Muhammad Yusuf - Short End of the Stick
Written by English NewsPaper/Dawn/Others   

For someone who, by his own admission, has never had any formal schooling, Mohammad Yusuf is a very refined and cultured man.

I might have caught him at the wrong time — at a time when he was at home getting some household chores done—hut even then in the crumpled shalwar kameez that he has on, he has a certain elegance. His attire at the moment la a far cry from the lounge suits that he usually plays tournaments In. But then by the same token the setting for our little tote-a- tete Is far removed from the five-star hotels and pro-fessional clubs where he fights his pitched battle.

Medium height and stOckily built, Mohammad Yusuf is the geritle soul of our sports world. Arm him with a piece of wood and he is dangerous. Yousuf has been angling cues for the last thirty years of'his life — years that have seen him win numer¬ous championships, domestic and interna¬tional. His ultimate triumph, of course, was the victory at the World Amateur Championship in 1994. That title brought him international fame, and the nickname 'Champion1 at his favourite hangout, the Karachi Club.

Undoubtedly talented,. Yusuf is a strange man. Many sentiments seem to motivate him as he speaks. Slightly bitter about life yet thankful to his Creator and his benefac¬tors; angry at the plight of the sportsmen in Pakistan but extremely grateful to friends who have helped him, Yusuf Is the person to talk to if one wants to learn about snooker in Pakistan, Or carrom for that matter. Unknown to many amongst us, he was the running Punjab Carrom-Board Champion 'or five years before fate brought him back to his calling in life — snooker. So how did the Story unfold?



Yousuf leans back and starts off. "I start¬ed playing snooker about thirty years back," he says, "when I was still in my teens. At that point in my life I was working'at an akhbar shop (newspaper stand) in Bohri Bazaar, a place where I worked for nearly five years. My employer there, according to people around us at least, was a strange man. We would wind up the shop by eight o'clock and then he would leave. Invariably, I would be woken up at eleven in the night by one of his relatives asking me where he was because he hadn't reached home: Rumour had it that he went home at one in the morning. Curious about his after-work activities, followed him from work one day - and thus landed up at 'Yaron ki Table' a small club run by some Iranian or Parsi gentleman in Saddar So that is how I was intro¬duced to the game — stalking my employer. Over the next few months I continued to play there and improve my game, In time I taught myself to play the game well enough'.

That is when Yusuf quit his job at the newspaper stand and went looking for jobs as a professional player, coach and sports-man. He spent some time working at vari¬ous clubs, organisation including the Bohri Gymkhana, and the Muslim Gymkhana. He also worked for some time with the Karachi Gymkhana, a place that he would come back to many years later. Most of the time he would work in the billiard room in the day time and the evening. As soon as night fell, that same billiard room would then serve as his rather empty, spacious bedroom. But he never could stick on to any position for more than six to seven months "because I was too hadd-haramm for that kind of a commitment".

Finally in 1972, he went to Lahore and stayed there till 1986. In terms of job opportunities, his stay in Lahore was no better either. At that time, unfortunately, snooker had not reached the level of popularity that it enjoys today. There were no snooker clubs that he could play at so he diverted his attention to carrom. This was the time when he won and retained the Punjab Carrom Board Championship for nearly eight years.

Subsistence was primarily through prize money, and also through some coaching here and there. Expenses-were minimum because he got free accommodation — in a broken down tube-well. The broken tube-well and his blanket was ail that he owned at that point in life. This continued for nearly seven years — seven years of his life. when anybody wanting to contact him would have had to post the letter to the "Broken Tube-Well, .......";

Life was in a rut when his first lucky break came. lt came through one of his old students who had decided to open a video shop in GarhiShahu. "I had always been interested in English movies since my child-hood. I still cannot speak or understand English but I knew each and every film an actor director producer had workedon. That kind of a portable database is very helpful in the video renting business, so my student offered me a job. In all fairness that
wasn't really a job but a hand-out because I was too lazy to do anything."

It was at about this time that the pupil decided that the tutor should accompany him to Karachi to buy some Videos for his shop. While I was In Karachi, I saw the 'advertisement for the national championship and decided to compete. I went back to Lahore with my boss, absolutely broke but wanting to compete. That was a time when two of my friends sponsored me for Rs 500 each-— a considerable amount at that time to come to Karachi and competed. I still cannot thank those two friends enough. That was a great ahsaan on me,"

He moved to Karachi, filled out theory forms and put up at a hotel at Rs 240 a month. He spent the next one month training for the event — polishing his rusty skills' at the game that he had not played for more than ten years. His efforts bone fruit when he made into the finals of the tournament, only to lose to the legendary, Latif Amir Bux. The national championship eluded him the next year in 1986 again. He really laid his claim on it in 1987 and then retained the crown continuously till 1993.

That was the time when Asghar Valika took him under his wings. Yusuf started working for him at Rs 1,500 a month. Valika  also talked to the Karachi club people managed to get him a membership-into the club without the mandatory Rs ,26,000 Membership fee. Yusuf finally parted ways wlth Valika nearly a decade later in 1993 to look for a job with a national organisation. "I thought I Wanted to work for myself. I went and met with people at PIA and all the banks but nobody seemed to be interested in hiring me. I wanted to represent them in the national tournaments and gather a team of committed players under their corporate name. Somehow or the other no one was interested. By that time I had been, the national champion for quite few years. I was the' best snooker player in the country. That is when I began to question as to what I would need other than obvious merit for these people to offer me a job. Somebody said something about the age factor. What these people fall to realise is that players like Higglns are playing even in their 50s. At 45 or so, which is quite close to how old I am now, the living legend Steve Davis is still a very potent force to contend with in world snooker. And In my case, I would have taken on coaching assignments after my playing days were over. Now I sometimes sit and wonder as to what will happen to my kids if God forbid something happens to me. I still do not have a regular, dependable job — and consequently I lack a dependable source of livelihood,"

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So when did he start a family? "I don't have any one in this world other than my wife and my kids. While I was working with Valika, one of his friends inquired about my plans because he had a girl in mind. I agreed and thus settled down with her. Two kids in the first years of my marriage and I decide that I would have to stop because I wouldn't be able to afford to educate them and raise them the way I want to." As If on cue his son comes in with a tray carrying tea and the discussion reverts to snooker.

His actual sporting career started after 1985. The 1987 national championship was the point where he began to assert himself in the nation¬al rankings. His first Asian Championship in 1986 held in Sri Lanka yielded him a 3rd place ranking in Asia — a memorable feat for a player who had taken up the game seriously just a year back. The string of successes continued with two International Latif Masters Tournament — tournaments in which he toppled the two famous Indian cueists, Geet Seth — who later turned professional — and Yasin Merchant. And then, of course, the crowning glory was the World Championship in 1994.

The World Championship triumph brought with it a lot of fame, money, respect and problems. Immediately after his success, the government announced that it would give him Rs 100,000 as a token of encouragement and also announced to allot him a plot. The prize money came through but the plot never did. The President on his part announced a purse of Rs 50,000 and also decorated him with the Pride of Performance.

In spite of many international offers, he chose to stay in Pakistan and serve his own country. For financial support he had pinned his hopes on the sale of his plot. Unfortunately, that plot is still a pipe dream. Repeated letters of assurance from relevant quarters keep pouring in but nothing has been heard of the plot.

"Am I ungrateful? I feel that the government and my friends have done a lot to help me. Even If they had not given me the plot I would have been extremely happy. But the plot was something that was promised. That had raised my hopes. Now I just feel that the plot allotment letter is caught up in a bureaucratic wrangle. I do not have the resources to move the system. I hope and pray that now the new government, particularlarly the Prime Minister will help me get what had been promised to me."

The helpful friends that he talks about also includes a few organizations aside from individuals. A marketing organization active-y supporting the cause of snooker in the country has given him a car, a mobile phone company has given him a free mobile phone with connection and his friends at the Karachi Club have pooled in to help raise more than Rs 600,000 that enabled him to buy the apartment that he now lives In. "I am grateful to all of these friends and well-wishers, i don't think that I can ever repay them ever in gratitude. More than anything else I wish I had a regular job so that I could at least try and repay them. In the mess that I find myself in, even the petrol that is required to move around in the gifted car is a heavy drain on my pocket,"

Different organizations have done a lot to promote the cause of tile game but, unfortunately, all of that has been for the game but not the players. "I had floated the idea that these organizations could sponsor the players to display their logo on their garments while playing in a tournament. Even that initiative failed. The Pakistan Billiards and Snooker Association itself has drawn up contracts with the organization but it cannot help the players out. I sometimes don't understand what can be done to help out — to provide continued employment or financial contracts for the players themselves.

It was questions like these that got him into trouble last year, so Mohammad Yusuf is understandably quiet. He was fined Rs 10,000 — a considerable financial drain on a person of his financial health — for dissent; utterances that were deemed to criticize the attitude of the PBSA. He gets up when I mention the fine and is very quick to ask me not to get him into further trouble. The PBSA has promised to return the money keeping in mind his position, but that positive gesture has not materialized as yet. He definitely does not want to put himself into further trouble.

"The PBSA has done a lot for the game in Pakistan and I suppose its commit¬ment is to the game only and not the players. And since the association has talked about it again and again, I guess it is up to the players to pool their energies for their common good. The players might even get together and negotiate with sponsoring organizations on their own to safeguard their own financial inter¬est. As far as PBSA goes, the rising popularity of the game is a true reflection of the success of the PBSA. It is sad, though, that the game has not been able to generate the kind of excitement and interest that cricket or hockey does. It still lacks mass appeal and therefore has no superstars. That is probably why the sponsors are not interested in the players. So we are back to square one."

From the game and the players the discussion turns towards some of the great players that were produced in Pakistan, "Till some years back, some of the best players were not allowed to compete in the national and even club level tournaments by labeling them as professionals. Had hat not happened the game would have taken off sooner. Even then legends like the late Latif Amir Bux made it through. The gentleman died of cancer when he was 37 but I am sure that had he lived for a few more years the standard of the game in this country would have been much higher because of his untiring efforts. An excellent player of snooker — that game, by the way, was his second choice after billiards — Amir Bux was also an excellent human being. Through his death I lost a very good friend. And I get chills down my spine when I see how his children had to be supported by well-wishers and friends after his death. I don't want that to happen to my children, neither to the children of any player of the game in the country."

Yousuf goes quiet and I am left there thinking that we owe our sportsmen and their children a better life. What Yusuf is fighting for is not his own war against the system but the combined little wars of the thousand of sportsmen who fight for the honour of our country. I guess they deserve a break.

By Rizwan Tufail