Nobody has scored more Test runs for Pakistan than Younis Khan, and yet he isn’t always given an easy ride in his home country. Pakistan’s No.4 spoke to Rehan Ulhaq about fighting to prove people wrong.
Pakistan cricket fans took to T20 like fish to water. After losing the inaugural World T20 final to arch rivals India in 2007, victory in the 2009 edition captured the imagination of the entire country and the short format became prevalent faster in Pakistan than anywhere else on the planet. While other countries initially didn’t take T20 too seriously, Pakistan adopted it as their very own format – it was love at first sight.
All of which meant that when their T20 captain, Younis Khan, described it as “fun” cricket when his side were on the verge of elimination in 2009, the media lashed out at him, painting him as public enemy numero uno. Pakistan went on to fight back from the brink and defeat Sri Lanka in the final at Lord’s to be crowned world champions. For neither the first nor last time in his career, Younis had defied his critics. His life in cricket has been that of a warrior, fighting his way through barricades and proving his worth even though his sensational record means he should never have to.
“If someone writes something good about me in the papers, I just read it once,” Younis tells AOC. “But 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 this wrong, and I start putting all my effort and focus into trying to come out victorious.”
When it comes to cricket, Pakistanis are obsessed with aesthetics, flair, swagger and everything that sounds better in words than in actions. For such a country, Younis Khan is an outlier. In the labyrinth that is Pakistan cricket, he has emerged triumphant – with scars and bruises, of course – through sheer determination and professionalism. Tales of Younis’ relentless work ethic have almost mythical status in Pakistan. One such story shared amongst journalists is of a young Younis running around a cricket field trying to be fitter than his colleagues while onlookers laughed at him and told him that he would never make it to the top – an urban legend, perhaps, but he is undoubtedly revered by his teammates for his insatiable appetite for hard work. “As a sportsman, Younis Khan is my ideal,” says Pakistan’s Test captain Misbah-ul-Haq. “He is the first one into training and the last one out.”
Pakistan’s national team has been to hell and back in the last decade but Younis remains the constant amongst infinite variables. No one deals with adversity the way he does; his resolve to prove people wrong and unflinching perseverance are the attributes that mark him out as a batsman, and as a person.
Whenever there are question marks about him or his team, he rises from the ashes – his entire career has been about emerging from the darkness into light. He remembers the death of former Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer, on March 18, 2007, as the darkest moment of his career.
“That 2007 World Cup in the West Indies was a nightmare. We lost to Ireland but winning and losing is part of the game, what happened next was something I couldn’t fathom. Bob Woolmer passed away and the next few days we spent there were some of the darkest days of my life. Bob wasn’t just a coach to me, he was like a father. What saddened me most was that our own coach was no longer with us and we were all treated as suspects, being questioned about his death. At that point I thought to myself, ‘Why are we even playing for Pakistan?’ I can never ever forget the way we were treated back then.”
After the lowest moment in his career, Younis went on to score three Test hundreds in his next four matches. Two years later when he led Pakistan to the World T20 title he dedicated the win to Woolmer. “This final must go to Bob Woolmer,” he said. “He was doing good things with us in 2005 and especially my cricket. I would be very proud if he was alive and sitting with me because he’s a very nice guy and was a father figure for us. Why I am captain is because in 2005 – at that time I was not a regular player for Pakistan – he was the guy who all the time was chatting with the chairman and the selectors that Younis will be the next captain. So because of him I have become a captain. I dedicate this final to Bob Woolmer.”
Perhaps the one blemish on Younis’ career is his ODI record but he remembers his one-day debut against Sri Lanka in 2000 as one of the highlights of his career. “My cricket changed when I played my first ODI in Karachi,” he recalls. “The situation was quite difficult for me. I was supposed to bat up the order but wasn’t given the opportunity to do so, I was sent in at No.7 and the match was getting out of hand. It was a grim situation and I scored a quick 46. That innings showed my character to everyone. When I wasn’t sent in at my number, I stood up and told them I wanted to play, every time a wicket fell, I wanted to be the next to bat. I kept telling everyone to let me take the responsibility, I told them I could pull it off. It is very tough for a young player making his debut to keep asking for responsibility and believing that you can deliver but when I scored the 46, despite losing the match, I knew and my teammates knew that I belonged at this level. It gave me belief and my teammates started to have faith in in me.”
Younis is arguably the best third- and fourth-innings batsman of his generation and one of the greatest of all-time at getting his team out of jail. This isn’t just a fluke, it again stems from that unparalleled perseverance and fortitude which was palpable in his very first Test match, against Sri Lanka at Rawalpindi. Pakistan had conceded a first-innings lead of 171 and were five down in their second innings, still trailing by two runs, when a 22-year-old Younis walked out to bat. His rearguard of 107 from 250 deliveries helped set Sri Lanka a target of 219 and so nearly resulted in Pakistan snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, the hosts eventually losing by two wickets. “We were in dire straits when I came out to bat. I had a very good partnership of 145 with Wasim Akram and that brought us back into the match. Although we didn’t end up winning, that innings is a highlight of my career.”
Younis is not a man blessed with a great array of shots or natural talent and yet he has gone on to become statistically Pakistan’s best Test batsman. It’s a point he is keenly aware of. “When you have self-belief and faith even a player like me with a limited skillset can deliver. I have 30 Test centuries despite not being very naturally gifted and having limited resources at my disposal. But because I have so much belief, God helps me to do things I don’t think I am even capable of. For example, I won the World T20, not in Pakistan, not in India, but in England and with a team comprising mostly players who were new at international level and some who were making their debuts.”
That self-awareness has proven to be one of Younis’ greatest virtues in his run-filled career. It not only sets him apart as a character, it has also informed his batting style and allowed him to squeeze out every ounce of potential – something that’s been evident in each and every one of his most special innings.
“In 2001/02, I was making my comeback after being dropped and I scored 91 and 141 respectively in the first Test match against New Zealand in Auckland. That again showed my character to the selectors, management and my teammates. There are two or three other innings that I remember fondly which put my name on the world map. The 267 I scored at Bangalore and the ODI century I scored at the Rose Bowl in 2009 are very special to me. But perhaps the two ODI hundreds I scored against India in 2008 and 2009 emphasised my determination the most. One was at Karachi in the last Asia Cup played in Pakistan; we had already lost to India once and we were chasing a total in excess of 300, I scored a hundred and we won that match comfortably. The other one was in Bangladesh in the final of the 2008 Kitply Cup. I had scored two consecutive ducks, we were playing the final against India and I had to prove my critics wrong. I scored a hundred and we ended up winning the match.”
Despite these achievements Younis still doesn’t get nearly enough acknowledgement in Pakistan, perhaps due to the fact that it’s a country that gives more weight to T20 and ODI cricket. It’s not something that keeps Younis up at night, though.
“I get more love from the fans than I could ever have imagined. Even now fans from all over come to support me and shout my name. I see them and I am proud of myself, it is a great achievement for me. Perhaps my greatest achievement is when Pakistanis walk up to me while I am on tours or travelling and tell me that they are proud of me. I don’t care one bit if I don’t get commercials or have my picture up on billboards, I don’t care when people say he isn’t that special because I am telling you myself that I am a player with very little and limited skill.”
The term ‘cornered tigers’ was first used to describe Pakistan during their unexpected World Cup triumph in 1992 and Younis has been the poster boy for that famous unbreakable spirit in more recent times. Time and time again he has been at the heart of the most unlikely victories. Perhaps his greatest moment in the sun was the 2014 Test series against Australia in the UAE when he destroyed records left, right and centre. For most who are familiar with Younis’ career it came as little surprise. After all, he had a relatively modest record against Australia that needed rectifying and Pakistan had been whitewashed in the ODIs and T20s prior to the Test series.
“The way we lost against Australia in the T20s and then the ODIs was very hard for me to digest. In fact one of the ODIs we lost was beyond the realms of logic. I didn’t feature in those series but I was part of the Test squad so I was motivated and pumped up to be the difference between the two teams in the Test series. When the team is losing, I want to be the man to change it, to be the catalyst for a change in fortune. My biggest motivation is my love for this country and in fact I give 100 per cent for every team I play in, be it my department team, my region or my club. I take great pride in being competitive.”
Younis’ outspoken, straight-talking attitude has got him in hot water in the past, most notably when he was slapped with a life ban by the PCB in 2010 for ill-discipline, as well a well-documented mutiny against him when he was captain for allegedly being excessively tough and demanding too much from his players. He remains unapologetic for saying it how he sees it. It’s part of his DNA. “I belong to the Pathan tribe,” he says. “We are straightforward people, both my parents are simple people who never discouraged us to speak up about our opinions.”
Ahead of the ongoing series against England, Younis was in the news once again. Firstly there was an overhyped supposed feud with Misbah when Younis said in a TV interview that his captain couldn’t be compared to him. Then certain sections of the media in Pakistan put him forward as the next Test skipper while the rest reminded everyone of the mutiny in his first stint at the helm. More recently, when Younis wasn’t present at the launch ceremony of the Pakistan Super League claims were made that he hadn’t been invited, only for the PCB to issue an official statement insisting that he had been, before admitting that he hadn’t.
The cherry on top was Younis’ reply to Wasim Akram, one of Pakistan’s greatest heroes, after the former left-arm quick suggested he concentrate on Test cricket and forget about ODIs. Younis politely said that, while he respected the opinion of Wasim, he didn’t need anyone’s advice at this point in his career. You can be sure that any frustration felt by Younis at the latest media circus will be meted out on England in this series.