Cricket

End of an era, end of a subculture

Pakistan were blessed that two men as contrasting as Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq combined as coherently as peanut butter and jelly © AFP

Shan Masood was sitting next to Misbah-ul-Haq in the dressing room at the P Sara Oval. It was the third day of the second Test and out in the middle Ahmed Shehzad and Azhar Ali were battling to salvage the mess they had contributed to in the first innings, one that would eventually cost Pakistan the Test.

Masood was caressing the bruises that so many young Pakistan batsmen suffer early in their careers. He was out of the Test XI, having been dropped three Tests after a 75 on debut against South Africa. But he had worked his way closer, scoring runs in Sri Lanka on an A tour just before this series and then in the warm-up game before the Tests. He had changed his game, become more expansive, and felt he was hitting the ball better than ever.

And now here he was, on the inside but still far enough outside to require looking in. Two Tests were gone and this could easily become another series he missed altogether, and what was worse was that he wasn’t actually playing at all, and thus not cashing in on some good form. And next to him was sitting the man who would’ve played a big part in the decision that was eating away at him.

Misbah asked him how old he was.

Twenty-five.

“You know what I was doing when I was 25?” Masood recalls Misbah saying. “I was graduating out of college and I hadn’t played first-class cricket. I started playing for Pakistan when I was 27. I played in Sharjah, got out on a flat wicket to Brett Lee and Andy Bichel. You’ve already started your career, have 4000 runs at first-class level, made your debut against the world number one side, you scored 75 there, what are you worrying about? You have your best years ahead of you, what are you worried about?”

“Maybe he’s right,” Masood thought.

Masood was picked for the next Test in Pallekele. Younis Khan – of whom Masood is fan, pupil, mentee and friend – made sure that Masood’s spot in the dressing room would be right next to his own. Masood was leg-before in the first innings for 13, a call that could have gone either way and made none the easier by the fact that he felt he was batting well.

Later in that innings, Younis called Masood over. A year earlier, Masood had widened his stance, on Younis’ advice. Younis felt that Masood’s height necessitated a broader base. Now in Pallekele, he reassured Masood that it was still a good idea but he had maybe gone a little too wide. And stressed that he could see Masood was hitting the ball really well, and that he only really needed to make minor adjustments, to stand a little more upright, be more open-chested, and it would be okay.

In the second innings, Masood scored his first – and so far only – Test hundred, setting up Pakistan’s highest-ever successful run-chase. He made 125 out of 382 and 242 runs of the target were made in company with Younis. Masood’s out of the side again currently. He may never have another Pallekele again, or become the Test opener Pakistan have craved for so long, but what a time to have been young and batting in the Pakistan side.

****

That time is over. Or it will be about a month from now, when Pakistan play the last of their three Tests against West Indies. Sometimes, they say, when you’re having a panic attack, writing down your thoughts is a handy way of riding it out. But no matter how many times you write this out in full – the third Test in Dominica in May 2017 will be the last Test Misbah and Younis play for Pakistan – the anxiety is not going to go away.

It has little to do with the number of runs they’ve made, or the Tests they’ve played. Combined, after all, they have played fewer Tests than Sachin Tendulkar and only 20 or so more than Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh or Jacques Kallis. Together they are still around a thousand runs short of Tendulkar and have made less than 2000 more than Ponting.

Okay, it does have something to do with that – that kind of experience out in the middle of a Test that has to be won, drawn or lost is priceless. But these are not the massive numbers we have become used to dealing in these days. And those runs, good as they were, have come and gone. And, unlikely as it sounds, especially right now, those runs will come again in the future. It doesn’t even have to do with the wins they wrought, the 15 century stands, or Pakistan’s brief ascent to number one. Wins come and go, rankings go down and up.

Of the two, it felt as if Younis Khan could have gone on for a little longer if he wished, helping ease Pakistan’s batting transition © Getty Images

Acknowledging the value of their numbers is like acknowledging that bricks have something to do with houses being built. One falls, another rises. But turning them into homes, that is the magic.

And so, what really goes with the pair is a subculture within the side. If Pakistan has been cursed in never quite having a proper finishing school to help ease a fledgling cricketer’s transition from domestic to international cricket, then Pakistan has also been blessed to have this pair performing that service within the team.

Sure, they helped players score runs, take catches and win matches, but of much greater value was what they showed them about being professional sportsmen in Pakistan; how much of their souls will go and the scars it will leave; the sacrifices that have to be made and the people they will please and the people they will piss off; the blood and sweat they will have to cede but also that they will have to preserve to keep on keeping on; the compromises they can afford and those they cannot; which distractions are important and which aren’t; living with the injustices they will face and carry out; the real limits of their own ambition; the importance of purpose and will, but also that of fate; and so much more that has little to do with scoring runs at the crease and also everything to do with it.

They have not rebooted the broader culture of Pakistan cricket because two old men can only do so much. That culture is a product of the country it has grown in. But what they did do was alleviate it and temporarily short-circuit it by creating this space, which is as best as anyone could have hoped for. Not for nothing was Younis referred to as an institute within the side. How much could you learn? Some, like Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq, bought in. Others like Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad didn’t, or – optimistically – haven’t yet.

The real lesson is in their pairing, that two entities as contrasting as this pair can and did come together as coherently as this. Misbah and Younis are at worst different species and at best personality types bound to rub each other up all wrong. Yet what this union has felt like is what it must have done that moment when somebody first spread peanut butter on one slice, jelly on the other, put the two slices together and created the greatest sandwich known.

****

Except you will still be able to have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich long after May. Younis and Misbah are as good as gone and already the hardships loom. It starts with a tour of Bangladesh in July, a Bangladesh that are no longer that Bangladesh, least of all at home, and who’s to say that tour itself will not serve as the most intrusive wake-up call? And then, the future.

Could either have gone on, you might naturally wonder? Probably not Misbah. Younis? Perhaps. Though he had begun to look more and more vulnerable at the start of each innings over the last year, in which period he still produced three hundreds, including a double in England and an unbeaten 175 in Sydney. More to the point, he could have stayed on to try as best as possible to ease transitions; in a batting line-up where Azhar and Shafiq now assume greater responsibility while also trying to instill it into newcomers; for the new captain, because when he has to make that first tricky on-field call, who will he turn to? Not the guy who isn’t there in the slip cordon anymore, that’s who.

If there is any solace at all – and right now it feels thin – here it is. It’s disorienting enough to see one Pakistani great walking off, and not being pushed, into retirement. But two in a couple of days? In a country where culling senior players is a revered old blood sport, that’s enough to knock you back into your senses and start smelling a purge. Except, even if Inzamam-ul-Haq has wanted them to go, this doesn’t feel like one.

With Misbah there was no real need for a push. One foot he had already taken out the door and deep down, the combination of his poor form and position as a captain losing Tests must have told him the other needed to follow. And who has ever bullied Younis into making a decision he didn’t want to make? If it came to it, would Inzamam really have been able to push him out? No: if Younis Khan is retiring, it is because Younis Khan thinks it is time to retire.

Which means, for now, disorientation is the normal. Not only are they leaving when they wanted, they are doing it – just about – having not exhausted supplies of goodwill or patience, their grips being prised off, one fingernail at a time.

One final example left behind, then, in two careers full of them.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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