November 1, 2010

The original transformer

Imran was at the heart of shaping modern-day Pakistan cricket, and all we love about the team and their play can be traced back to him

There lies, pop stars and politicians will tell you, great reward in transformation. Imran Khan, who hung out with the former and has become one of the latter, will tell you there lies greatness itself in transformation. This is the truth of his life and career. Many are conceived great but it can also be achieved by not necessarily being yourself as at conception, by changing, evolving, renovating.

The broad outline is that he went from being a good player to the finest one his country produced, and arguably the finest allrounder cricket has seen in a gathering not involving Sir Garry Sobers. Underpinning this was his real genius: an unbending commitment and a pig-headed focus, a blind devotion, really, to any given single cause - to better himself, to better his side, to better his country, to better the world.

So fierce is the single-mindedness that it has often become divisive, as with the 1992 World Cup-winning speech remembered so bitterly in Pakistan. So obsessed had he become with building the cancer hospital in memory of his mother, he didn't think to thank his own team or anyone else, speaking only of the project. That is the downside; the upside is that the cause drove him, and thus his team, to win the damn thing in the first place. And it isn't as if he was building something that would devour babies.

Details, though, are instructive.

His action, for example, when he began in the early 70s, looking like a misplaced Beatle with a mop top, had more windmills in it than Holland, and was as flat. Yet by 1982 it had become such a leaping study in the beauty and grace of the human form, all it needed was a catwalk; to half the human race it was a mating call. Visually it was as unrecognisable from his natural action as the Michael Jackson of 2008 was from the Michael Jackson of 1978. It came about after much consultation with greybeards and contemporaries and defiance of others, but above everything, from an inner voice that told him he could be far more than what he was.

His bowling itself underwent several recalibrations of pace, length, attitude and modes. When he began, he couldn't control big, booming inswingers of modest pace. But when cricket was gripped by a prolonged vogue of bouncers from the mid-70s on, Imran unthinkingly jumped in. When the run-up and rhythm were right, he was sharp, and he targeted heads with commendable indiscrimination.

But by the early 80s, a scholarship in Kerry Packer's World Series with the world's best to the good, and quicker still, he was hitting fuller lengths and ignoring the surface. He was swinging the new ball but more radically, the old; 40 wickets in the 1982-83 series against India in Pakistan was a mind-altering moment in fast bowling.

Then, post shin-injury, another face. The pace came down but the mind remained sharp; nearing 35 he took over 20 wickets in leading Pakistan to their first series win in England; a year later he took 23 in a three-Test series in the Caribbean; even at 37 he bowled a remarkable, long-forgotten two-wicket maiden last over of an ODI in Sydney, which Pakistan won by two runs.

Through this immense journey were the imprints of a few minds. Mike Procter and John Snow, Garth le Roux, the Kiwi John Parker, Sarfraz Nawaz, all chipped in, but overseeing it all at each step was Imran himself, pushing himself to whichever point and in whichever direction would bring him success.

Just imagine cricket's landscape in Pakistan without him. For sure the country would've been one of spinners and medium-pacers, no Wasim, Waqar, Zahid, Shoaib and Amir in sight

Nowhere more than in his batting did he inflict - and that really is the word - upon himself such stark transformation. The epiphany came in his very first Test as captain, until when he had been a free, reckless spirit in the lower order. A careless hook off Bob Willis ended a careless innings, and immediately he resolved to become more responsible; there was no harsher critic of Imran than Imran, not even slighted ex-players from Karachi. It didn't require the structural re-jigging of his bowling, for his batting was built on sounder, correct principles. In his head he had always been a batsman, even if in his blood he felt the flow of manlier pursuits. All it needed was for his mind to win. Obviously it did.

A solid 65, batting mostly with the tail in the second innings, was, in his words, a "watershed". The conclusion cannot be doubted; in his last 50 Tests after that, he averaged twice - nearly 52 - what he did before. He quintupled his century haul and quadrupled his fifties. More immeasurably, by career's end he was the calmest, most versatile influence on a batting line-up forever a wicket or two from panic.

Strictly speaking, these were all personal, isolated transformations. Even off the field he was chameleonesque, unrecognisable from the homesick 18-year-old who first went to England in 1971. A shy, introspective mama's boy, he became cricket's James Bond, as smooth on the field as away from it, as easy in whites with 10 sweats gathering round as in a tux with 10 royals, celebrities and the world's beauties. Some transformations cannot be matched: turning a productive day in the field with Javed Miandad, for example, into a heady evening with Mick Jagger.

But it was when he went from being a rebellion-happy superstar to captain that he initiated a process of change vastly bigger and beyond his own person.

Cricket in Pakistan probably would've become the most popular game anyway - and by the late 70s, hockey was a formidable match - but there was no bigger propellant than Imran's emergence. He had been at the very centre of Sydney 1976-77 - a triumph as significant as the Oval one of 1954 - in which was conceived modern-day Pakistan: a delicate, easily disturbed balance between fractiousness, indiscipline and supremely gifted athletes, between hostile fast bowlers and erratic batsmen. Thereafter, as the sport burst out of urban Pakistan, pouring out a hurl of talent, he remained at the centre, driving his side forth and, by default, shaping the game as it grew.

If that sounds too much, just imagine cricket's landscape in Pakistan without him. Might not hockey be the national sport in name and spirit? For sure the country would have been one of spinners and medium-pacers, no Wasim, Waqar, Zahid, Shoaib and Amir in sight. There probably wouldn't be the modern attacking mores of their play, the gung-ho shot-making, the wicket-taking lengths and stump-hitting lines that were Imran commandments, developed as an antidote to the ennui he felt was drowning him on the English county circuit.

Without him they might still be the meek inheritors of nothing that they were in the 60s and early 70s. He was lucky to lead in a time of demographic change, so that for his players, partition and colonialisation were mere words in history books they hadn't read. But how well he harnessed these players into a new brave, defiant and unbowed visage, much of it still glimpsed today, even though it has since developed a schizoid moue. And almost certainly he was the difference between a mediocre, underperforming cricket nation and an excitable, winning one. Without Imran, Pakistan would not be as we know and love them.

This is what made him, to this writer at least, much more than his great all-round contemporaries. Maybe his peak as batsman and bowler didn't quite coincide to produce the starburst of Ian Botham early on (Imran did, by the way, average more than 50 with bat and less than 20 with ball in the last decade of his career). There wasn't the early precocity of Kapil Dev. Neither was he as calculatingly brilliant with ball as Richard Hadlee. But to be, at once, the best player in the side, the best leader of the side, and also the man to transform the entire sport in a country, that is some trump.

Now awaits the final, logical transformation. This is trickier, philanthropist to politician not being as straightforward a switch as it might appear. Perhaps he is better off sorting out the game first, for upon his own departure in 1992, just as he once wrote had happened on the retirement of AH Kardar, it was thrown to the wolves.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Abid on November 4, 2010, 23:35 GMT

    @ Martin Hooks - I agree with you, Kapil did a lot of donkey work for India. So, in the spirit of the subheading of this article, let us agree that while Imran was the lion of Pakistan, Kapil was the donkey of India.

  • Abid on November 4, 2010, 23:25 GMT

    @ Gulshan_Grover - By experts you mean people like Richie Benaud, or mediocre Mumbai based swing bowlers who saw Kapil smash his only ODI century against Zimbabwe? (Hitting Zimbabwe out of the park is not a major achievement even today). Maybe you refer to experts who saw Kapil rack up impressive numbers in the World Series Cricket years (1978-79); a century and batting average of 65 against a second string WI while the best cricketers like Imran, Richards, Holding, Lillee,and you know the cream of the World, were playing each other in Australia?

  • Sadashiv on November 4, 2010, 22:58 GMT

    Yes, I can give you the names but I just depend on some obscure video to form my opinion. I have seen both Kapil and Imran play live and my opinion is based on what I saw with my own eyes. And take my words for it: Kapil was a much better batsman and fielder, Imran you can argue was perhaps a better bowler but not by much and both won WC as captains. The only difference is Kapil won it himself as he turned in amazing allround performances one after the other i.e leading from the front and Imran won it due to Inzmam and Akram that is leading from the back.

  • Hema on November 4, 2010, 22:43 GMT

    Kapil once scored a 22-ball fifty against West Indies at Berbice against their fearsome quartet (beat that), then the fastest fifty by anyone in ODIs. Scored an unbeaten 175 at Tunbridge Wells- Kapil hit these 175 runs off 138 balls, with 16 fours and 6 sixes as India recovered from 9 for 4, when he came to the crease, and then 17 for 5. India went on to win that WC. The next highest score was Syed Kirmani's 24 not out. The match was not covered on TV nor is there any video recording of this great innings, because of a strike by technical workers which only adds romance to this great innings. These kind of feats were unheard of in that era. Long live Kapil Dev and his brand of cricket that had even Viv Richards shaking in his boots.

  • Mars on November 4, 2010, 22:27 GMT

    @AhmedSaleem, we can not compare Bradman with Sachin or Gavaskar with Len Hutton because they played in entirely different era but Kapil vs Imran discussion is worth having as they played against each other and against the same teams. The problem is that sometimes one unequivocally want people to agree with oneself but life and cricket is not that black and white.

    I have no problem in acknowledging that Murli is better than Harbhajan, Warne>Kumbley (marginally) and Sobers> who the heck is Ravi Jadeja :)

    Vishawanath played with Miandad and was a much better batsman against quality bowling while Miandad was a fighter so stalemate there. Dhoni's career is in the middle so can't say anything about that yet and forget McGrath when I was young I bowled better than Srinath :)

  • safwan on November 4, 2010, 22:03 GMT

    @ Gulshan rover .... can you kindly name those pundits and historians for me? i watched Imran on Espn's cricket legends, a similar video to this one, and his contemporaries rank him as the best all-round cricketer of the 1980's. One Wisden editor, Tim de Lisle i guess, states that Imran should captain an All-Time Test eleven. If kapil was better, then why didnt the jury pick him in the all time test second eleven?? were they biased too? i think a lot of imran bashing is a result of pure jealousy and envy .... i am a Pakistani, and i am not berating kapil, he was a fine allrounder in his own right, but any where close to imran? certainly not! how would you react if i said steve waugh was a better batsman then sachin?? he certainly won more test matches as a captain for Australia then sachin ever has for india. but it would be an unfair statement, wouldnt it? cause sachin is a far more superior batsman statistically.

    Rid yourself of this stupid bias. Imran was the best!

  • Ahmad on November 4, 2010, 18:58 GMT

    Anil Kumble> Shane Warne...... Harbhajan Singh> Muttiah Muralitharan...... Sachin Tendulkar>Don Bradman..... MS Dhoni> Adam Gilchrist..... Javagal Srinath>Glenn McGrath...... Gundapa Vishwanath> Javed Miandad..... Sunil Gavaskar> Len Hutton..... Kapil Dev>Imran Khan..... Ravi Jadeja> Sir Garfield Sobers. Right, now my dear friends will not have any problem with this.

  • Gautam on November 4, 2010, 18:37 GMT

    contd from earlier comment. Imran was great no doubt but to belittle Kapil just on pure figures is doing injustice to him. Maybe Imran was even greater but the difference is as small as the difference between Tendulkar and Lara is. And yeah there is the small matter of Imran having 25 not outs in 88 tests wheras Kapil having just 13 not outs in 131 tests. That shows that Kapil was a more murderous batsman, wheras Imran was an accumulator. It would be intersting to see what Kapil's figures would have been if he had even Nawaz like support from the other end. Come on Binny/Lal/Amarnath/Sandhu/Shastri would not even scare some one playing club cricket. And it would be intersting to see Imran's figures if throughout his career he bolwed alongside someone like Mudassir Nazar.

  • Gautam on November 4, 2010, 18:30 GMT

    This discussion has turned into a Kapil vs Imran thing. While I am Indian and I agree that Imran's figures are far superior to Kapil's one has to see them in the broader perspective. Kapil naver had any support from the other end wheras Imran had. Imran played for the seond best team of that era and maybe the greatest Pakistan team ever. Kapil played for a poor Indian side who could only beat NZ/Zim/SL. Imran had ton loads of support from umpires and bottle caps/vasoline/shoe spikes/finger nails wheras Kapil had neither. Why is it that only Pakistani bowlers have this cloud over their heads...even today? And in batting though Imran has a better av, Kapil had a murderous strike rate. 95 in ODIs is awesome even in today's times let alone the 80s era. But I agree that Kapil not fulfilling his talent was his own problem. Thats where Imran beats him hands down. As far as Botham goes, he beat second string Aussie sides at his peak and made his figures. to be contd

  • Sadashiv on November 4, 2010, 17:48 GMT

    Safwan, I understand your concern and agree that this forum should not be biased for or against anyone. In fact I have had extensive conversations with cricket pundits, statisticians and quite a few historians over the years. Almost all of them rank Kapil as a superior athlete, better fielder and superior batsman. In bowling Imran was perhaps better but not by that much as stats may suggest as post injury Kapil was not the same bowler any more. Overall, Kapil Dev is right there at the top. One can cherry pick the data based on stats but always remember there is lies, damn lies and statistics.

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