Much before he scored thousands of runs for the Pakistani Test cricket team and before he won millions of hearts with his earnest smile, Younis Khan spent countless hours honing his skill under the scorching sun of Karachi, Peshawar and Mardan.
The retired cricketer and former captain will now find it hard to visit a place in the country without being identified and possibly hounded for selfies, but he was once one of thousands of anonymous young sportsmen dreaming of playing for the national side, chasing the ultimate ‘Pakistani dream’.
He is the first and only Pakistani cricketer to score 10,000 runs in Test cricket. He also holds a number of other records — too many to list here and best left to a statistician. And all this did not come to him easily. Years and years of hard work and an uncompromising struggle often taking him to different parts of the country went into building this illustrious career and incredible reputation. Around two years ago, the Herald had a chance to meet Younis Khan on a hot, summer morning in Lahore. Consuming a bowl of cereal, the cricketer looked back at his life, from his early days in Mardan to his ODI debut against Sri Lanka — when the then Pakistani captain, Saeed Anwar, kept pushing Younis down the order till he could take it no more.
Here are excerpts of the conversation:
Hasham Cheema. Let’s start from the beginning. What was your childhood like?
Younis Khan. I was born in Mardan to loving parents. I was the youngest of my six brothers and three sisters, and received all the love and attention in the world. I used to have really long hair as a kid. They used to call me desi angrez (local foreigner), which was also scribbled at the back of an old family photograph. So as a child, my parents showered me with a lot of love. My father even kept some hair from my first haircut folded away inside a piece of paper that he showed me much later on in life.
Cheema. That’s a lot of love. You must have been close to your father.
Khan. He worked at a sugar mill in Punjab, often spending weeks on end working at the factory. It was always quite an occasion when he’d come back home. I remember my siblings and I would gather around him, massage his feet. We’d look for different stains and marks on his body and scrub them off.
I had a lot of brothers. We’d all walk to school together — that’s something I have fond memories of. Walking through fields of sugarcane, vegetables, we’d just pluck whatever we could get our hands on and munch our way to school. It was quite amazing. I think that’s where I got my love for nature.
After I finished grade two at my school in Mardan, we moved to Karachi. My father had found a job at Pakistan Steel Mills. From Mardan to Karachi, it was quite a jump. In my first exams, a month after I had moved, I failed at pretty much everything apart from drawing. I got 42/50 [marks] in that. I think some of my elder brother’s interest in painting must have rubbed off on me. I used to steal his paints too sometimes.
We were living at a Pakistan Steel Mills’ housing set-up with some great facilities. They had swimming pools, grounds, everything. There were Chinese people, Russians — it was a wonderful place to live and now that I think of it, if I wasn’t living in that area with those facilities, I probably wouldn’t have been a cricket player.
Cheema. So how did you step into the world of cricket? How did you develop your foundation and who took you under their wing?
Khan. Cricket came into the picture because my elder brother Shamshad Khan was playing at the club level and all the gear used to be lying at home — pads, bats, balls, everything. So some kids from the neighbourhood, including myself, made our own tape-ball team. We gradually shifted to playing with a hard ball and saved up some money to register our team in Karachi’s Zone-5. I played with that team for about four or five years and then thought I should move on to something more concrete.
The Malir Gymkhana Cricket Club wasn’t too far from where I had been living, and some decent cricketers were playing for that club like Rashid Latif, Tariq Alam, etc. A friend of mine suggested I should apply for its membership. I followed his advice and soon enough I was rubbing shoulders with some of the finest players in the club-cricket circuit of Karachi. I was lucky to come across such amazing people. They helped me immensely along the way.
Every time [former wicketkeeper] Rashid Latif would come back from a tour, he’d spread open his kit bag in the dressing room and say, “Come boys, get whatever you need.” His kit would have pads, bats, balls — even helmets!
Similarly, Tariq Alam – Fawad Alam’s father – was extremely generous in lending me batting advice. Karachi’s spinning wickets were his forte and he would go out of his way to share every little detail of his time on the crease. I was under able wings, growing steadily as a cricketer.
Waheed Mirza was another big name. I used to closely observe his batting and his decision-making. You know how I am, I stay quite focused and I only have the team’s victory in mind. So he sensed that about me and took me under his wings. He realised that I was the kind of a player who would listen to him, understand his point and apply those things — and very importantly, treat him with respect.
It was then that I first learnt the importance of staying on the field for long hours as a batsman. My seniors wouldn’t ask me how much I’d scored. They’d ask how long I spent out there batting. These were four-day matches, of course. I struggled a lot in those years. I played Grade-II (a notch below first-class) cricket for a lot of different sides in Karachi. You name a team and I have probably played for it.
Cheema. At some point you joined the Peshawar cricket circuit. What was that transition like?
Khan. One day, the Karachi Electric Supply Company (now K-Electric) cricket manager, Zafar Ahmed, sat me down and gave me some sound advice. He said to me, "In Karachi, you’re a small fish in a big pond. This city is full of superstars. If you really want to get ahead, you should move to Peshawar. That’s where you’re likely to get noticed."
I took his advice and around 1997-98, moved back to Mardan. I called my father and told him I was coming back home. He was extremely delighted to hear the news as most of my other siblings were either in Karachi or had gone abroad.
Anyway, the struggle was far from over. I had to prove to the Peshawar club that I was a reliable cricketer who was there to stay. I still remember the two-hour bus rides to Peshawar’s Arbab Niaz Stadium from my home in Mardan. It took a lot out of me, but over a period of a year or so I made a bit of a name for myself in Peshawar.
My focus was always on my game — on the present and the future. I am a firm believer in moving on from the past, whether it has been good or bad.
Cheema. How did you make the jump from Peshawar to the international team?
Khan. There was still quite a long way to go before I could make it to the national team. In Peshawar, I got my break in first-class cricket. It happened when a few boys from the Peshawar team jet off to New Zealand to play for Pakistan-A.
Arshad Khan, who was the captain of the Peshawar side at the time, called me into the team for a domestic series. We faced Sargodha in one of the matches. I remember Misbahul Haq was their captain. I managed to make a double century in that match. My average was at 74 throughout the season! I was quite happy, my seniors were happy too.
One of my centuries came against Karachi. It was amazing because I never got to represent Karachi in first-class cricket, but my first first-class century was against Karachi, and that too at the National Stadium.
For any budding cricketer, a spot in Pakistan’s A-team is the final step towards playing for the national side. Many players often make or break at that stage.
Cheema. What was your experience like playing for Pakistan-A?
Khan. I did make it to Pakistan-A, but that first match I played against Sri Lanka at the UBL Sports Complex in Karachi was a practice match that a lot of people came to watch. Batting first, we were all out for 49. I made around 10-12 runs. When [Arjuna] Ranatunga and [Marvan] Atapattu came to bat, they wrapped up the run chase in a matter of 5-6 overs. The crowd started leaving. We had lost the game.
But we took such little time in losing that a whole day of cricket was still ahead of us. We (Pakistan-A) were all sitting in the dressing room feeling very depressed. It was Hasan Raza, Yasir Hameed, Faisal Iqbal and I — we were all thinking that our careers are probably over.
Somehow though – I don’t remember who put the request forward – but another 25-over match was announced. Announcements were made at the gate asking the crowd to come back to the ground. The second match started. Sri Lanka made around 170 runs in their 25 overs. Then our turn to bat came. I got promoted by [manager] Haroon Rasheed to play slightly higher up the order: at number three. I went and made 77 runs. We won the match!
Next day, the newspapers said: "Pakistan-A defeats Sri Lanka.” Nobody even remembered the first match that we had lost so convincingly. The match we won was more talked-about and that’s what we go credit for. Based on that performance my name was shortlisted for the first one-day (Pakistan vs Sri Lanka).
Cheema. That must have been thrilling. What was your first interaction with the Pakistani team like?
Khan. I was standing quietly on the side and the Pakistan team was busy doing nets. Mohammad Yousuf (then Yousuf Youhana) went to the coach, Intikhab Alam, and told him to try me out. So Alam told me to pad up. I was feeling quite anxious, but little did I know I’d be facing a fierce and angry Wasim Akram on my first three balls in the nets.
I knew Wasim bhai was going to give me a tough time. I had 10-15 years of practice behind me and I was ready to face him. I told myself, “There is no way I’ll give Akram a chance.”
So Wasim bhai steams in. I stretched my leg outwards and simply blocked the ball. Wasim bhai gave me a stern look. I knew the next ball was going to go flying above my head. Wasim bhai ran in and did just that: bowled a bouncer! I ducked.
He gave me another nasty look. I knew I had survived two balls, but sooner or later I was going to get hit. My senses were heightened, I knew he was going to strike me, I was reading his body language. Third ball, Wasim bhai delivers a short-pitched, out-swinging delivery that whizzed past my rib cage. I narrowly escaped that bullet of a ball. He gave me a final glare and went back to the pavilion.
It was quite amazing for me. And the very next day, I was going to play my first match for Pakistan. It was at the National Stadium in Karachi, a place very close to my heart. Sri Lanka gave us a 260-run target, I remember. I was supposed to go in at number five, but the match was suspended in a rather tricky situation.
I was all padded up, waiting for my turn. When it was time to go out on the field, I was asked to wait a little. Saeed Anwar, our captain, told Wasim bhai to go out instead. He went, hit a few boundaries and came back. I sprang up from my seat, ready to go. Saeed bhai told me to wait, again. I couldn’t help but speak out, as it was also getting a little embarrassing for me. I made it clear to the dressing room that I was eager to go out and win the match for Pakistan. I think everybody noted that.
Nevertheless, Moin Khan went in before me and got out soon after. It was finally my turn. After years and years of what at times felt like a never-ending struggle, I walked out on the field. The feeling was surreal. I made about 47 runs (46 off 41 balls) in a tricky juncture of the match. When I got out, we needed only 26 runs (Pakistan needed 32 more runs after Younis’ wicket fell at 243-9, chasing a target of 274) to win. We lost the match eventually, but I made the mark I needed to.
Then in a test match in the same series I scored a century. The struggle of my previous 15 years stood resolved in a matter of a few matches. Slowly, all my difficulties and hurdles started to fade away. Here I am, now, grateful to be remembered as one of the finest players of the game.
The writer is a staffer at Dawn.com