Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan: The final passing of the middle order gentlemen
From Seat G/47 in the Upper Tier of the Grand Stand at Lord's on 17 July 2016 - the fourth day of the first test of last summer's series for the ages - I could not make out the grimace after he put down a James Vince edge. Neither did I see the trademark grin - the one that had all but disappeared in the later years - when he held on to Woakes off Yasir. But Younis Khan's floppy white hat was unmistakable even from a distance.
And after it was all over that evening, after Yasir had darted and hissed and kissed like death, after Wahab had breathed fire in the way only a Pakistani pacer can and after the prodigal Amir had wheeled off after disturbing Ball's stumps to find some sort of release from his demons - it was the man in the floppy hat that stood with his back to the Pavilion End and commandeered his band of brothers into a push-up tribute. Sergeant Younis sprung up to his feet and saluted his men. Each of them returned the salute. He then turned around with a bounce and marched them all back - triumphant at last at the site of their shame six summers ago.
As spectators filed past to make their way to the tube station in St John's Wood, I did not bother to correct a resigned Englishman who said to me, "Congratulations, you guys deserved to win it." On that glorious Sunday evening - one of those London summer days that the Caribbean writer Sam Selvon had in mind when he wrote about 'days like they would never done, when all the fog and snow gone, and night long to come' - I was in no mood to be drawn into clarifications about my Indian-ness. I was content, for there are few joys in cricket-watching more fulfilling than a Pakistani bowling attack on song.
The push-up tribute was not entirely unexpected though. It had already been introduced on the first day of the test by another grizzled veteran after he became the second-oldest centurion at Lord's - the 42-year-old skipper Misbah-ul-Haq. Like most of the Indian public, the name meant nothing to me before the 2007 World T20 in South Africa. That mistimed scoop off Joginder in the final, Misbah on his haunches, head down, gloves resting heavily on top of his bat handle - that was my defining image of him until his return from the apparent wilderness to lead Pakistan following its darkest hour in the summer of 2010.
There was no time for us to commiserate, to sympathise - we had just won the first T20 World Cup. Of course, the eulogies on his retirement will be focused on the things he achieved after, and rightly so. But anyone who has taken sport seriously at any level - anyone who has missed a penalty in a shootout, anyone who has gone on to lose after dropping a break point - will know that one does not forget these moments, one merely rises above them.
And so the Wanderers' scoop will remain Misbah's personal albatross, invisible at most times, but always present around his neck - in all its technicolour glory, in all its surround sound. It brings to mind the sportswriter Daniel Harris' unforgettable opening (and closing) line in his long personal essay about England's 2005 Ashes triumph, "People who like sport remember their lives better than those who don't."
Reams have already been written about the double retirement by people who love sport more and consequently remember more. People like Osman Samiuddin - the high priest of Pakistani cricket writing who could probably reel off a ball-by-ball account of Younis' match-winning 171 at Pallekele in 2015. Or the inimitable Jarrod Kimber, who has followed the evolution of Misbah the leader with religious zeal.
There are many of the other cricket men who know the players and the country personally - those that can contextualise the two wonderful careers within the framework of the domestic game in Pakistan, family histories or the quirks of Karachi/Lahore cricket culture. As an intermittent, casual observer, I can neither draw on a statistical armoury at will nor am I alive to the many minor technical adjustments that have marked the careers of Misbah and Younis. My romance is with the idea of sport, rather than sport itself.
So for me, the Misbah-Younis retirement marks the final passing of the Subcontinental Middle Order Gentlemen. A sunset whose beginning I - as a callow law student - marked a little more than four and a half years ago, with an ode to Dravid and Laxman. The retirements of Sanga and Jayawardene slipped by during the first manic days of jobs in corporate law and private equity. And now I am back in Mumbai, on the couch of my parents' living room, 'home from the exile of youth' - to quote the nostalgist and essayist Kai Friese, in time to observe the last of the old guard walk through the portal and to glory.
We in South Asia have a natural predilection for melodrama, forever partial to stories of perdition followed by redemption. At Lords, I could not keep my eyes off Amir. He was 18 when he knowingly stepped over that line, and I was 19. When he returned to the home of cricket from his own exile of youth, he was 24. Maybe we had both turned from boys to men in the intervening years, but his growing up was so much harder to do. For a brief, mad moment, I flew with him after that last wicket. I speak of Amir to speak of age, and also to speak of an Age.
With the current crop of cricketers, there is a sense of growing up parallel to them - the Kohlis and the De Villiers' of our time. But the old guard, the Laxmans and the Sangas and the Misbahs - they were already men when we were only boys. We stood on the shoulders of these giants, so we know a gentler world, a slower world where natural dignity, grace and temperance were yet cherished values.
Of course, our own identity remains tied to the cricketers of this brave new era. The chiselled beards, tattoos, Instagram posts and IPL fun times are very much of a language we ourselves speak. But when speaking of the old guard who really blooded us into the purest form of the game, we speak the language of reverence and respect, for the gentlemen lent poise and quiet passion even as their employers plotted and connived.
The subcontinental cricket boards really came into their own after the 1996 World Cup. In more ways than one, their history post-1996 is one of the murky financial dealings, political interference and convenient personal favours. In his magisterial account of that World Cup War Minus the Shooting, Mike Marqusee quite accurately sketches the beginning of an epoch that would see the BCCI, PCB and the SLC grow into often unruly behemoths, riven by internal and external conflicts. These shenanigans are well-known if not all documented.
The ascent of the old guard coincided with this period, and no doubt a large part of any honest biography will be forced to reckon with their relationship with the administrators. Especially so since all but one of them (Laxman) captained their side for a period. By some accounts, but for the odd instance, they have all treated this assignment with maturity and balance. There are some who argue that by virtue of their role as senior statesmen, they should have challenged their boards more openly to stimulate much-needed administrative reform.
There was praise for Sanga following his 2011 Spirit of Cricket lecture, where he bravely suggested that the ICC suspend member boards where there is clear evidence of political interference and corruption. But this is much easier said than done, for like all else in South Asia, cricket is political, all manner of hands are tied behind backs and there is always someone higher-up.
As for Misbah and Younis, they will, in a sense, now finally get to go home. No more "home" tests in front of almost empty stands in Abu Dhabi, no more forgoing crisp Pakistani winters in favour of long, unforgiving tours in the Australian summer. Misbah's consistent nasal baritone (if there is such a thing) can be reserved for backyard cricket with his kids instead of pesky English journos raising ethico-moral queries about Amir's return.
Younis has his 10,000 now - maybe we will see that famous smile more often. Yet, given what we know about them, it will not be a surprise if they tire of fishing soon and return to cricket in some capacity or the other. In any case, loyal servants of their country and the game, the last of the middle order gentlemen will not be forgotten beyond the boundary. Inshallah, the boys, nay, the men, have played well.