Thank god it's Yousuf

In September 2005, Yousuf Youhana discovered faith. Soon we began to rediscover ours too

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
The sign of the cross, with which Yousuf used to greet landmarks, has been replaced by the sajda, and the first time he performed it, a sizeable crowd went wild  •  AFP

The sign of the cross, with which Yousuf used to greet landmarks, has been replaced by the sajda, and the first time he performed it, a sizeable crowd went wild  •  AFP

We had all of us, fans, writers, followers, invested heavy faith in Yousuf Youhana. Time had finally succeeded in its almighty chase of Javed Miandad, scandal had done for Saleem Malik. Inzamam-ul-Haq stood stout, but Pakistan's batting tale in the 1990s was essentially a struggle against poverty, of one man scraping, clawing his way out, the rest riding pillion. Youhana represented a slip of hope, and as the century turned, with twin hundreds in the Caribbean and at home against England, faith was paying back. Yet as 2005 approached its close, faith was slipping.
It wasn't just what the numbers told us, for they were as they always are, to be interpreted according to need. Four thousand runs, an average flirting 48, and 13 centuries told us one thing, but one second-innings hundred, four match-winning ones, and an average of 32.60 against India, Australia, South Africa, England, and Sri Lanka told us quite another.
More gnawing was the idea, freely floated, that when there was strife - which was often - Youhana wasn't around. Inzamam's outstanding record in this strange, intangible category made it worse. One journalist carried with him a list of all Youhana's failures in ODI chases, a kind of balance book of sin. It became a Salem witch-hunt: every failure was damning, and sometimes even success was, like a Multan hundred against India. A dreamy MCG hundred, or one in Kolkata, was begrudgingly excused, belittled even, as the requisite one-off: "I mean, he does have some talent."
Then in September 2005, Yousuf Youhana discovered faith. Another one. Soon we began to rediscover ours too.
In the lobby of Lahore's glitziest five-star hotel, Mohammad Yousuf cuts a jarring figure. Here even the walls drip wealth, and art isn't priceless, only six figures away. The women are bejewelled, bedecked, and bewitching. The men are suits or sherwanis, and even hotel staff carry on with the authority of those being served rather than serving. Yes, here in a simple stone-grey and white shalwar kameez, Yousuf's is a humbler, unadorned presence.
As we walk to the coffee shop, he with the shoulders-drooping, languid but confident gait of an athlete who has done good for the day, two fans approach. One chides him affectionately: "You're always praying before every ball. Why not pray for us as well?"
"Looks like, Yousuf bhai, that Gray-Nicholls has done something to you," the other smiles eagerly.
Friends, journalists, fans warned me abut his humility. I didn't, then, expect this: "It isn't just the best form of my career. I think few have had such great form ever. A brief pause later he adds, "In Pakistan"
"It's all upstairs, everything comes from upstairs," Yousuf responds. "Nothing is done down here; it is all decided and done up there." He points to a magnificently gaudy, oversized crystal chandelier. Beyond that, he means, beyond the top floor, beyond the smoggy skies of Lahore, beyond the great beyond.
Allah is top of his mind. It's been just over a year since he made public his change of faith, from Christianity to Islam. The sign of the cross, with which he used to greet landmarks, stands replaced by the sajda, and the first time it happened, a sizeable crowd went wild. A pretty picture it made too, the front pages of most dailies carrying it the next day.
Much has changed since then, not least his willingness to talk. Then, as England arrived and the conversion presented itself as an ideal feature, Yousuf sidestepped the subject. He told The Guardian before an interview, "The one thing I will tell you straightaway is that I am not talking about religion in this series. I am totally focused on my game."
Understandably so, for at the time it was an uncomfortable thing. Personal battles were being fought: his family, especially his mother, fumed, blaming Saeed Anwar for "ruining her son's life", and publicly announced: "I don't want to give Yousuf my name after what he has done."
There was tetchiness too about when he had decided to become a Muslim. In an interview that he had given, to The Daily Telegraph, it was said he had converted in 2001 and had told his team-mates on the 2004-05 tour to Australia. Salman Butt, translating for him, expressed surprise at finding out on the tour. Rumours circulated that he had converted during the 2003 World Cup. Maybe it's not important. When he did go public is when, we assume, he was comfortable with it, had come to terms with it.
Broader battles also raged beyond him: the treatment of religious minorities, of whom Christians make up between 1.5 and two per cent, in the Islamic Republic has been the subject of permanent, anguished debate. He was a leading Christian, and it had meant a lot to many. It proved and disproved things: we are a tolerant nation, it said, not multicultural but tolerant. It disproved that minorities couldn't do well. He captained the country, the team ate Christmas dinners with him.
Pakistan is also uniquely situated, geographically a leading ally in a war against terror, spiritually a destination for terrorists. The MMA (a political conglomerate of Islamic parties, extreme and moderate) sits in government in two provinces, forever a reminder of a creeping lurch towards something beyond an Islamic republic even, something darker, incurably obscurantist. Now, though, Allah is on his mind. The conversation begins disjointed; I talk batting, he skirts it. I bring up the Boxing Day hundred in Australia, an innings of more meaning than many of his had had till then. It was a fascinating knock, the best of what Yousuf Youhana was as batsman. He was captaining his second Test, the only Christian to lead his country. On Boxing Day, against the game's best attack.
"My best hundred, because they are a complete team. Scoring against [Glenn] McGrath and [Shane] Warne is the ultimate. We had that Test in our grasp and it was a shame we lost in the end," he starts.
On delving, he adds, "You see the thing is that if any human thinks he's responsible for what is happening, then he's wrong. Everything happens upstairs, none here. If we were responsible for it all, then everyone would be scoring a hundred every game."
He's building up to it, I think, the clincher, that piece of faultless logic which justifies, explains All. "Tell me, if it was under my control, would I have gotten out for 192 today, that close to a double? I always want to make a double, but it's not in my hand." There it is.
Almost taunting, I ask, "So why go out to bat at all? Go out there with a stick - let Him do it for you."
"Are you making fun?"
"No, I'm just asking."
"This is not in the hands of people. This is my belief. Anyone else, I can't say."
And yet.
And yet, he is not so uncaring when it comes to worldly matters, such as his game, his position, his form, what others think. Actually he can be surprisingly pernickety. The subject of his career pre-Mohammad is broached, in particular the criticism most often flung his way, that he's pretty as a peacock, and as useful as one in a dogfight.
Immediately he warms up. "My average in Tests and ODIs has always been good. Since I started playing ODIs, my average has been the best in Pakistan. No one has come near me. In Tests there is only Inzamam above me. So where have I played badly? Will someone please explain? One, two poor series anyone can have, or a poor match. If you fail continuously, your average cannot remain the same. It will drop.
"The real problem here is not that there is so much criticism. It is that we fail to appreciate good things. Don't appreciate me, I am saying, but look at what we did with Wasim Akram. Has there been a player like him in the game? And look at how he is treated. See, here everyone thinks they are the hero, but few people actually think it after having done something, like Wasim bhai. That is the masla."
He is also not as modest as I was led to believe. Friends, journalists, fans around him, warned me from the off about his humility. I didn't, then, expect this: "It isn't just the best form of my career. I think few have had such great form ever." A brief pause later, he adds, "In Pakistan."
There was tetchiness about when he had decided to become a Muslim. In an interview it was said he had converted in 2001 and told his team-mates on the 2004-05 tour to Australia. Rumours circulated that he had converted during the 2003 World Cup
Mind you, he's rightfully proud, breaking records, in the form of his life, Pakistan's best batsman. He just knows it, and reels off numbers. "See, this year we have 12 Tests, which is the most for ages. Even then I missed one. In nine Tests so far, I have made 1315 runs. I am the first Pakistani to have 901 points in ICC rankings, just behind [Ricky] Ponting. Even Sachin [Tendulkar] hasn't made that many points."
Something has clicked; one penny somewhere, somehow has dropped. Even if we pretend he has prospered on flat tracks, against weak attacks, his hunger has been phenomenal. As if, to be cute, he's fasted through his career and the last year was Eid, when he stuffed himself silly.
The pitches, the series against India excepted, weren't deader than the global norm, nor the bowlers clowns. Above all, his arrival was, generally, with the team on the brink of disaster: openers gone, barely a run on the board. His Lord's double, such artistry, should've been blue-collar work, for it came after 28 for 2 became 68 for 4. At Leeds, 36 for 2 conceived 192; at the Oval 70 for 1 (and an opener injured) helped make 128. Even against West Indies over winter, he rarely had the comforts of a platform; he made 192 at Lahore from 45 for 2. At Multan, where he made 191, he came in at 124 for 2, which sounds pleasant but hides a deficit of 234. Or rather, he didn't, He did.
"I said it after Lord's," he explains. "Since I started coming forward, praying five times a day, I have gained much in the way of discipline, focus. Whoever prays five times daily and prays Fajr [dawn prayers], Allah will take responsibility for all his actions and work. We have no work here.
"I have matured and aged. But really, Allah has brought all this. Training, practice are all fine and well, it makes a little difference, but this performance only Allah can bring about."
Thirty-one years and 24 days before Mohammad Yousuf was born, Youhana Masih and his wife had a boy, Yousuf, in Lahore's Railway Colony. The father worked at the railway station; the family, like many Pakistani Christians (many of whom converted from Hindu untouchables in the 19th century) was mired in poverty.
Cricket was a distraction, at best a way out, and certainly no obsession. "The height of my ambition was to play well enough to get a job, with WAPDA [Water and Power Development Authority] or PIA [Pakistan International Airlines]."
It wasn't leather and willow either. "We used a table tennis ball, taped up, with my brother bowling."
"Table tennis or tennis?" I ask, bemused.
"Table tennis. We couldn't afford tennis balls."
The bat was a plank of wood, bringing but a whiff of Don Bradman's stump and golf ball tale but no more. Golden Gymkhana, a local club, spotted Youhana, beginning a formal induction into the game. He joined the famed Forman Christian College and continued playing until he suddenly gave it up in 1994 for nearly a year. A steady income was the hour's need. About to join a tailor's, he was pulled back. A local club was short, they called him in to make up the numbers, he made a hundred. An encounter in the course of the match led to a league season in Yorkshire, and a path back.
A year later, a first-class debut beckoned. Lahore ignored him, for "political reasons", he says suggestively. Undaunted, he trooped to nearby Bahawalpur, and in October 1996 made 46 on debut. A heavy-scoring second season aroused interest, and in February 1998, against South Africa, he became the fourth Christian to represent Pakistan. "I had no idea. I don't want to say I was a good player or anything. It all happened because of Allah - humans have nothing to do with it. I had no aim to play for Pakistan."
Five and one on Test debut reinforced the limited ambition in his mind: "I had no idea what hit me initially. I was disheartened, but Rashid Latif insisted that he will give me a chance. And we had Zimbabwe to follow. It was kismat - Allah helped me make three fifties there and that was it." It was only a year later, however, on the Australia tour where a brace of fifties made him realise, "I can play this game quite well."
After the World Cup this year, I met the journalist who carried Yousuf's failings with him. He had begun to brandish it again. "What did he do at the World Cup or in South Africa?"
He "did" a twinkling Test 83 and a lovely ODI hundred, but little besides. In the World Cup, he was the middle in a middle-order trio that mustered 166 runs between them: Yousuf made 18 runs more than Younis, 19 fewer than the captain. Average-wise, he was six points above Younis, six below Inzamam. Middling in a disaster: questions resurfaced.
Thing is, this business of faith is a fickle one. People change it, lose it, abuse it when they need it, ignore it when they don't. Where faith was, 18 months ago, a cause for uniting a disparate bunch, it is now a distraction, a factor in failure. Yousuf was the bearded poster boy; but the hirsuteness is now thought to have gone against him when picking a captain.
A new light is upon Yousuf now. Inzamam is gone, Younis disaffected; only Yousuf stands. "Whatever happens in the world," he ends, "whatever has happened, whatever will happen, happens under His will." Faith has been tested till now. Likely, it will be tested more hereafter.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo