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Hassan Cheema

The curious case of Younis Khan's ODI career

They said he would never make it as a Test batsman, but he proved them wrong. He couldn't quite do it in 50-overs cricket, though

Hassan Cheema
Hassan Cheema
13-Nov-2015
Younis Khan drives during his brisk 35, Pakistan v New Zealand, 3rd ODI, Sharjah, December 14, 2014

Younis Khan had to silence his detractors each time he was recalled to the ODI team  •  AFP

There are few better windows into the mind of a sporting genius than Diego Maradona's autobiography. A rant that illustrates his separation from mere mortals, it's also a book that rarely deals in joy - all achievements are in aid of spiting someone, proving someone wrong. It's how Maradona lived his playing life, and it's how he continues to operate even after: most famously when Argentina barely qualified for the 2010 FIFA World Cup under his tutelage, his response, rather than to celebrate his escape, was to inform journalists at a press conference that those that had doubted him could "suck it, and keep on sucking it". El Diego has always had a way with words.
Not even his greatest fans will equate Younis Khan to Maradona as far as ability is concerned, but his motivation, seems to have been the same. In a recent interview, his answers had something of that theme running through them, most explicitly when he said, "If someone writes something against me, I keep a cutting of that paper with me, I keep it in front of me all the time and instead of getting dispirited by it, I get motivated and tell myself that I am going to prove him wrong." Now that he has retired from ODIs, there is one notion that Younis just hasn't been able to prove wrong: he never conquered the 50-over format.
Yet his belief that he could have done makes sense too. Here's a man who was never supposed to have made it as a cricketer. He didn't have the obvious natural talent of those who came before him. After all, he debuted when the mighty '90s side was still not out of its pomp, a time when talent trumped all. It took him several years to become anything more than an ordinary international player.
When Bob Woolmer was appointed the coach in 2004, Younis had played only one of Pakistan's previous ten Tests, and averaged under 40 in four years of Test cricket. He was precisely in the position his detractors have accused him of being in in ODIs - supposedly not good enough for the highest level. His return came in Pakistan's second Test under Woolmer, with a hundred batting at No. 3, and a career was sorted out. They said he couldn't do it consistently, but he did. They said his career was finished, and he went out and dominated India in India.
In the final third of his career Younis has become a less free, more selective player, and that probably explains his increased success in one format and decline in another
They said he couldn't do it outside Asia, so he went out and got a century nearly everywhere (only Australia, where he hasn't toured since 2004-05, remains). Since Woolmer's appointment Younis has averaged nearly 60 in Test cricket. They also said that he was never going to be a particularly good ODI batsman, and he so nearly proved them wrong.
Every time he has returned to the ODI team, people have talked about him needing to have more self-awareness, saying that this famously team-first man ought to do the necessary and remove himself, rather than allow his friends in the media to run campaigns every 12 months or so calling for his recall. But surely, in his mind this was just one of the many challenges that had been thrown at him, another he had to overcome. If he had been consistently mediocre, perhaps he might have realised the truth sooner, but there was a brief period when he did become something more.
In the 36 months that led to his appointment as Pakistan captain early in 2009, Younis played 58 ODIs, the vast majority of them at No. 3, and averaged 40.56 with a strike rate of 82.34. Five of his seven hundreds in the format came in this three-year period. His rise in ODI cricket had lagged 18 months behind his rise in Tests. In his mind he had already proved his competence in the ODI game; it was just that he needed to get back to that vein. Alas, he ran out of time before he could.
Since then he has averaged 25.56, with a strike rate of 70.11, despite having continued to play consistently at No. 3, and despite the fact that he was rarely dropped for his performances - he played 68 of 75 ODIs he was available for at the start of this period.
On the surface Younis' travails are not that easy to explain. Sure, he's a different player now than he was a decade ago - technically, the crouch in his batting stance is far more pronounced than it was in the Woolmer years, for instance - but he has continued to have success in the longest format, through all the changes in his technique and role. Perhaps there's something simpler.
Much was made in the recent UAE series of the success of England's fast bowlers and Pakistan's supposed inability to score against them. And there was much eulogising, rightfully perhaps, of Misbah and his role in Pakistan's rise. But both those points of view ignored how important Younis has been to the team. While Misbah is the personification of blocking the pacers and capitalising on spin bowling, it's Younis whose template Pakistan follow. His Indian summer has coincided with the crystallising of his formula: against both Australia and England in the UAE over the past 13 months, his strike rate against fast bowlers was just 35, but he - like the rest of Pakistan's middle order - was happy to see them off and make runs off the spinners. In the final third of his career Younis has become a less free, more selective player, and that probably explains his increased success in one format and decline in another.
For many, Younis has been a constant, unchanging stream, yet a comparison of his centuries proves otherwise. From 2005 through 2008, he scored nine Test hundreds, in which his average score after 50 deliveries was 31.1, and after 100 balls was 58.2. By comparison, in the Team Misbah era, the respective numbers are 24.3 and 51.5. While making those nine hundreds between 2005 and 2008, only once did he have fewer than 25 runs after the first 50 balls - unlike in nine of his 15 hundreds over the past five years. His starts, usually against the fast bowlers are slower than they were, but once the spinners come on, he's more or less as good as he has ever been. Even as the gifts of his youth have given way, Younis' ability to survive, and thrive later, have allowed him to succeed.
The contrast with his ODI performances is obvious. The theme over the past half-decade of Younis' dismissals in ODI cricket has either been about him trying to play the rising ball - one he leaves alone when playing in whites - or him trying to force the pace and being unable to do so. His final act in ODI cricket fit that template perfectly. He came in with the team two down for next to nothing - a scenario ripe for a fitting send-off, if ever there was one - and hit a couple of boundaries in his first seven balls. And then, as is his wont, he got stuck. Just a single run came in the ten balls after the second boundary, and then, trying to force the pace against a rising delivery, he played an ugly pull and the ball went straight into the hands of mid-on. It was a shot he would never have played in Test cricket. It was, by all measures, a fitting end.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @mediagag