Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Story of Younis Khan (Part-6)

Younis Khan style

The answer to a lot else is Malir Gymkhana, an old, established club that has given Karachi some of its finest cricketers, including Taslim Arif, Saeed Anwar, Latif, and a host of first-class champions. It used to be more than just a club, serving as the most lucid expression of the city's cricket. Malir Gymkhana prescribed philosophies, about how batsmen should bat, how individuals fit into collectives, how younger players should be nurtured, how individual causes subjugate themselves to the team's purpose. It was the kind of club where the captain would impart such lessons after games at, say, Nannay ka Hotel, a famous teahouse in Khokrapar (a Malir locality). Once, after returning from a tour of Sri Lanka with the national side, Latif came to play. He was by then an established international. He arrived at the ground, opened his kitbag and told the players to take whatever they wanted. It was that kind of club.

Younis was taken there in 1993. By then he had shed youthful flirtations with legspin and, as he got more opportunities with a club in Steel Town, turned himself into an opener. Pakistan Steel Mills had a team that played Grade II (a grade below first-class) in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, and one of its players, Mohammad Ali, also played at Malir Gymkhana. He liked what he saw of Younis at a trial and took him as well as another player, Nazeem Abbasi, to Malir.

Waheed Mirza was club captain at the time and his name still resonates around Karachi's club circuit, so influential was his leadership. You might remember him as one half of a first-class world-record opening stand. His problem was that he could only register one of the two as a player.

"I was asked whom I will pick. I said Younis. They asked why, that other guy was hitting so well, he scored a hundred. I said I liked one thing about this Younis. What? I liked the boy's reach. The other kid doesn't have it. So I picked him."

His reach. Come on this brief detour. This is an unexpected trait to have identified, at least to a non-technical eye. Cricket rarely scrutinises reach, though clearly it must be an essential part of a batsman's game. Until Mirza told me this, I had always struggled to place Younis' batting in technical terms. He is not a classicist, though neither is he unorthodox. He is not a cavalier stylist, though neither is he a dour accumulator. Often it has just been easier to talk about his batting in terms of personality - he has character, he is brave, and so on.

It is difficult to describe that idiosyncratic bodily strain that produces shots in unusual areas from an unusual combination of movements that leave him, ultimately, in unusual post-shot positions. Now it makes sense - Younis is shaped by his reach. It gives his batting that distinct elastic quality, stretching out into shapes it shouldn't, utilising a catapulting force. See those cover drives when, even though his front foot is not that close to the ball, he stretches those long arms and torso out to reach it. Against spinners he drives balls that are not even full, because he can reach out that far. It is actually more important - and noticeable - than his footwork.

The best effect of his reach is seen in the shot he picked up from watching his brother Ayub. There is no better player of the sweep in the modern game than Younis, and his reach is why there are few better players of spin. Google "Younis Khan sweep shot" and study the images. He does play it conventionally, where his upper body remains upright as he goes down on one knee. The images that really stand out though are those where his left leg is planted further out and upper body is bent forward so low that his left knee must be touching the chest. Already that is a yogic stretch. But the bend allows his arms to go even further so that he can sweep lengths and lines others simply cannot. It allows him to slog-sweep, to sweep straight, to sweep fine, to lap, to roll his wrists over, and to reverse. It is a shot, he told me in Abu Dhabi last year, he never practises specifically.

"If I have to play the sweep, I just play it. I trust my ability to play it. Sometimes if a fielder isn't there, if a game is being played with me, the ball is coming in and if the bowler thinks he can get me out sweeping, I will start playing it. I compel him.

"I don't [always] premeditate. I look at the body language of the bowler and I work out what might happen. Will he bowl slower, quicker? Sometimes, I can identify. Sometimes I have decided what balls to sweep, if I feel the bowler has relaxed a bit or he goes outside off stump."

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