The last time Pakistan were in South Africa playing a test series, they managed to come back from a 1-0 deficit to level the series in a riveting second test.
That was a long time ago. A time when it was arguable Kamran Akmal had some redeeming qualities; when Mohammad Asif was rightly hailed as Glen McGrath’s heir apparent; and Inzamam was balancing leading a team and organizing prayer congregations aboard commercial airliners.
A lot has changed since then for South Africa as well. There are no weak links in their bowling attack. No offense to Messrs Pollock & co., but Andre Nel was a big, freaky looking sigh-of-relief for a batsman and Philander’s metronomic line seems less capable of unraveling than Makhaya Ntini’s angled offerings sometimes could.
The only thing that’s still the same, really, is Mohammad Sami, and that’s not a good thing (kinda ironic, given that inconsistency has been his defining criticism). And Younis Khan.
Younis hasn’t changed.
The years in between have been brutal. You can see the strain of them on his face. The smile isn’t quite as goofy. You can sometimes spot him gazing away at some far-away place.
But he is essentially the same guy.
You can see it in his still-sharp reflexes at slip. In the look in his eyes when he springs on his tip-toes to lash a short ball through backward point. In the exaggerated forward movement framing his cover-drive. Younis, the cricketer, endures and to this day remains the bedrock of our test batting, regardless of whatever value you may wish to assign to Azhar Ali.
And six years ago Younis helped us over the line in that historic victory in the second test.
It would be misleading to suggest that Younis holds the key to victory (or even survival) in the second test. He was hardly the decisive factor those six years ago when an exceptional first day of Pakistani bowling and an exhibition in batting with the tail by Inzamam came together to set up an unlikely triumph. Even then there were jitters at the end, requiring a bright innings by Kamran to seal the deal. But Younis was there at the end, and it’s unlikely Kamran’s heroics would have been possible without the steel provided by Younis at the other end.
It is that guiding hand which Pakistan desperately needs across the next five days and beyond.
One of the particular qualities of Younis’s batting is its cumulative effect. While Azhar and Misbah are vulnerable to batting in a shell, Hafeez can be self-destructive and Jamshed is too flashy to be considered reliable (though it’s unfair to judge his batting at this early stage), Younis Khan’s batting is like a gift which keeps on giving. He has the unique power to take other batsmen along in his slipstream, though not quite with sheer force of will in the manner of more illustrious, aggressive batsmen like Kevin Pietersen.
Rather, Younis enters into a more subtle, symbiotic relationship with those batting around him. Whether it’s the regular rotation of strike which unsettles a fielding side’s rhythm while concurrently helping to acclimatize his partner, his solidity and assured presence (in the times he is solid and assured) which allows more attack-minded colleagues to go for their shots, or his controlled aggression which permits his more conservative associates to dig themselves in – Younis’s many faces aren’t just priceless commodities in and of themselves but invaluable when assessing the knock-on effect on other batsmen. He rarely bats in isolation because he manages to draw something out of his team-mates.
We don’t need Younis to score big runs in order to get something out of this test. Kevin Pietersen, arguably the best batsman of his generation, played his greatest innings against this South African attack and even that was only good enough to secure a draw. Rather we need Younis to do one of the things he does best, perhaps even unconsciously. To guide this batting line-up towards a sum bigger than their parts.