Cricket: In Beowulf’s shadow

To be a hero in the Anglo-Saxon era, it was indispensable to be a warrior. Known for his courage, strength and honour, Beowulf, time and again, stood out amongst the rest of his contemporaries who largely fought for their personal gains. Having made his way to the top, Beowulf refused the kingship offered to him by the Danes after defeating Grendel and his mother against all odds thus ensuring that a hero must remain humble at all times,” reads a 10-year-old Pakistani boy from a book as he flips through the pages wondering why he is being taught the history of Anglo-Saxons in Class Four.

Getting home from school, he turns on the television and watches with disbelief as half of Pakistan’s batting line-up has been cleaned up by Sri Lanka at the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium and they are still trailing by two runs. The year is 2000. In comes a 23-year-old debutant batsman, who after failing to impress anyone in the first innings, looks jittery at the crease again. Little does anyone know, this jitteriness, upon arriving at the crease, would soon become his way of announcing himself to the world.

Chaminda Vaas runs in and bowls an inswinger first up. The ball strikes the batsman on the front foot. For a moment, Vaas thinks he has got him. But, the umpire thinks otherwise. The batsman survives, takes a long deep breath; and with him, so does the boy and the rest of Pakistan.

Younis Khan’s career spanned 17 years. Time enough for a boy to grow up

Welcome to international cricket, Younis Khan. Are you ready to face the music?

All eyes are on Younis again. This time Vaas bowls a half-volley, Younis pounces on it and hits, what would later become his trademark shot, the ball through the covers. The ball fails to reach the boundary though but the batsmen run four. The fitness is commendable. Despite it being a cold day in Rawalpindi, Younis has convinced his partner to run four on day number four of a Test match. With that shot Younis is off the mark and Pakistan now take a lead in the second innings.

Slowly but steadily, Younis with a little help from the other end, helps Pakistan get back on track. By the time he is dismissed, he has already scored a century on debut and given his team something to bowl at on a tricky surface. Pakistan go on to lose the match and eventually the series but they believe that in Younis Khan they have found a decent middle-order batsman.

The year is 2005. Pakistan are touring India after six years. The diplomatic ties between the two countries are growing stronger than ever. Both sides are playing each other for the second time in a bilateral series within a year after India thumped Pakistan in Pakistan only one year ago. This time it is Pakistan’s turn to return the favour.

The boy, who turned 15 only two months ago in January 2005, is now preparing for his SSC Part I exams. Younis Khan, on the other hand, is now an established middle-order batsman who averages 39.19 after 35 Test matches with seven 100s and ten 50s to his name. Younis has just played a blinder along with Mohammad Yousuf at Eden Gardens, Kolkata in the second Test match. It is a lost cause with Pakistan now on the verge of a second series defeat against India in a row.

The stage is set at M. Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bengaluru for the final showdown. It is a must-win game for Pakistan, and for them to win the match and square the series, one of their players must rise to the big occasion. Who else if not Younis Khan? He arrives at the crease only in the second over of the match, a Pakistani batting ritual for players batting one-down, with which he has become accustomed by now.

From there on starts the grinding process. Younis Khan bats for a hefty 166.2 overs and spends 690 minutes at the crease along with other batsmen. By the time the Indians see him walking back to the pavilion, the scoreboard reads Younis Khan c Pathan b Harbhajan Singh 267 (504), but more importantly: Pakistan 569/9. However, the agony for the Indians doesn’t end there. He comes back to haunt them again in the second innings and scores a brisk 84 not out at a scoring rate of 85.71, ensuring that Pakistan win the match by 168 runs and square the series 1-1.

The year is 2010. The boy is finally enrolled in a university after a year’s gap and excited to begin his academic life again with a fresh start. Meanwhile, Younis Khan has been hailed as the T20 World Cup winning captain, accused of being a match-fixer, forced to handover the captaincy due to a players’ lobby working against him, banned over disciplinary issues, and recalled to the national side all within a year.

In a universe where everyone is going at a snail’s pace, Younis Khan is travelling at the speed of light. He has seen it all. He has experienced it all. It has been that kind of year for him. After missing out on the action for 12 months, he has returned to the Test side led by Misbah ul Haq in October 2010 against South Africa in UAE. This is also the first time the world witnesses the craftwork that Misbah and Younis would continue to display over the course of the next seven years.

South Africa win the toss and decide to bat first. After three-and-a-half days of play, they set a total that has never been chased before. Pakistan, historically known as nervous chasers, needs 451 to win the match and take the lead in the series. But, Pakistan are not playing to win the match here. They are also trying to rebuild their tarnished image after having been brought down to their knees after the fateful tour of England.

By the end of day four, Pakistan are left reeling at 109/2 with both their openers back in the pavilion. They need 342 more to win whereas South Africa need only eight wickets to wrap things up. From Pakistan’s perspective, it would take something special to win or draw the game. And it is something special that Younis Khan has in store for everyone. He scores yet another match-defining century and saves Pakistan for the zillionth time from what looked like certain defeat.

Forward to 2016. This is the first time Pakistan are touring England after the tour of six years ago, which everyone wants to forget. A lot has changed since then. Pakistan are no pushovers in Test cricket anymore. In fact, they are fighting for the ICC Test Championship mace. This is what six years have done to them. They are done with the image rebuilding process. Now it is time for them to show the world they mean business.

And they prove it straightaway. Pakistan beats England in the first Test match at Lord’s — the very same ground where their world came crashing down six years ago. Younis doesn’t contribute much with the bat but he is the one who is marshalling the troops during the team’s famous push-ups at Lord’s.

Pakistan go on to lose the next two matches with England leading the series 2-1 with one match to play. Younis hasn’t been able to go past the 33 that he made in the first innings of the first Test. Going into the final Test he is averaging 20.33. People are calling for his head. His selection in the final Test is met with criticism by most cricket pundits. Some even go on to claim he is finished and his reflexes have given up on him. But he is Younis Khan. He knows in his heart if Pakistan are to get the ICC Test Championship mace, he has to perform.

The match begins and England put on a show. Moeen Ali scores a gritty century and ensures England are past 300 after an early collapse. Pakistan, in reply, lose their first three wickets for just 127 runs, still trailing by 201 runs. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. In walks a 39-year-old Younis Khan, still as eager to perform as he was when he made his debut. He bats and bats for an eternity. The crowd at The Oval rises on its feet to applaud when they see him finally walking back to the pavilion. They don’t applaud his innings only, they realise it is the last time they are seeing him at The Oval.

He scores 218 at a soring rate of 70.77 and ensures Pakistan take a lead of 214 in the second innings and beat England comprehensively by 10 wickets.

Pakistan square the series and go on to clinch the ICC Test Championship mace the following month. They get a hold of it largely due to the herculean efforts of Younis Khan but only a few words are said about it.

While the lives of others have evolved around him, Younis has kept it simple all these years. He goes out in the middle, scores a century, wins the game for Pakistan and quietly walks back to the pavilion.

Today, as Younis Khan hangs up his boots, the boy who has watched him while growing up during these past 17 years, has also grown up. He recalls the passage he read as a young schoolboy about courage, strength and honour, and Beowulf, who time and again, stood out amongst the rest of his contemporaries who largely fought for their personal gains.

“It was Younis all along!” he screams.

That screaming boy is me.

The writer is a member of staff.
He tweets @HumayounAK