A champion batsman who is still to get his due

Mohammad Yousuf gives the impression of a man who is constantly battling with himself, wanting to improve and prove. The intensity he brings to his batting reflects the struggle that marked his initiation to international cricket, writes Vijay Lokapally.

In the late 1970s and early 80s Zaheer Abbas made such a mockery of the Indian bowlers with his stupendous scoring that at a party, one of the Indian players walked up to the Pakistan batsman and asked him, "What happened to your pads?" The Indians had grown so tired of watching Zaheer's dominance that they could not visualise the Pakistani great without his pads and bat.

The bowlers around the world today might well ask Mohammad Yousuf the same question. He is seen only in pads these days, slamming the bowlers and making runs at will — 1788 Test runs in this calendar year, 2006, at an average of 99.33 with nine centuries.

The way he walks to the crease tells a lot about Yousuf — the confidence that underlines his batting and the athleticism that marks him out as a crafty run-gatherer. He is indeed a unique character who does unique things.

One cannot grudge Yousuf his place in history. True, his deeds fade when compared with the legendary Viv Richards. But then the Pakistan run-machine has worked his way to the pinnacle of batsmanship in an astonishing year of prolific success, erasing in the process Richards' feat of 1710 runs in 1976 at an average of 90.00 with seven centuries.

To score that many runs as he has is nothing short of a monumental achievement. The runs may not have always come in testing conditions, but they have been a strong test of character and conviction as far as Yousuf is concerned.

The Pakistani's sensational run began with two centuries in the home series against India in the face of some incisive bowling by Irfan Pathan. Remember, he was the third victim in Pathan's glorious hat-trick in the first over of the Karachi Test. It was just the motivation that Yousuf needed to explode. He was really unstoppable from that point.

Bowlers dreaded the sight of this bearded marauder, kind at heart but certainly not so when entrusted with the job of scoring runs. Yousuf has been merciless while compiling huge scores, though he is not quite as intense and ferocious as the great West Indian, Viv Richards.

It is indeed unfortunate that Yousuf, who converted to Islam and dropped `Youhana' from his name, has not been rated among the leading batsmen in contemporary cricket. He has the credentials to be counted as one of the finest but there is something about him that does not convince the connoisseurs of the game.

There is no doubt that he is a purist's delight. Though correct in his approach, Yousuf may not quite be the technical marvel that some of his predecessors in Pakistan were, but he definitely ranks among the best. For sheer perseverance, not many can match him.

Former Pakistan captain Imran Khan had gone on record saying that he would love to see Yousuf get runs when his team needed them, and not on the placid pitches of the sub-continent. Yousuf, obviously, has a long memory and has given ample evidence of his ability to bat in all conditions.

Yousuf is a non-controversial figure. The rare occasion when he attracted bad publicity was when he decided to convert to Islam. There was opposition from the family, but the man was adamant. He has grown as a strong individual, making strong statements on the cricket field and in life in general.

It is a tribute to his devotion to the game that Yousuf has never had any fitness problems. For someone who has played consistently well at the highest level, it can be demanding to stay supremely athletic but Yousuf, a disciplined cricketer that he is, can take immense credit for the fact that he has rarely caused his captain any anxiety on this count.

Hailing from a modest background, Yousuf gives the impression of a man who is constantly battling with himself, wanting to improve and prove. The intensity he brings to his batting reflects the struggle that marked his initiation to international cricket.

He may not entirely be a touch player in the mould of Gundappa Vishwanath or purely a dogged customer like Javed Miandad, but Yousuf is a pleasant combination of these two stalwarts who belonged to an era when cricket was hugely competitive and enjoyable.

Without taking away any credit from Yousuf's grand performance, one must remember that scoring runs has increasingly become an easy exercise today for various reasons. The pitches have mostly lost their venom and the bowlers their bite, paving the way for some monstrous performers with the bat.

Take a look at Richards' regal show in 1976. Having had a nightmarish period against the Australians before, he struck back with some sensational batting. He first dealt with the likes of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson on bouncy tracks and then mowed down the Indians in the Caribbean. And at the receiving end were spin greats, Bishan Singh Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and B. S. Chandrasekhar. Having warmed up, Richards then feasted on the Englishmen, reducing bowlers like John Snow, Chris Old, Mike Hendrick and Derek Underwood to mere helpless spectators.

The bowlers looked mediocre when Richards was on fire. Yousuf may not figure in the same bracket as Richards, Vishwanath and Miandad but he commands his own place in history. He is a rare builder of an innings, like Rahul Dravid. He relies on timing and his on-side play is a treat to watch. His century in Melbourne (2004-05) was one of the finest exhibitions of how to play spin, while another of his hundreds — in Kolkata the same season — showed his ability to tackle pressure.

Former Pakistan captain Rameez Raja once observed that Yousuf could have problems in dealing with swing and seam in England. But when the time came, Yousuf responded by scoring heavily in conditions that required patience and skill to survive. He made a huge impact on the series with a double century at Lord's, which was a masterpiece indeed. At home, against the West Indies, Yousuf was at his best, making the most of a listless attack.

It's a pity that Yousuf has not been considered worthy of being groomed for captaincy. As a batsman, he has always appeared organised and capable of delivering on all pitches. He has also proved that he is competent enough to face both pace and spin. However, the moving ball has at times exposed the chinks in his defence.

For Pakistan, Yousuf is a key batsman in the run-up to the World Cup even though he has a dismal record in the competition. A mere 331 runs in 10 matches do not speak well for his potential. In two World Cups, Yousuf has scored only two half centuries and they have both come against non-Test playing nations — 81 not out against Scotland and 58 against Holland. His next best score of 43 came against Namibia.

The World Cup is one tournament where Yousuf is yet to make an impact, but he could prove to be a significant factor on the slow pitches in the West Indies. Yousuf, perhaps, will have the most important role of anchoring Pakistan's innings in the 2007 World Cup.

Yousuf, 32, has been waiting for quite some time now to get his due. His batting feat this year should see the Pakistani being acknowledged as one of the finest batsmen in contemporary cricket.