December 18, 2011

The air-force man who got Pakistan cricket soaring

The roots of Pakistan cricket's most successful era can be traced to Air Marshal Nur Khan's tenure as the cricket board's chief

It is unusual for people to serve in public office and leave with their reputations intact. Imagine, then, the calibre of a man who served not just in one public position but many, and who left each commanding ever more fame, admiration and respect. It was Pakistan cricket's good fortune that one of the key offices held by this gentleman happened to be chairmanship of the Pakistan Cricket Board.

Malik Nur Khan was born in 1923 and had an illustrious military career, starting with the air force of British India in 1941, and rising to air marshal and commander-in-chief of the Pakistan air force, a rank he held from 1965 until 1969. He also served as chief executive of Pakistan's national airline, PIA, in its formative years, and at one point even headed the country's civil aviation authority - though that part of his career is a minor slice compared with his service to sport, which dominates his legacy.

The roots of Pakistan's most successful cricket era can be traced to Nur Khan's tenure as PCB chief. He took over in February 1980 and remained at the helm for four years. He brought professionalism, accountability, and the cleanest of intentions to Pakistan's cricket administration. He was also a visionary. His far-reaching achievements include making the Asia Cup an enduring reality, and being an important part of the initiative that brought the World Cup to the subcontinent for the first time.

One of his earliest acts was to elevate Javed Miandad to the captaincy. It was an unsettled time for the team because Pakistan had just returned from a humiliating loss in India, and the national mood was hostile. No one had anything good to say about the cricket set-up, and the captaincy in particular was a burning issue. Asif Iqbal, who had captained in India, became an inevitable casualty, and Mushtaq Mohammad was appointed (again) in his place.

As a sports administrator, Nur Khan had transformed Pakistan's squash players and field hockey team into world titleholders. His method was to focus intensely on performance, while leaving no stone unturned in arranging the resources required. There was a keen expectation that he would bring some of that Midas touch to cricket. Yet not everyone was enthused. How could a man who had dabbled in hockey and squash handle something as complicated and outsized as cricket?

He is by a distance the most beloved PCB chairman, adored by fans, players, journalists, broadcasters and officials alike. Contrasted with some of the other characters who had led the board before and have since, he towers like a giant among pygmies

Nur Khan proved everybody wrong. Not just those who opposed him, he also exceeded the expectations of even his most ardent backers. Immediately after assuming charge at the Board of Control for Cricket in Pakistan, as it was known then, he convened a meeting with Mushtaq, the captain-designate. Nur Khan expressed dissatisfaction with deadwood in the team and wanted Mushtaq to step down and make way for someone younger. When Mushtaq refused, the skilled administrator in Nur Khan kicked in. He offered to make Mushtaq coach-manager, with a higher salary to boot, which Mushtaq found impossible to refuse.

In retrospect, Nur Khan's choice of Miandad was less than ideal, as it triggered a famous player rebellion. Miandad himself acknowledges that it may have been a case of too much too soon, and perhaps he should have handled things better. Here, too, Nur Khan's administrative dexterity saved the day. Firm and commanding in dealing with the rebels, he nevertheless remained sensitive to the team's internal dynamics. For a while he backed Miandad and was prepared to field virtually a 2nd XI, but when Imran Khan too joined the ranks of the disgruntled, Nur Khan accepted that the game was up.

His actions as the Pakistan cricket board's chief confirm that Nur Khan was a man of intellect and reflection who worked diligently and honestly and kept the strategic interests of Pakistan cricket foremost. He is by a distance the most beloved PCB chairman, adored by fans, players, journalists, broadcasters and officials alike. Contrasted with some of the other characters who had led the board before and have since, he towers like a giant among pygmies.

It is hard to imagine now, but at the time his appointment of Imran as captain was considered by many an awkward choice. When Miandad stepped aside after the revolt, the captaincy had become a three-way race. Imran emerged as something of a compromise candidate, but it was a compromise brokered cleverly and compellingly by Nur Khan. In doing so, he laid the foundations of a gilded era.

Pakistan's cricketers from that period remember him as a calm and attentive listener who put them at ease, comforting and emboldening with his intelligence. He gave them the feeling he was always fully behind them. His manner was professional yet amiable, familiar yet unfailingly respectful.

Among his many honours are some of Pakistan's highest military and civilian awards, as well as a range of international decorations - from Jordan, Lebanon, and Holland. He also enjoyed a brief political stint, winning a seat to parliament from his ancestral hometown.

In a celebrated incident, he once negotiated through an airplane hostage situation, which ended with him boarding the aircraft to challenge and overpower the hijacker with his bare hands. He took a bullet in the scuffle but recovered eventually.

He had been ill for some time and spent his last days at the family home in Mianwali. He was 88. With his passing, Pakistan has lost a hero and an icon, and Pakistan cricket one of its most committed champions.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi

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