x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Younis Khan emerges from the storm but not unscathed

Osman Samiuddin gains an insight into the Pakistani cricketer, who is still fighting on in the face of adversity.

Just no one can pin down Younis Khan, Pakistan's cricketing icon and former captain, discovers our writer.
Just no one can pin down Younis Khan, Pakistan's cricketing icon and former captain, discovers our writer.

At the time he was handed a ban in March 2010, first for life, then for an indefinite period and then not a ban at all but merely non-selection, for reasons the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) wasn't ever clear about and probably never existed, Younis Khan was no more than an apparition, a fading memory of a fine batsman, and uneasy, fidgety captain.

He had slipped away from public view the previous November, soon after losing an ODI series to New Zealand in the UAE, and ditching the captaincy claiming his players weren't supporting him. At one point, even the PCB couldn't locate him and they were trying to select him again. Teammates didn't know where he was, neither his best friends in and outside the game.

He would turn up occasionally, for the odd domestic game, for a county stint (he's been at his happiest when playing domestic cricket in England and Australia), for a hearing to contest his ban, to threaten legal action against a newspaper which had wrongly linked him to the agents at the centre of the spot-fixing case. But basically he wasn't there.

During that period, he entered a curious exile. He was cursed for leaving the captaincy, and coupled with having resigned from it once already and having once turned it down in 2007, it presented some with evidence of a thin-skinned, uncommitted flake. Others feted – and lamented – him as a champion of honour and principle, an image further sharpened after the Lord's no-balls, in which some of the very players who had been angling to remove him were found to be involved or implicated.

Eventually it turned out he was just being Younis Khan, father, husband, brother, friend. "I enjoyed it so much, the last year even though it was a little shocking for my elder brother," he remembered, smiling. "The day I got the ban, he said to me, 'What's going to happen now!?' I said, 'nothing, I'll play county cricket, in Australia, anywhere. Koi masla nahin ('It's not a big deal').' It's good for me that I could spend time with the family. I spent time with them, all those people I hadn't spent time with, I went fishing, met those I hadn't been able to. How much I've enjoyed the last year, you can only imagine."

And so who knows who Younis Khan really is, other than those friends and family he escaped to? A little like those dandelion seeds (and also like his cricket mentor Rashid Latif), he's engaging and substantial but the minute you've got it, you know you have nothing at all in your hands but the wisp of an elusive presence.

So swiftly does life go by that Younis has already been back in the side for over a year and it feels that none of what went before actually did so. He's been successful against all-comers, at two-down now to account for the emergence of the studious Azhar Ali at one-down. Pakistan have been successful, he shares a special relationship with captain Misbah-ul-Haq ("Of all the captains I have played under, I rate him really high") and affairs seem settled.

But the sense that he's not really back also lurks, something hidden entirely by – and not related to – the numbers that show him to be averaging nearly 80 since he got back. It doesn't sound right to even say it, but some of the invulnerability and cheery gung-ho of his best years as batsman and vice-captain, from late 2004 to early 2009, is lost. He smiles still – he always smiled apart from when he was captain when he deliberately smiled less – and it is not that of an old man, but of one who knows more than he ever wanted to.

He doesn't regret the lost year but concedes that his experiences of captaincy (and others wanted him to take it up more than he himself wanted it) may have changed him. "I've run away from the captaincy three, four times in my life," he explained, giggling as he did. "As happened with Shahid [Afridi], when you become captain you have to make lots of sacrifices. I've made so many in life already I don't have the energy to make more.

"God helped me in winning a world tournament in a format where people thought I wasn't so good. But in my entire career, this is one thing, whenever the seat of captaincy comes, people forget a lot of things. This is why I ran – in the past I saw Wasim [Akram] bhai, Waqar [Younis] bhai who were good friends but just because of the captaincy, small things, people around you play a negative, or different role. So I ran from that, I didn't want that, I just wanted to play for Pakistan on my fitness, talent and performance.

"When you become captain you have to do many things you don't want to. You take decisions where you have to drop your best friends. Humans are greedy. Everyone wants the best, so at that time you have to do things that aren't accepted by people, which is where the controversies start."

But of all that we can't know about him (and no matter how well you think you know him, there is always that much more you don't), we do know there is a basic hardiness that is both representative of the average Pakistani cricketer and also beyond it. We know that in turbulence, he was the man after Inzamam-ul-Haq – sometimes even more than him – you'd count on most; you'd pay to watch Mohammad Yousuf, but Younis Khan? You'd pay him to fight. It is the only explanation for him still being here.

"The mental toughness that our players have will not be seen anywhere, because such things happen," he said. "Look at me. For one year I had almost a life ban on me. After that I came back and see my performances. I think the toughness of sportsmen we have, especially cricketers, you will not see anywhere. Take Afridi. He's been out six months, a huge controversy, people said he was finished, he's past it. Then suddenly he comes back and he is man of the series.

"The way our culture is, the life, we've all come from places and seen things that cricket is nothing in front of them. We've seen days when there is no food at home and when some players remember that it acts as motivation. We've got that toughness so that we get life bans, cricket is finished, guys are out four, five years and suddenly return and perform. It is amazing."

Not much time is left now on a career that will end better than many thought at inception. He is officially 34, but in giving his real age away at a press conference after winning the World T20 in 2009, he is actually 36. There is still work to be done on the field, where he says he wants to play for another "three to four years". A century of Tests is what he wants, to leave behind an ample body of work. It begins with England, Pakistan's first real Test challenge in over a year.

But, and this has often presented itself as one more truth about Younis, his greater role could come once he stops playing. Somewhere inside him is an earnestness about what he does. Cricket is not just a sport or a career. It is a way to be; the camaraderie, the education, the friends, the experiences, the world outside one's own.

By nature he is a paternalist, though its often pushy manifestation hampered his leadership. But he wants to mentor and bring together, to educate and build. On the field for now, with this side, it puts him in a unique position. "If you look at my past, I've always been a link," he said. "When Inzamam was captain, I was this link. I'm the kind of guy senior players approach easily and even youngsters can ask me anything or discuss anything. Sometimes they can't go to the captain so they come to me. Till I am here I want to help out youngsters who are around. Motivate them, help them."

Over the past couple of years, this position has revealed itself in his plans for setting up a players' association, an idea whose time came long ago in Pakistan, but remains pressing even now. He talks reasonably and eagerly of the off-field issues players have faced, like not playing at home, "the mental fatigue that even though we travel business class, in nice planes, the pressure on the body and mind, living in hotels all the time, that does have an effect"; he knows exactly how difficult the past five years have been, not just for him but for younger guys who may not have seen anything else and risk being slowly de-fraternised from their contemporaries: "At this time you think where do we stand, as players, you feel where are we?"

He is the likeliest man for it, one attempt to set one up in 2009 cut short by his own abdication. "I did try at that time and the good thing was that Ijaz Butt gave a good response. But then, the ban happened and the comeback and almost a year went by just trying to perform, to achieve something, to show people. Now this is another good time to sit down, get people together and try and restart that."

The other thing he did while away was restart the club his late brother used to run, Al Aziz Gymkhana. He wants it to be his contribution to the regeneration of Karachi's club scene, one he is a product of. "I got into cricket from watching my brother. We hung out with him, doing the scoring, arranging the kit bag...in clubs this is all open, this is learning. I wanted to revive that, help out some people, get the club up and running, where there would be nets, get-togethers, camps being run, arrange tournaments. This is payback time for us, so if we can get a few guys from a club coming up who do well, that is a big achievement."

It is an organic, seductive picture he paints, and it could happen. Just as he could vanish again, back to family, friends and fishing, a trace of an existence that once was.