Few sights in England in 2006 were as striking as Mohammad Yousuf. Eyes fell naturally to the beard first, so WG-like and dense you wondered how the helmet's chinstrap managed. And once past the beard, another visual feast awaited.
With anything other than a bat in his hand, Yousuf cuts an unremarkable presence; as a fielder he is plain clumsy. With a bat, he comes alive. Bob Woolmer, his coach, likens him to a Ferrari when he is batting and a truck when he isn't. Throughout the English tour, he provided the surreal spectacle of a Ferrari doing the heavy pulling.
At Lord's, he arrived as Pakistan skidded to 28 for two, then 68 for four; at Headingley the wreckage read 36 for two. Each time, England had already scored 500-plus. Both messes demanded the sleeves-rolled-up, gritty salvation ethic of Steve Waugh and, in soul, they got it. But in body and mind, it was done with an élan more reminiscent of Mark Waugh. That 631 runs at an average of 90 eventually counted for so little was not Yousuf's doing. The manner of each of his three hundreds did not change. An endearing, useful quirk was the early boundary to settle. The backlift was always high and only at the very last moment was the ball played. The feet didn't much help, but hand and eye were steadfast friends. Little of his strokeplay was anything other than soothingly hypnotic, though his punches, drives and dabs through cover were particularly entrancing.
Ultimately, his performance drew from the richest traditions of Pakistani batting in England. It combined Zaheer Abbas's lust for monumental scores, Mohsin Khan's sense of occasion (Yousuf was only the second Pakistani after Mohsin to score a Test double-hundred at Lord's) and Salim Malik's wristy defiance. The beard flavoured it uniquely.
Mohammad Yousuf was born Yousuf Youhana on August 27, 1974, in Lahore, and his story is as striking as his current presence. A Christian, he was born, like much of his community (most Pakistani Christians converted from Hindu untouchables in the 19th century), into poverty. Circumstances scripted his early years.
His father worked at the railway station, the family lived in the nearby Railway Colony. As a boy he couldn't afford a bat and so swatted his brother's taped tennis-ball offerings with wooden planks of various dimensions on surfaces masquerading as roads. As a 12-year-old, he was spotted by the Golden Gymkhana, though even then only circumstances dictated his ambitions. "I never thought of playing for Pakistan. I just wanted a job in an organisation with a first-class cricket team, and to make a living."
He joined Lahore's Forman Christian College and continued playing until suddenly giving up in early 1994, for nearly a year. A steady income was the need of the hour. He was set to work at a tailor's when he was pulled back: "A local club was short of players. They called me to make up numbers. I made a hundred." It led to a season in the Bradford League, with Bowling Old Lane, and a path back into the game.
A year later he was pushing for first-class cricket. Lahore ignored him at first: his faith and background were not helpful. Undaunted, he went to nearby Bahawalpur and, in October 1996, made his debut. A heavy-scoring second season (back with Lahore) aroused interest and in February 1998, in South Africa, he became the fourth Christian to represent Pakistan. Gradually he established himself. His numbers were very decent: an average of nearly 48 from 59 Tests, with 13 hundreds. But there was still an impression that his career was a flimsy tribute to his talent. Yousuf could make dreams come true - he scored a century at Melbourne on Boxing Day when standing in as captain - yet he could be wasteful.
In 2005 he changed, first his faith then his batsmanship. His family expressed anger at his conversion to Islam, though they later reconciled themselves; liberals scoffed, and Christians moaned. The rumours swirled that he had been pressured into the change by a team with increasingly devout Islamic beliefs.
|I never thought of playing for Pakistan. I just wanted a job in an organisation with a first-class cricket team, and to make a living|
The turbulence passed. And now, as well as Grace's beard, he has developed Bradman's appetite for runs: from November 2005 to November 2006 he averaged 92 in 14 Tests. At no cost to his stylishness, he has developed a pragmatic understanding of run-gathering. His centuries tend to be bigger (two doubles and a record three 190s), and he has shown an ability to convert on the field as well as off it: only four times has he been out between 50 and 99, and he has made ten centuries.
Yousuf is clear about the connection. "The discipline and focus Islam has instilled have filtered into my batting." Many would argue that it is precisely what was needed, though he does admit to a slight technical tinkering concerning his balance.
Whichever, he scored 1788 Test runs in 2006, breaking Sir Viv Richards' record, with nine hundreds, also a record. But numbers cannot reveal what is most significant. As Pakistan's batting faltered repeatedly last year, it was to Inzamam-ul-Haq that they turned, as they have done since the dawn of the century. But it was Yousuf who kept responding. The passing of torches is something to be felt, not measured. As Inzamam approaches his dusk and Yousuf his high noon, never has that sense been so vivid.