bring up death as a metaphor when discussing retirement. An athlete's life often singularly focuses around their careers, and the end of a career might feel like a death. But if you are going to write on Younis Khan, death becomes a trite, offensive metaphor, simply because more than any other player one can think of, death appears as a continuous leitmotif in his career.
From 2002 to 2014, Younis suffered the deaths of seven people extremely close to him. These included his father, three siblings, an adolescent nephew, a brother whom he described as his first cricket coach, and a cricket coach he described as a father. Not only were most of these deaths sudden and tragic, each of them was inextricably tied to his cricketing life - all of them took place while he was either on a tour or playing in an active series.
And it doesn't end there. Step out of the immediate, and this era of repeated personal tragedies came at a time when Younis' ethnic group, the Pashtuns, have faced shocking violence in post 9/11 upheavals. In the latter years of this era, the Pashtuns faced brutal reprisals in Younis' adopted home town of Karachi. Younis was also captain, and not very far away, when terrorists in his own country attacked a cricket team.
When people write about Younis, they often end up having to acknowledge some of these deaths simply because they have occurred with such extraordinary frequency. But as I said, death makes us uncomfortable, and so, most times when we discuss it in the context of his career, we try to give it some functional purpose. We talk about how Younis was shaped by adversity, because it's easier to do that than to reflect on just how harrowing such experiences might have been. How such tragedies might have unmoored him, or disturbed the focus and belief needed to be a top athlete.
"The question that arises is, how exactly did Younis manage to survive the cruelty of both fate's randomness and his innate lack of ability?"
But now, as we weigh his wonderful career and seek to find its place in history, it is important to acknowledge death, because it serves as a crucial context to his playing years. And context is important because now that his numbers brook no dissent, context is the only argument some use against the claim that he is the greatest Test batsman in Pakistan's history.
Cricket fans have a notorious tendency for romanticism, and there is often such a celebration of style that substance can end up taking a back seat. Style, however, has never been Younis Khan's ally. In a recent article asking fans to vote for the best Pakistani batsmen, the top three choices were Younis, Javed Miandad and Inzamam-ul-Haq. The phrases used to describe Javed included "run machine", "modern-day batsman" and "all-time great". For Inzi, there were terms like "sublime" and "magical". The paragraph on Younis included "resilience", "adversity", "questions and doubts".
Not only did Younis lack the style and panache of these two rivals, he never even came close to looking like a master batsman. Think of him during the last England tour, when he batted like a puppet controlled by a fidgety child. This wretched display was after a purple patch of form, after he had risen to the top of the batting charts, after he was acknowledged as a great. When he finally hit a marvellous double-century in the final Test, he revealed that a call from Mohammad Azharuddin had changed his fortunes. Azhar's advice had been for Younis to stay in his crease. It boggled the mind how such an accomplished player would need such basic advice, and yet there it was. Younis, even at this stage, still didn't find batting to come easily or naturally.
There is a wonderful little Tumblr that collects pictures of Younis Khan airborne while batting. Each picture has him in some strange, contrived position that doesn't resemble any conventional shot-making pose. Each picture seems to be of a plucky survivor, not a dominant batsman. Each picture is a reminder of how batting is often a struggle for Younis.
You won't find similar Tumblrs on Javed or Inzi, though. Sure, you might find one collecting Javed's outrageous stunts, or one on Inzi's incredible run-outs. But even those would serve to burnish their respective legends - Javed as the ultimate exponent of mind games, and Inzi as the lazy slowpoke who was too talented to need athleticism.
Younis, the tortured contortionist, surpassed the achievements of those two despite his obvious failings, despite his lack of natural talent. And he did it without ever having the fame or material security that came to those two. Javed and Inzi spent their careers as superstars, coming home to adoring crowds and awards after hitting last-ball sixes and audaciously winning World Cup semi-finals. Younis returned soon after winning a world title to face a senate hearing, and exited a World Cup after facing a murder investigation. Javed and Inzi enjoyed the patronage of corporate endorsements and generous sheikhs, while Younis spent several months during the peak of his career manning a store in a middle-class Karachi neighborhood.
The question that then arises is, how exactly did Younis manage to survive the cruelty of both fate's randomness and his innate lack of ability? The answer would seem to lie in his discipline and his beliefs.
Ask his team-mates, and they will speak in awestruck tones of how unwavering his routines are, unchanging whether he is in form or not. They will speak about how furiously particular he is about his spot in the dressing room, about the way he packs his kit bag or about the throwdowns he receives in practice.
They will speak about his eagerness to teach youngsters how to believe in themselves, a trait precious few Pakistani batting "greats" ever had. His last captain and great partner, Misbah-ul-Haq, speaks about how the two of them spent years planning to do things the right way if they ever had the chance, and how they then spent seven years carefully putting those ideas into action.
"Now that Younis's numbers brook no dissent, context is the only argument some use against the claim that he is the greatest Test batsman in Pakistan's history"
Such unwavering commitment to discipline, routine and order serves as an intriguing contrast to the adversity Younis has regularly faced in life and career. It takes a bit to reconcile the fact that it has taken all this painstaking effort just to get to a place where he still looks exposed and vulnerable as a batsman. Imagine where he might have been without his constant self-improvement.
Annoyingly, Younis' humility and hard work have left many with a reductive view of who he is. Most of his tributes describe him as a "gentleman". While there's no doubt that he is unfailingly sweet and polite, he is far too volatile to be called just a gentleman. He has had physical confrontations with Inzi and Shahid Afridi, he has had huge fights with PCB chairmen which have led to bans and apologies, he has fought with and threatened umpires, he has beaten up the occasional rude fan, and he spent an extraordinarily prickly few months orchestrating a bizarre and petulant retirement from ODIs. He has had many, many run-ins with the media.
Indeed, it is worth it to dwell a bit on his abrasive relationship with the media, because he blames it for him giving up his trademark smile. In a 2009 interview he claimed that the grilling he received after his comment that T20s were just a bit of fun changed him. In his own words, "after that match, I changed totally. I was silent, not smiling so much and I didn't even smile when we won. I felt then that I needed to get a bit tight and stop all this smiling."
But even sacrificing the smile didn't come for nothing. Younis walked away with a World T20 title that Pakistan won playing the most Pakistan-esque cricket in ages. Younis now seldom brings out his glorious smile, reserving it for when he has taken another one of his remarkable slip catches, or sometimes during partnerships with Misbah.
The smile is rarely seen when he is batting, even though he has spent years now marking huge achievements. Indeed, the smiling Younis has made way for a serious, hungry Younis who has been consumed by the desire to not just make his career count but to leave numbers that no one can argue with.
This hunger, this ruthless march to the top, wasn't something born out of love for his team, or done to mentor youngsters, or meant as an example of his selflessness in favour of the team, even though it is also about all these things. Ultimately it is because Younis knows that all careers end, and when they do, it's the accomplishments that count. He knows that when nostalgia fades away, it is the numbers that do the talking. And he has spent these years making sure his numbers say all the things he couldn't have done.
In a few hours, when his career finally ends, if someone goes and googles who has the most Test runs for Pakistan, they will find him. If they ask which Pakistan batsman has the most Test hundreds, the answer is him. If they look for the most prolific batting partnerships in Pakistan's history, three of the top five pairs will feature his name. If they check to see which Pakistani had the best conversion of fifties to hundreds, they will find him miles ahead of the rest. If they ask who has the most runs, the highest average or the most hundreds in the third and fourth innings, the answer is him. If they ask who has the most runs and the most hundreds in wins, the answer is him and him.
Younis Khan spent a career - a life - where he constantly faced challenges that threatened to overwhelm him. But he ends his career at a point where if someone asks who was the greatest Test batsman for Pakistan, the answer is him.