Stephen Fay: Powers of concentration put Yousuf in class of his own

Historians will be astonished he was on the losing side
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The Independent Online

Mohammad Yousuf was out of sorts yesterday. Perhaps it was the uncertain weather. Between interruptions in the morning his only boundary was an edge high over the slips, which may have been premeditated, maybe not. There was one more boundary in mid-afternoon, but Yousuf faced 45 balls yesterday, groped regularly outside the off stump, and played only six scoring shots.

They took his 115 overnight to 128 when he gave a straightforward catch to Chris Read off a swinging ball from Matthew Hoggard. But the audience ignored what they had just seen with their own eyes. All round the ground, spectators rose to their feet and applauded Yousuf off all the way to the pavilion.

The ovation was easy to understand because it was so well deserved. This hundred was Yousuf's third in four Tests; he has scored 631 runs at 90.14 in seven innings, and in one of those he was run out for eight.

In years to come, historians will look at his figures and be astonished that he was on the losing side. Yousuf himself would understand. Along with Younis Khan and Inzamam-ul-Haq, his two fellow musketeers in Pakistan's middle order, they could not do all the batting themselves. They carried the burden with strength and skill but it was too much for them. But no one who saw Yousuf's 202 at Lord's or the 192 at Headingley or the 128 at The Oval will cease to praise this justly famous man.

When he reached his hundred on Friday, Yousuf performed a sajda, kneeling in prayer just off the pitch to give thanks for his runs by quoting verses from the Koran. (Actually, he was facing Manchester rather than Mecca.) He celebrates Islam by wearing a full black beard - he is not required to - and the second thing that is well known about Yousuf is his conversion to Islam in September 2005. He was Yousuf Youhana no longer.

It was a controversial decision, which was initially denounced by his mother. Both his parents were Christians; they were a poor family. His father swept the platforms at the local railway station in a small town outside Lahore. Their faith and their son's accomplishments on the cricket field had enriched their lives. Of course they were upset.

Critics suggested that he had been unable to resist the clamour from his Muslim colleagues on the team that he should join them. That was denied by the Pakistan Cricket Board. Other critics said the move was opportunistic, designed to win him the captaincy when Inzamam goes, perhaps after next year's World Cup. Yousuf denied that one himself.

His conversion is commonly offered as an example of the power of prayer. In 59 Tests before his conversion, Yousuf averaged a respectable 47.46. In the Tests since he started to pray five times a day, starting at 4.30am and ending at 10.30pm, his average has been in the low eighties. He is the top Test run-scorer in the world this year.

He is a mutterer at the wicket; according to Pakistani reporters, he is repeating a mantra which means "Forgive me". But this is not a recently acquired habit. As a young Test player he would make the sign of the cross to mark a fifty or a hundred. "Without him I am nothing," he said of the Christian God. Now that role is played by the Prophet. What it signifies is a man of deep religious conviction.

The one element in Islam which may have contributed to his recent excellence is discipline, which, along with cleanliness, is a fundamental condition of the religion. Yousuf's popularity in Pakistan was severely dented a couple of years ago by his habit of getting out for respectable but not match-winning scores, especially in one-day internationals. He has silenced that criticism himself with a succession of big hundreds, his 201 at Lord's having been preceded by 223 against England in the Third Test of last winter's tour of Pakistan.

But the source of his newfound concentration may also have a significant secular element to it. His remarkable improvement has happened during Bob Woolmer's term as coach. Woolmer's own mantra is patience. It is a quality Yousuf may have inherited only recently.

The consequence has the familiarity of a recurrent nightmare for England's bowlers. Yousuf arrives at the crease, takes a leg-stump guard, turns away to square leg, takes his bat in both hands and, with knees slightly bent, touches the grass two or three times. Loosened up, he is ready for business. Each time we have seen him do it this summer, there has been nearly an evens chance he will get his hundred, and a big chance that it will be a big one. We won't forget Mohammad Yousuf in a hurry.