Yousuf's recall: A stroke of genius or act of desperation?
Pakistan will turn again today to one of their greatest ever batsmen, seven months after banning him for dividing the dressing room. Glory or acrimony awaits
Wednesday 18 August 2010
Faith has defined Mohammad Yousuf's career. It was inevitable. He spent the first half of it as a Christian in a team most of whose other members became increasingly overt in expressing their religion.
Then, five years ago, he became a Muslim, changed his name from Yousuf Youhana, alienated his family and in astonishing fashion transformed his batting fortunes. From being an accomplished batsman, he became a great one.
He made no secret of it: any success he had was because of Allah. Where once he made the sign of the cross, he replaced it with a sajda, marking milestones by kneeling in Muslim prayer.
To have watched him bat it is easy to understand that he may be touched by divine inspiration, an extravagant backlift, elegant strokes played uncommonly late, a serene ability to pierce any field square and behind the wicket.
But it has been far from as easy as he has made it look. Yousuf, known in internet chatrooms as MoYo, returns to the Pakistan team today after the most chequered of recent pasts, a period of turbulence remarkable even for a team which has regularly set new standards in discord at odds with the uniform religious zealotry so often on view.
Yousuf was captain of Pakistan on their ill-fated tour of Australia last winter. They lost every match and it was not necessary to view them at close quarters to know that they were in a mess. Stories of ill-discipline, of broken curfews, of dressing room factions, abounded.
At the tour close, heads were demanded and delivered. Yousuf and his long-time colleague in the Pakistan middle order, Younis Khan, were both banned indefinitely by the Pakistan Cricket Board, accused of creating dissent and having a bad influence over the team. Not long after Yousuf decided to retire from all international cricket.
It was felt then and has been subsequently confirmed by his late summons for this tour that it could not endure. Yousuf and the board both reconsidered their positions. The batting on the tour of England was cracking up and Yousuf still reckoned he had something to offer.
For the impressive new captain, Salman Butt, who took over when Shahid Afridi, Yousuf's strangely appointed successor, quickly resigned, the advent of the veteran is a challenge of deep proportions. Here is one of the country's most formidable players, their third-highest Test runs scorer behind Javed Miandad and Inzamam-ul-Haq but with a better average than both, a strong minded individual who wears his religion on his sleeve, a recently deposed captain with the country in strife – and he might have a point or two to prove.
So far the signs have been positive. Yousuf appears to have fitted in well with a team which is replete with inexperience and Butt, in his easy phlegmatic way has welcomed him. For most of the early part of their tour, especially after the grand win against Australia in the second neutral Test, his first as captain, Butt denied that the Pakistan batting needed shoring up by Yousuf or anybody else. He was clearly keen to show that the young bucks could bring it off.
That dream lasted as long as the defeat against England in the first Test. Yousuf was immediately invited to resume a career which might have been terminated. He will be nine days off his 36th birthday when he takes the field today.
His only innings since playing in two Twenty20 matches at home in March – and soon after quitting – was in the washed out tour match in Worcester at the weekend. He looked in surprisingly good order, being unbeaten on 40 from 54 balls when the rain came.
Butt said yesterday: "He looked pretty good but obviously once he starts playing matches the match fitness will come. He hasn't had any long cricket in the last six months so it might take him some time but I am sure once he has played one or two games he will get in the groove."
Yousuf was born in poverty to a Christian family in Lahore's Railway Colony. His father worked at the railway. Cricket was merely a hobby at first, played with a plank of wood and a taped up table tennis ball (tennis balls were beyond the budget). There were no aspirations. But he was spotted, went to a Christian college, gave up cricket (for the first time) to join a tailor's but one day was asked to play by a local club who were short. He made a hundred and was on his way.
In 1998, he made his Test debut against South Africa. For some years he was criticised for not turning up when the chips were down. Gradually, his interest in Islam grew, though it was suggested that he was influenced by Muslim team-mates and had ambitions to be captain which would otherwise not have been realised. But Christian he certainly still was in outlook in those early years. On England's tour to Pakistan in 1999, it was possible to have beer delivered to the hotel room for which you had to sign a register. One night this reporter ordered a couple of bottles and noticed that the name above in the ledger was that of Yousuf Youhana who had signed for several more bottles.
On his official conversion to Islam in late 2005, Yousuf was transformed. In his third Test match sporting his new faith and beard, against England, he made a scintillating 223. In 2006, he scored 1788 runs at an average of 99.33, breaking a record for a calendar year of 1710 which had been set by Viv Richards 30 years previously. He did it in the same number of innings, 19, in which he scored nine centuries, three of them on the tour of England including a majestic double hundred at Lord's.
He was unequivocal and told one interviewer: "Since I started coming forward, praying five times a day, I have gained much in the way of discipline, focus. Whoever prays five times daily and prays Fajr [dawn prayers], Allah will take responsibility for all his actions and work." Yousuf Youhana is long gone, for now Mohammad Yousuf is back.
View from Pakistan: Test team have failed to lift spirits of a nation in crisis
In a country riven by bitter ethnic, sectarian, class and other divisions, cricket has always been a source of rare cohesion for Pakistanis. A winning performance by the national team, which features players from three of the four provinces, has the ability to pierce gloomy moments in the manner of a bright shaft of light.
Last June, as the army faced off against Taliban insurgents in the north-west and vicious suicide bombings scarred Pakistan's main cities and towns, the cricket team's clinching of the world Twenty20 title lifted spirits. Throughout the night, young men plunged through the streets of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, beeping horns, flashing lights, and whooping with delight.
Many hoped that the Test series against England would be a similar moment for cheer, especially coming against the backdrop of a diplomatic row between Islamabad and London over David Cameron's accusation that Pakistan was "looking both ways" over the export of terrorism.
Sadly for Pakistan's millions of devotees, it was the Pakistani side that collapses all too easily that turned up to face England.
As the floodwaters rose across the country there was no appealing distraction from the depressing scenes.
Omar Waraich in Islamabad
Should sportsmen go back? Four who came out of retirement
The heavyweight boxer enjoyed a hugely successful career before announcing his retirement in 1979 after regaining his world title from Leon Spinks. After two years out of the ring, the American returned, aged 38, but he lost by knockout to world champion Larry Holmes. One further defeat, and Ali retired permanently.
The American cyclist retired from the sport in 2005 after winning a record seventh consecutive Tour de France at the age of 33. He returned to competition three years later, finishing third in the 2009 Tour de France and a lowly 23rd this summer.
After retiring from horse riding in 1985, he was jailed two years later for tax irregularities. He resumed his career as a jockey in 1990 following his release, and just over a week later won the Breeders' Cup Mile. Retired for good in 1995.
The seven-time Formula One world champion originally retired in 2006, but was tempted out of retirement as a temporary replacement for Felipe Massa last summer. A neck injury halted his return, but the German did make a comeback this season, driving alongside fellow countryman Nico Rosberg for Mercedes.
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