Younis Khan is sweating. Every part of his skin is wet. His shirt is clinging to him. His hair is messy. His bat is raised. There are a few cherry marks on it. He holds that bat lightly in his hands as his 100 is celebrated. His eyes look tired.
This man has defeated the Australians, the raiders, the bullies, the barbarians. This old man. This warrior. This legend. Behind him there is not a single human being. He has conquered the aggression of the Australian wolf pack but it’s done in another empty stadium. Khan is a legend. But he haunts empty stadiums. He’s a cricketing ghost.
He has never played in a five-match Test series. During his entire career, Pakistan has had only one four-match Test series scheduled. Younis missed the final Test against England at the Oval in 2006. Pakistan forfeited it.
Javed Miandad had the opportunity to play in seven five-match Test series. There are some, mostly from Australia and England, who don’t even believe that anything less than a five-match Test series is a real Test series. To them, Khan’s career isn’t real. He has not been tested enough.
He has scored over 500 runs in two three-match Test series. Against Australia, he made 468 runs in two Tests. Maybe the five-match Test series would have seen him worked out. Maybe a bowler who came at him week after week for six weeks would finally find the chink in his armour. But in 96 Tests, no one has worked out Khan.
Khan has a list of things happen in his career that players like Daniel Vettori and Ricky Ponting just don’t have to worry about.
There is the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB). Khan recently had his contract demoted from Category A to Category B. The reason given was that he only played Test cricket. Shahid Afridi doesn’t play Test cricket. He is still in Category A. A month later, Khan was playing one-days again.
In 2009, Khan was made captain, but resigned after there was a Senate enquiry into match-fixing. He was cleared, but insulted. In 2010, the PCB banned him indefinitely. The ban was because of his role in the “infighting which brought down the whole team during the tour of Australia in January” that year.
The ban was lifted three months later. Nothing is permanent in Pakistan cricket except Khan at the crease.
He has seen Tests cancelled for match-fixing, for terrorism; he’s had teammates go to jail and the opposition shot at in his country.
Khan has also had to overcome so much death. His father died during a tour of Australia. A brother died during a tour of the West Indies. He lost another brother, and a nephew. Then there was Bob Woolmer. All this death seems to have taken an extraordinarily high toll on him.
The PCB and death collided when the Peshawar school attack happened in December 2014. The PCB decided not to postpone a meaningless one-day against New Zealand. It could only be a decision based on fiscal realities. Khan had seen enough. He wanted the game postponed, just as a game had been postponed for Phil Hughes death.
“How do you play a match when your spirit is not in the game? That is our state of mind right now.”
New Zealand won by seven runs. The PCB made their money. Khan made 103. While Rome burns, he bats.
People love Misbah. People hate Misbah. People love Afridi. People hate Afridi. They are called Misbahtards and Afridiots. It’s Catholic versus Protestant, Sunni versus Shia, and East Coast Rap versus West Coast Rap. It is beyond logic. It is beyond cricket. It is a choice of ideologies.
Yet, for all this passion, all this nonsense, Khan just plays cricket. Occasionally, people may not be happy with his public statements but he wouldn’t be a Pakistani cricketer if some people didn’t irrationally hate him. Or love him. But most just love him. He has ridden above the nonsense.
Mostly Khan just bats. Turn on your television and there is a 50 per cent chance that he is calmly dealing with Test bowlers somewhere in the world. He’s so good that no one calls themselves Younisites, because it’s assumed we’re all Younisites.
It is early on day four, February 24, 2009. Dilhara Fernando finds a short of a length spot where the ball can just do something. It jags back. Khan is on the back foot. He misses the ball. Maybe he was tired from the previous day. Maybe he didn’t have his eye in. Maybe he got that one great ball.
That one ball was the last that Khan faced on a Pakistani Test pitch. The next Test was in Lahore. Sri Lanka batted first. Salman Butt was slow to move and ran himself out. Instead of Khan coming out, stumps were called. He was to come out in the morning. But there was no morning. Gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan team bus instead.
Pakistani cricket has been in witness protection ever since.
Khan is in that limbo. He has been made to bat behind glass, in a television cage.
Khan has the most Test centuries by a Pakistani. He has five double-centuries in Tests. He has scored a hundred against every Test-playing nation. He holds the record for most catches in Test Cricket for Pakistan. He averages over 50 at home. He averages over 50 away. He averages over 50 in the neutral limbo. He has the highest average of any Pakistani batsman in history.
He is a legend. You can’t read the stats any other way. You can’t watch him and think any different. Pakistan’s homeless status means they can’t make the money they should. Teams don’t have to play Pakistan. They do it because they can’t get a date with England, India and Australia. Over a quarter of Khan’s Tests are against Sri Lanka.
In 96 Tests he has played, three were in Australia. Matthew Sinclair has played five in Australia. And if you don’t know who he is, that’s my point. If you do know who he is, you already know my point.
Khan has played eight Tests against Australia, 10 against England. In the space of eight months, those two teams play 10 Tests. Khan has played another nine Tests against India — the last one in 2007, the first one in 2005.
Khan is a legend — and by legend I mean an unverifiable story handed down by tradition and popularly believed to be accurate.
After batting like few people ever have against Australia, he fronted the press.
“It would have been fantastic had all this happened in Pakistan before my own people”. Or just people.
There are so many images of Khan raising his bat, smiling on the way off the field, winning a Test, saving a Test, or just enjoying his time out in the middle. Almost all of them have no people behind him. Often, he is the only person in the shot.
A champion in isolation. A victim of other’s crimes. A batsman in a cage.
He exists. He bats. But in many ways, he is the ghost who bats.
Editorial note: This story was originally published in Herald's Annual 2015 issue. Younis Khan has since played three more matches for a total of 99 Test outings.
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