August 17, 2010

No third man

Imran Khan and Javed Miandad started out as polar opposites but then settled into a marriage of convenience where each understood the other, perhaps better than others around them

They were matched, yet mismatched; cozy allies, yet bitter rivals; bound by a common vision and purpose, yet also pushed apart by their backgrounds and polarised temperaments. At some point during their contemporaneous careers for Pakistan, Imran Khan and Javed Miandad grasped the prisoner's dilemma that circumstances had thrust upon them. Somehow they saw through the fog of bitterness and understood that they were better off collaborating than fighting. In the process, enough magic was unleashed to launch a golden age.

They say momentous eras are appreciated only in retrospect, but in this case, even at the time, most people were on to the fact. A landmark ODI victory in Sharjah, inaugural Test series wins in India and England, a contest for the ages on West Indian soil, and - the cherry on the cake - the World Cup in 1992. Pakistan had never come upon such riches before and haven't since.

Imran was born in 1952, Miandad in 1957. Their international debuts were four years apart, yet their rise to international fame was separated only by months. In 1976-77, Pakistan's great watershed season, Miandad made 504 runs from three Tests against New Zealand at 126, and Imran took 12 wickets in Sydney in Pakistan's first Test win in Australia. Team photographs from that period show these two standing at the edges with bemused, innocent expressions. They appear to have no awareness of the historic accomplishments that are to be their fate.

From these spectacular starts, they prospered and went from strength to strength, evolving a relationship that, to paraphrase Imran's biographer Christopher Sandford, was to be the making of modern Pakistani cricket. Despite this vital collaboration, it is no secret that these two did not quite see eye to eye. Even today it is difficult to extract praise from one for the other without a touch of grudge.

Much has been made of the Lahore-Karachi rivalry as the basis for the tensions between Imran and Miandad, but it probably had more to do with the taboo subject of social class. Both were burdened by it in their own way - one by having less, the other by having more. Approaching each other warily, they communicated the natural reactions of their ilk, and the resentments built up. Class may be a sensitive and uncomfortable topic, but it is one to which cricket - a sport that once distinguished between gentlemen and players - is hardly alien.

The slights Miandad perceived are specific, while Imran's are vague. In 1982, Imran declared on a featherbed pitch when Miandad was 280 not out and looked good for 400; this still gets Miandad seething. Imran was also the lynchpin in the rebellion against Miandad's initial spell of captaincy in 1981; this also continues to rankle. On the other hand, Imran's gripes are more about Miandad's scheming, penchant for confrontation, and capacity for political intrigue.

There wasn't a eureka moment, but sometime in the mid-1980s a penetrating hunger for team success forced them both to put their visceral feelings aside. Strip Imran of his cricket and he would still be accepted into Pakistan's most rarefied postcolonial enclaves; strip Miandad of his cricket and questions would be asked. The mutual genius of the two was to invert the premise of this hypothetical: instead of eliminating cricket attributes from their assessment of each other, they eliminated class attributes. Miandad still remains Pakistan's best batsman, and Imran Pakistan's best cricketer. This was the stark realisation.

Arguably, Miandad conceded more. Forced to make way for Imran, he was stripped of the captaincy and left friendless. He could have squandered his promise and burned out with anger and paranoia, yet he pulled himself together to faithfully serve as Imran's primary tactical advisor and Pakistan's batting mainstay. His family and friends helped, but the single biggest factor behind this turnaround was that Imran succeeded in earning his respect. The general view of Miandad conjuring up tactics and Imran barking the commands and motivating the troops is largely correct. There have been matches - the Bangalore Test from 1987 is perhaps the best example - when they were practically co-captains. By the late 1980s these two were essentially a team within the team.

Arguably, Miandad conceded more. Forced to make way for Imran, he was stripped of the captaincy and left friendless. He could have squandered his promise and burned out, yet he pulled himself together to faithfully serve as Imran's primary tactical advisor and Pakistan's batting mainstay

Anecdotes are aplenty on this subject. A perennial favourite dates to Pakistan's round-robin match against South Africa in the World Cup of 1992. After a heartbreaking defeat in which Pakistan found themselves on the wrong side of the rain-interruption rule, Imran thundered into the pavilion and flung his bat across the dressing room. The rest of the team made itself scarce.

Photojournalist Iqbal Munir decided this was the moment to take a picture and stepped forward, but Wasim Akram stopped him. "Where do you think you're going?" said Akram. "The only person who can approach Imran right now is Javed." Sure enough, within minutes Miandad was at Imran's side, pacifying, counselling, cajoling.

The one blemish in Pakistan's otherwise idyllic era had been a heartbreaking loss in the 1987 World Cup semi-final in Lahore, where Imran and Miandad were separated during a crucial partnership. But it turned out to be a necessary setback that would prepare them for the ultimate finale. Five years later they found themselves in a World Cup final in Melbourne, and Miandad was walking out to join Imran at 24 for 2. Imran by this time was in the twilight of his career and Miandad nearly so. Pakistan being Pakistan, another wicket meant certain collapse. Miandad notes in his autobiography that they barely uttered a word to each other during what became a 139-run title-winning partnership. After all those years and all those ups and downs, there was no longer any need for it.

Today, Imran may be a marginalised politician and Miandad a marginalised cricket administrator, but in statistical archives, in history books, and indeed in the hearts and minds of the cricket-following public, they sit at the two ends of Pakistan cricket's table of grandmasters. Every now and then they can still be seen delivering some opinionated critique on television. It isn't quite the same as watching them play, but it's not a bad substitute. The style, vigour, wit and - most charmingly - deadpan disdain, are all there.

Recently, during an ODI in Dubai, television cameras captured the two watching the action, seated next to each other on plush sofas, absorbed in conversation. Imran, sporting dark glasses, appeared regal, declarative and forthright; Miandad appeared dismissive, cutting and often incredulous. Perhaps in deference to the die-hard, they seemed to be enacting the same old roles that had made them legends.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi