They were unassuming, self-effacing, modest. They preferred playing the role of the bulwark rather than the façade.
Their presence in the team was ubiquitous rather than charismatic. They preferred to construct the ‘firm’ in Pakistan’s cricketing firmament, rather than dazzling as stars.
Even while chorusing their synchronised swansong, they did so unobtrusively, thousands of miles away from the cricketing limelight, far from the sound and fury, dazzle and decibels of the IPL extravaganza.
They were such men. And therefore will their departure scoop a genuine hollow out of the cream of the game. With passing days, years and decades there will dawn the inevitable realisation, the truth of that oft repeated cliché: they do not make it like them anymore.
For long the numbers have maintained a deafening din for their respective cases. The evidence of their undisputed places among the pantheon of Pakistani greats is more than palpable. Yet, the understated manner in which they went about their business on the field denied them the fanfare and adulation garnered by many of their compatriots.
On one side we have total aggregate, magnificent average, overseas runs, scores against quality opposition, the number of hundreds, frequency of hundreds — every parameter speaking eloquently about Younis Khan’s greatness. There is hardly a Pakistani batting record that he does not hold.
On the other hand, we have the most successful captain in terms of Test match victories, a man who could graft for hours while at the same time blast the (then) fastest Test century, one who defied age, his legend eked out in the hundred at Lord’s at 42 followed by the push ups. Most remarkable is that Misbah-ul-Haq accomplished all that while his entire career witnessed just 5 Test matches at home.
The modern maestro
Younis made runs everywhere, against every major opposition, in every country. Other than in the difficult conditions of South Africa, he flourished in every land of note.
Yet, understandably, the stories of the past, retold over and over again, the partially forgotten detail and the abundantly embellished minutiae, and snowballed into legends, lend that aura of invincibility to the masters of the days of yore. So it has been difficult to place the flesh and blood mortal of our generation alongside and above hallowed names of the past. People still hesitate to place Younis beside the likes of Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Hanif Mohammad and some even vouch for Majid Khan.
True, his batting was not the sort to delight spectators as a Zaheer or a Majid would. Neither has there yet been enough number of intervening years to perpetuate his persona into immortality. Nor have his deeds been magnified, as in the days of yore, through the hyperboles and imagination that used to compensate for the lack of live telecasts and information from around the world. Thus, Younis has not yet enjoyed those elements that combine to create the overstated myths and legends associated with a cricketer of the past.
When one watched Younis, the predominance of the bottom hand, the inelegant forward prod, and the occasional crudeness of the downswing of his bat were difficult to appreciate. Especially in a part of the world that lays rather more store to the attractiveness of stroke-play than the bottom-line of the efforts. His mastery over the spinners was well known and his flick often did carry a degree of flamboyance, but when placed side by side with the other Asian maestros his style of run-making fell short on the scale of aesthetic delight. It is difficult for the spectator to comprehend that style and substance are, more often than not, uncorrelated. More so for the fan.
Yet, the tally of runs at an incredible average is difficult to ignore. The aggregate was achieved at a rate superior to Zaheer, Majid and many other visually pleasing batsmen. The runs take on special significance when one considers that they have been scored for a team plagued with problems of every conceivable kind, on the field and off.
A thorough analysis of the figures, with an adequate weighting of conditions and oppositions, will unerringly have Younis Khan roosting right at the top of the all-time Pakistan list.
The runs also sparkle more brilliantly because of the resilience that marked his game. The two hundreds in the historic Test victory over Australia at Dubai were just an example of the batting greatness he embodied. And all that was made even more poignant when cast against the backdrop of a tragedy that followed the maestro through the years. Tragic deaths in the family — of his father and brothers —periodically dealt cruel blows on his mental make-up. But on every occasion Younis returned to action, forged by the fire of fate, stronger, more impregnable.
Battling against odds was always his forte. The circumstances, cricketing or otherwise, never managed to stall his gallant run. Neither were they able to wipe that infectious wide smile off his face as he went about his business on the cricket field. It was that smile that underlined something charmingly old world in his game, of a pristine quality of cricket, the embodiment of the game as it is meant to be played.
Through all these perils and predicaments the journey was a magnificent one. And as he bows out, we can say with some degree of confidence that he did make his way to the pinnacle of Pakistani batsmanship.
And lest we forget, his 139 catches stand head and shoulders above any other non-wicketkeeper in the history of Pakistan cricket.
The willow and the sceptre
Misbah is perhaps not comparable in terms of batting accomplishments, but neither are his deeds with the willow insignificant. The healthy statistics of 5222 runs at 46.62 may not read remarkable in this modern day and age, but when we consider that he had played just five Tests before his 33rd birthday, the figures take on a new significance.
True, in contrast to Younis he was ordinary in most of the lands where run making becomes a backbreaking task. But we should balance that feature with the extraordinary fact that due to the turmoil in Pakistan only five of Misbah’s 75 Tests were played at home. We should also remember his consistency, that after his second coming in 2007, for nearly a decade, his longest run without a fifty had been four innings. This largely unobserved yet startlingly significant sequence carried on till his loss of form Down Under in October 2016.
And then, of course, there is the tale of unreal contrasts, of his 1*(51) during his penultimate Test innings to the 101*(57) at Abu Dhabi in 2014.
Finally the 114 at Lord’s at the age of 42, which serves a reminder that the man started seriously concentrating on cricket only after he had turned 24.
The banished from home status of the team during his tenure makes Misbah’s captaincy record even more astounding. He held the position of the captain of Pakistan, perhaps the most ridiculously volatile of posts in the world, for 56 Tests, most by a skipper from this maverick cricketing country. He led the nation to 26 victories, more than any other Pakistan captain, all the matches contested in either foreign or neutral territories.
Imran, Miandad and a few others enjoyed a superior Win/Loss ratio than the 26-19 managed by Misbah, but again the home-Test factor does come into the equation. As do some other seldom noted facts — modern cricket has drastically reduced the option of draws as a second line of defence, and it has totally done away with the concept of home umpires.
Misbah lacked the glamour of Imran, the pioneering firm hand of Abdul Hafeez Kardar. He was perhaps short of the ability to galvanise the team with frequent displays of personal brilliance associated with Wasim Akram or Waqar Younis. He did not possess the same street-smarts as Miandad … but then who did?
Yet, he marshalled his men through one of the most difficult periods of eternally troubled history of Pakistan cricket, when circumstances had exiled them from their own country. And he did so with plenty of success to rank as one of the major architects of the nation’s cricket destiny.
Through the last decade, Pakistan cricket has chartered the usual erratic course, oscillating between brilliance and mediocrity as has been their virtual signature. But, their fortunes have been built on the solid presence of these two men.
The two batted together often, managing to accumulate 3213 runs in their associations, with 15 century-stands. No Pakistani pair has added more runs or been involved in nearly as many hundred-run partnerships. This very statistic captures the worth of these two noble cricketers in the context of Pakistan cricket.
The Pakistan fans might not have placed them in the lofty pedestals as they did an Imran or a Miandad or a Zaheer, but in a strife-ridden nation the presence of these two in the middle allowed them a moment of serenity, perhaps the most elusive component in the last few years in cricket or otherwise.
As mentioned, the duo were the mainstays of the side, building the fortification on which were constructed the friezes and the embellishments of the destiny of Pakistan cricket.
As they leave the scene, the foundations have to be re-laid, the bedrock reassembled.
Cricket will be rendered poorer by the synchronised departure, but enriched by the subsequent realisation of the worth of these two excellent gentlemen.
Such is always the case when towering greats choose to walk into the sunset arm in arm.