Few reactions these days capture better the ceaseless, aimless churn of cricket than those to a cricketer reaching 100 Tests. It is an exhausted celebration. Another? Already? Young parents know the feeling, stuck in the grind of countless birthdays a week in their toddler’s class. These days a cricketer has barely debuted before he’s playing his 100th Test (for example, Alastair Cook). Once the landmark must have felt like climbing Everest. Now? Now, it’s that speed bump to zip over unthinkingly.
Very occasionally, as when a fast bowler gets there, we are reminded of the true weight of the achievement. Today in Colombo, when Younis Khan gets there, we’ll know once again, because there hasn’t been a harder-earned century of Test appearances than his. Today it may be not so much that he has scaled Everest but that he has climbed the sky itself.
Last year in the UAE, Michael Clarke said he was “surprised” to find out that Younis had played only 92 Tests, given how long he had been playing. Clarke’s was a genuine and generous tribute but it also revealed the blind spot in which Pakistan and its players exist for bigger opponents. Anyone who has followed Younis’ career, after all, would express surprise that he had got that far in the first place.
At so many moments it could have ended. When he turned down Tauqir Zia’s offer of the vice-captaincy in 2002, for instance, he wasn’t just saying no to a PCB chairman; he was saying no to a powerful army general during a time of military dictatorship. Forget careers, death is often the conclusion to such episodes. Every time he walked away from the captaincy it could have been over. Or in 2010, when even before he was banned, he had disappeared.
There has been so much personal trauma as well. While active, Younis has lost his father, older sister, three brothers, and a young nephew. At the 2007 World Cup he lost Bob Woolmer, the man most responsible for the batsman he is now. Briefly, he was one of the suspects in the investigation of Woolmer’s death. And what must he have gone through when those militants attacked the Sri Lanka entourage on the way to Gaddafi Stadium? Had Pakistan’s team bus left on time and been closer, would he have been collateral? There must be soldiers around the world who have undergone fewer traumas.
Cricket loves to think that Tests reveal mettle, that they test character. If you play 100 Tests you must be some man, but frankly, how inadequate is that measure when it comes to Younis? His has not been a 100-Test career preoccupied with questions of form, or technique, or bowlers, or records. It is not even a career as much as some great and ongoing cosmic experiment – or perhaps exploration – into mankind. What becomes of us when our ideals begin to curdle into compromise? What becomes of us when we cannot reconcile our contradictions? What happens to us when we acquire authority? In what ways do we build and break trust? When thinking about Younis Khan and his career, it is these avenues that are the compelling ones to go down, and not, for example, how Pakistani batsmen cope with Australian fast bowlers on Australian wickets.
I had almost forgotten an interview I had done nearly six years ago in which, in answering a question about T20 he ended up revealing his credo. It’s worth reading the interview in full, but having bemoaned that the format compels you to take shortcuts, he broadened his response to include players who went for easy money in the Indian Cricket League and Kolpaks:
“Look at England and Kolpak. Why did the Marshall brothers [Hamish and James] go there? Jacques Rudolph is there also. I met him and asked him why he left South Africa. He told me they don’t pick him and so on, and I thought it strange, because that is the fun, that is the challenge, to prove yourself if you think you are a good player. You stay in that environment and prove yourself. You come to England and whatever money you are getting, however many runs you score, the satisfaction of playing Tests for your country you cannot beat. Knowing in that situation that everyone is against you and scoring runs in that environment and proving people wrong, there is nothing to compare with that feeling.See, in life you are constantly proving yourself, aren’t you? Either you feel you are strong or you aren’t. You can run away from challenges. I could’ve left or not taken the captaincy this time, knowing many things would happen – which are happening. But this time I thought, “No, I am going to go into this storm, go right to the edge and see how long I can stand there. I could’ve run away again. It was very easy.”
Not long after he said those words the storm engulfed him. He stood at the edge but perhaps not for as long as he thought he could. Then, for a year, he vanished. Actually he didn’t, but he fell off cricket’s radar. He relaxed with family and friends and went fishing. A lot of introspection, we can assume, must have taken place.
Quite likely, he found some peace within himself, or at least some peace within his cricket-playing self. During the 2004 Champions Trophy, he had sought out Rahul Dravid for a chat. Younis was not a regular then and Dravid’s transformation to greatness was well underway. It was a transformative moment, in which Dravid told him to stop fretting about cricket and widen out his life interests a little.
In his unique exile – imposed and self-imposed – Younis disentangled his life from his cricket life. Freedom is not the right word with which to describe his batting since , but certainly he has played as if comfortable in the knowledge that cricket can no longer exercise the same hold over him as it once did. It means less, in a good way.
I still miss the Younis of Woolmer’s era, though. That Younis had a lightness of being, a man on the cusp of great things. Great things happened, of course, but not quite how we had imagined. He still smiles a lot but it’s not the same. The intent is different. Is it resignation, of the man who has now seen the life the boy inside him looked forward to so excitedly? After captaincy, after his exile, after Woolmer, that bit of him, that joy he exuded, went inwards. Maybe he saves it for those that really matter to him. It’s wise enough.
Suffice to say, the last five years have elevated Younis into exalted territory. Where exactly? Some days it’s worth debating. Days like today, celebratory ones, it barely seems relevant. His full value will come when he leaves, found not just in his own numbers and performances but in those of Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq and Ahmed Shehzad. His willingness to learn always stood him out. But to be so selfless in imparting what he has learnt to the young men around him? It is almost unparalleled in Pakistan.
(It probably means nothing but it’s difficult to forget this moment from the Australia series last year – and it is kind of related; Nathan Lyon was the last wicket to fall in that series. Lyon hadn’t bowled badly but his figures were awful and Younis took an especially heavy toll. After he was out Younis went up to him and, in the circumstances, chatted for an unusually lengthy period of time. It looked more than just a consolatory chat. Maybe he was telling him he had bowled well despite the figures, or maybe some advice. I have no idea what was said but I’m just going to put Lyon’s figures since that chat right here.)
For all that Younis has thought of himself as a man constantly in a fight, and used the turbulence for good, it is telling he has prospered most when the environment around him has been stable. Inzamam-ul-Haq and Woolmer happened upon this truth first, and Misbah-ul-Haq has done so over the last five years. It goes underappreciated but one of Misbah’s triumphs has been to make Younis as comfortable as he is now in the Test side.
In tandem, the pair has made the Test team a pretty good place to walk into for any youngster. It sure as hell cannot be as toxic as the one Younis walked into on debut, with one captain and four others who had captained and thought they should still be doing so.
Fifteen years is a long career in any era, but a true sense of how long Younis has been around needs a dog-years multiplier. Just before he played the sixth Test of his career, the Qayyum Report was published. When he debuted, the last of the delinquent geniuses from Pakistan’s ’90s sides were still ambling around like kings, only without any kingdom. His debut counts in this century but figuratively it fits into another century.
So a hundred Tests old doesn’t even begin to describe the journey he’s going through – and it is “through”, rather than “on”. The latter suggests a degree of surface-level coasting that he has never been fortunate enough to experience. Ian Bell, we can say, has been on a journey. Younis is going through it as meat goes through a grinder. And he’s almost through to the other side now.
Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National and the author of The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket