Younis Khan and I are both 39 (I guess he is slightly younger), we have both been slogging our backsides off in our respective professions for just over 17 years, and no matter what, we keep the smile on.
But that’s where the comparisons end. Younis is Pakistan’s pride, and while I write this from the comforts of an air-conditioned room, the Khan from Mardan (as we call him) is stretching hard, sticking to a strict diet, jogging countless rounds and, most importantly, staying positive and keeping his hunger to excel alive.
Younis is an easy-going man who prefers to keep things simple, living on the outskirts of Karachi to escape the bustle of urban life. When in Pakistan but not at the nets, he isn’t likely to be at home – he is usually away on a boat in the Arabian Sea, an experienced angler trying to lure the cobia, the barracuda and the king fish.
Younis is the working-class cricketer; the story of his life is like that of a labourer who goes through the daily grind and braves it with a winning smile. He doesn’t belong to a cricketing family. He wasn’t born with a golden spoon in his mouth either. Every yard he has walked has been a hard one. Still he kept walking, fighting and, most importantly, scoring. No wonder then that even his smallest feat is cheered with affection and pride by the cricket-watching public of Pakistan. Crossing 10,000 Test runs, I’m sure, will raise his popularity to mythical proportions.
The series in the West Indies is a low-profile one – partly because West Indies aren’t a major force, and partly because of the time difference. But the sense of anticipation around Younis’s 10,000th run has been immense. And now that it has come, it could well go some distance in calming the tense political atmosphere created by the Supreme Court’s Panama Papers decision.
As Younis swept Roston Chase for four to become the first Pakistani to get to the number, the news came as a burst of cool air in the rising April temperature.
Everyone had their own plans to celebrate the feat in cricket-crazy Pakistan, none more so than his childhood friends who have seen the lanky guy from a middle-class locality in Shah Faisal Town in Karachi turn into a modern-day hero.
The cake, shaped like a cricket stadium, was there and delicious it was too. And there were the stories.
“I have known Younis since 1996, when we played club cricket from the same area,” recalled Saquib Hasnain. “The first time I really noticed him was when he got selected for the Pakistan Under-19 camp and we were curious to get a closer look at this guy who suddenly jumped up the ranks.”
What are the traits that made Younis what he is today, I asked Saquib.
“Hard work,” came the prompt reply.
“He worked twice as hard as any other cricketer. For us, playing cricket was a hobby but for him it was his life. He was disciplined and used to dream big. The hunger and passion I saw in him for the game in 1996 is still very much present today.”
Saquib gave an example of Younis’s passion: “This is 1998, and Younis has just played a few Grade II games and is still away from first-class cricket. One fine day he took me to the ground, asked me to bowl at him, the only difference was that he wanted to bat on dirt and not the pitch. I was surprised and asked him why he wanted to do that. I still remember his reply. He said, ‘I have to play (Muttiah) Muralitharan’.
“You can well imagine my surprise that here is this guy who hasn’t played a single first-class game, and he is talking about facing Muralitharan. We started pulling his leg. But just two years later, he scored a century on his debut against Muralitharan in Rawalpindi. His words flashed back in my mind.”
Saquib goes on: “In his early international years, he used to tell us about his dream to win Pakistan a World Cup like Imran Khan. I guess even God gave way before his determination and hard work. And when he made the lap of honour at Lord’s in 2009 (after the World Twenty20) with the green flag flying in his arms just like Imran Khan had in Melbourne (1992 World Cup), we couldn’t but envy his luck. But again, young kids need to understand that this luck was backed by years and years of tireless hard work.”
Sitting next to Saquib was Pervaiz Ahmed. He is Younis’s fishing partner and is very eager to tell us how fishing has made Younis a better batsman. “Let me tell you, Younis is an excellent angler; he knows everything from water tides, fish types to best available equipment. At times he will also cook fish biryani right there on the ship,” said Pervaiz with a laugh. “Fishing is a sport that tests your patience, and the calmness in him that you see on the crease is actually the result of countless fishing trips. I would say Younis has perfectly marinated his fish with his batting skills.”
There was also Haris Khan, a former first-class cricketer who had been a part of Younis’s growing-up years. “As you know, Younis comes from a very humble background,” said Haris. “There was a time he used to collect ripped-off cricket balls, take out the wooden ball inside the leather and hit it with a piece of wood. That’s how crazy he was about the game.
“There are way too many stories about his hunger … till today he comes to me with his video clippings and asks me to identify his faults. Now how many young guns from today can you identify with similar determination?”
Moving to another topic – Pakistan cricket has never been far from controversy, one could say it actively courts it, and Younis has been part of a few over the years.
“Never,” said Titu, a tearaway in his youth, sharply. “He never discusses dressing room politics, no matter how hard we try to find out. But yes, he is frustrated with the below-par fitness level of current cricketers. He himself has worked tirelessly on his fitness so you can imagine his bitterness when he sees the current lot investing much less on fitness than required. For him, fitness is all about personal commitment.”
Over more of the pineapple cake, I was beginning to understand the method behind Younis’s madness – legends are not born overnight, they are shaped, by tireless hard work.
While records are made to be broken, Pakistanis feel Younis’s feat is in no imminent danger. Misbah-ul-Haq is on his way out too. Azhar Ali, at 32, is far away from the 5000 mark and can only dream of getting close to Younis if he plays the rest of his games in the UAE.
For a long time now, there was no doubt Younis would get there. The only question was when and where? When it came, it came in the other part of the world, at an ungodly hour.
He has said that the West Indies tour will be his last, but is Pakistan cricket ready to let him go? Is there anyone who can replace him? Should he carry on and help groom Sarfaraz Ahmed?
These indeed are pinching questions for every Pakistan fan.
Outside the window from where I sit, some teenaged boys are going at it hard to win the last game of the day. The batsman is poised and composed, not willing to give up. He plays two dot balls till he finally lofts one for six. He has won the game for his team and his smile reminds you of Younis – maybe I just want it to. Who knows, somewhere in the many dusty and barren roads and cricket fields in our country, the next Younis is going through his paces. It will need more than talent to get there, though.