As Pakistan announced its squad for the upcoming Test series against South Africa in UAE, the question on everyone’s mind was the batting line up.
With no Nasir Jamshed in the squad, and the promising Asad Shafiq in limbo, the selectors are sending an exceedingly inexperienced batting line-up against a lethal South African bowling attack.
Pakistan ended the tour of Zimbabwe with a shock defeat in the second and final Test that deprived them of a series win and captain Misbah-ul-Haq admitted that it was their batting that was letting them down time and again.
“We are struggling because of our batting,” he said. “Batting has been our weak area for the last one year. We have tried different combinations, but all of our batsmen are struggling.”
At 39, the Pakistani captain, along with Younis Khan, has become the mainstay of whatever is left of the Pakistani batting line-up.
Despite the knocks he’s taken throughout his career for his glacial strike rate, or his inability to convert 50s into 100s, Misbah has played saviour for a team that has provided little support.
Along with being an astute captain with a sensible head on his shoulders, Misbah has been carrying the team almost single-handedly.
But speaking of 39-year-olds in the news, there’s another one who’s come out of hibernation: Mohammed Yousuf.
The one-time star, clearly jaded by his fall from grace in the eyes of the cricket board, said a few days ago that he had given up any hopes to return to international cricket, despite his belief that, “even today I know I could have been playing Test cricket.”
Given the seeming dearth of batting talent in Pakistan it makes you wonder why a player of Yousuf’s talent was left to pasture so prematurely.
Mention Yousuf’s name to any cricket fan and their eyes light up with wistful nostalgia. Almost immediately they talk about his effortless cover drive and how he was, by far, one of the most aesthetically pleasing batsmen to watch in recent times.
Yousuf as a batsman rekindled memories of Zaheer Abbas, with the high backlift and uncomplicated batting stance. Every stroke was a fluid motion, the blade of the bat coming down like a symphony conductor’s baton.
None of this was made more vividly clear than during the Australian series in 2004, where Yousuf (then Yousuf Youhana) battled one of the most formidable bowling attacks of that era.
Pakistan had been demolished in the Test at Perth, and looked to recover in Melbourne.
Yousuf walked to the crease with Pakistan in trouble and it’s when he composed his masterpiece.
Dogged by critics for his lack of mettle when it counted most, he set out to defy his critics and took on Australia’s most feared bowlers in Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. He scored 59 of his 111 runs against Warne; three sixes going straight over the spin legend’s head, the four boundaries scored without too much fuss.
It was a performance of sheer class, where he displayed every facet of his batting prowess. His every shot was struck with the intention to score runs. Unlike the current generation of batsmen who flail haphazardly at deliveries, swinging and missing, shuffling all over the crease for mere survival, Yousuf played with poise and confidence.
He hooked McGrath, drove him straight down the ground, blunted the threat of Jason Gillespie and made light work of part-timer Michael Clarke on his way to a glorious century. Playing as captain in the absence of Inzamam-ul-Haq, Yousuf proved that beneath his artistry, lay a well of grit and determination.
His technique wasn’t text book perfection like that of Sachin Tendulkar, nor did he have the quirky flourishing style of Brian Lara, with the extreme high backlift and split-step just before making contact.
Yousuf’s technique was fluid and efficient. It was a tribute to the wristy wizardry of Indian masters like Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan. There were no extravagant movements, no awkward twitches. He made it look easy.
But as stylish as he was, he also collected runs. He had every shot in the book, whether it was the deft late cuts, the effortless tickles down fine leg, elegant off drives, lofty flourishes over long on, the bludgeoning hooks to square leg or his signature flicks off his pads. His intention was to always score runs.
If Inzamam was an overpowered American muscle-car, Yousuf was a sleek Italian supercar.
Whether Yousuf would still be the player at 39 that he was a few years ago is unknown, but with more than 7,000 runs in 90 Tests, at an average of over 50, it defies logic that a player of his talent and ability was left out to dry at a time when the well of new talent was drying up.
The lazy maestro took on Curtley Ambrose and Courtney Walsh in their backyard, smacked the rampaging Freddie Flintoff and Steve Harmison after the duo's monumental success in the 2005 Ashes and took on the mighty Warne. It would have made for a fascinating contest to watch the Yousuf of 2006 against a Dale Steyn who has now become king.
According to Yousuf’s own assessment, he could still have been playing today. How he would have shaped up is anyone's guess. The hollow conclusion to his story and the Pakistani batting blues may mean that this languid figure still lingers on in the minds of those who appreciate finesse. And despite the injustices he feels he was dealt, for cricket fans the world over, Yousuf stands as one of a rare breed of batsmen who added beauty and grace to a sport that’s become more and more about power and muscle.