December 1, 2012

A perfect storm of a man

Imran Khan, now 60, was as complete a cricketer as one could be, but excelling in one field (or even two) wasn't enough for him

Nobody's a perfect cricketer, but even his rivals will probably agree that Imran Khan comes pretty close. There's no question he is Pakistan's greatest-ever player, but even that description is an understatement. In fact, he has been world-class in batting, bowling, fielding and captaincy. Even among the game's absolute elite, hardly anyone can make that claim.

Nor did he slow down after retiring from cricket. It would have been entirely natural for him to climb into a comfortable zone of exalted reverence, but he gave that a pass. Instead, he single-handedly founded a philanthropic cancer hospital in Lahore in the memory of his late mother that has become one of Pakistan's premier medical institutes. Now, having just turned 60, he heads a political party that appears poised to emerge with influence in the country's next general election.

The passage of years has made it clear that Imran is really one perfect storm of a man in whom multiple natural gifts - ability, ambition, drive, personality, looks, physique, and pedigree - have come together spectacularly. He was born with advantages and he has gone on to make the most of them.

His family background (Lahore aristocracy) and schooling (Aitchison College, Pakistan's Eton) are as good as it gets in this part of the world. Then there is his unparalleled cricket education, starting from the family compound in Lahore's Zaman Park under the watchful eyes of Majid Khan and Javed Burki, going on to Oxford University, domestic seasons in England and Australia, Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket, an old-fashioned apprenticeship in reverse swing with Sarfraz Nawaz, and a complex partnership in battlefield tactics with Javed Miandad.

People say that if Imran succeeds in becoming a statesman, he will have achieved more than any other cricketer. Yet what he has achieved already - setting the philanthropy and politics aside - is quite incredible. As a bowler, his Test average, economy, and strike rate are all better than Wasim Akram's, which is a huge statement when you consider that for two years in his prime, Imran had to sit out with a stress fracture of the shin. And though his career Test batting average is only in the high 30s, it jumps to 52.34 in his 48 Tests as captain; astonishingly this is higher than the corresponding figure for Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar, Clive Lloyd, Allan Border, Sunil Gavaskar, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Len Hutton, and yes, even Miandad.

His fielding never gets talked about because it has been diluted by so much else, but Imran was an excellent outfielder - an extremely safe pair of hands both in catching and ground-fielding, and possessing a near-perfect arm from the boundary. He exercised tirelessly and his body language was always attentive and athletic. He might have adopted a regal air after becoming captain, but his commitment in the field was never diminished.

Imran is almost as old as Pakistan's Test history, which makes it rather fitting that he should be the man to have so fundamentally altered its course

Then there is the matter of captaincy. Imran is almost as old as Pakistan's Test history, which makes it rather fitting that he should be the man to have so fundamentally altered its course. His captaincy was born in turbulence, arising from the dust of the infamous 1981 rebellion against Miandad. Yet once he was in charge, there was no looking back. He led by example, commanding respect, demanding unflinching dedication, and keeping merit and performance supreme. The team became united and laurels soon piled up: a fortress-like record at home, inaugural series wins in India and England, an unforgettable showdown in the West Indies, and the World Cup of 1992 - by any standards, a golden era. Pakistan's cricketing mindset was revolutionised.

Imran's entry into politics has complicated his hallowed status as a cricketing icon. Nowadays, whenever he is mentioned in a current-affairs context in the international press, the term is "cricketer-turned-politician". Choosing one identity over the other is no longer possible, because with Imran's continued evolution both have acquired equal importance. To the generation of cricket romantics and diehards who grew up watching and worshipping Imran - and I would place my boyhood friends and myself very much in that demographic - this feels like something of an intrusion.

Yes, the economy needs to be fixed; health, education, and unemployment need to be tackled; the foreign policy has to be sorted out; law and order have to be secured; and peace and prosperity must be ushered in. Yes, there is all that, of course. But what about the devastating spell of reverse swing on that breezy Karachi afternoon, those 12 wickets in Sydney that spawned a dynasty, that dogged defence, those towering sixes, that enthralling leap at the bowling crease, that quiet air of authority and command in the field? The space for reliving those pleasures is shrinking.

As a cricket fan, you expect your idols to be entirely defined by cricket, but Imran is an idol for whom the game is but one of his endeavours. That disorients the cricket lover's mind and calls for an emotional adjustment. Nevertheless, this is not any cause for concern or complaint, because the trajectory of Imran's life is really best seen as a compliment to the game. He was already a phenomenally successful cricketer and cricket leader. What else do you aim for next but the office of prime minister?

Initially politics proved a sticky wicket. For several years after founding his party, in 1996, Imran laboured on the margins of Pakistan's political theatre. He struggled to find a voice in the national conversation, and kept getting dismissed as an amateur naïvely trying to extrapolate the success he had had in cricket and through his cancer institute. Yet here too, Imran's persistence has paid off. His message of transformative change and clean governance is resonating throughout Pakistan, and his party has attracted a substantial following. Most observers expect him to be a key player in any coalition that emerges from next year's national polls.

The most noticeable consequence of Imran's political rise is that his critics have multiplied. He is accused of being a hypocrite who espouses conservative Islamic values after having lived the life of a playboy. He is derided for offering to negotiate with militant extremists. He is mocked for being stubborn and inflexible. Every now and then, his failed marriage to a British heiress is also raked up. Even his cricketing achievements are questioned, with people labelling him a dictatorial captain whose departure left the team in a tailspin. Pakistan may be a nascent democracy but it is still a vocal one.

Despite all the noise and clatter, Imran is quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) steaming ahead. If you take a panoramic view of his life and career, the quality that most dominates is focus and single-mindedness in the service of a lofty goal. It seems that for the right cause, he could almost move mountains through sheer force of will. Even his detractors always stop short of questioning his intent and resolve. Ultimately it is this clarity of purpose and Imran's seemingly limitless capacity for challenge and endurance that have taken him so high and so far.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on December 4, 2012, 4:23 GMT

    if i have to choose 3 best cricketer of all time it wil be bradman sobers and inran, the way he played against westindies in 80's both as a player and as a captain was of highest order he made pakistab belive that they can win against westindies which they nearly did and then put belive in his team that they can win worlr cup which they won, he is the most impactfull captain i have ever seen

  • Dummy4 on December 4, 2012, 2:34 GMT

    Waseem ; no doubt was a better bowler . Yet , an all round over view will reckon the fact that Imran was definitely a better player . You see , there is a difference between a better player and a better bowler or batsman . And here we are talking about not only cricket , we are talking about cricket and politics both . So I would say it is a wrong comparison ,that of Imran and Waseem . Imran rang the bell when his motrher died and he reacted in a very decent manner. Some would say that perhaps that was a glimpse of Western Utilitarianism I would say no . IT was sheer pain that made him resolve that I would fight for a cause . And there he was . Not very well equipped for a gigantic task he needed much more as mere aristocracy was not enough . I know Lahore and the classes in Lalore as I too belong to Lahore , though not lucky enough to be called a Lahorite as I never lived here . Yet ; I am familiar with the set up. Imran is not only a Lahori aristocrat heS is a Pathan also . [Naghmana

  • Dummy4 on December 3, 2012, 9:18 GMT

    Imran Khan will be the cricketer who will achieve the most of any former cricketer. The man is simply amazing. Although I am an Indian, Imran Khan is my inspirational hero. I look up to him, and every word he says is a lesson I want to follow to the last word. I salute his resolve, and his never say die attitude. Even his mistakes of life you can learn from. I have followed him right after 1992, and I have learnt a lot from his grit, determination & fight to the last ball spirit. I love him more than Sachin Tendulkar. Pakistan should be proud.

  • VINODK on December 3, 2012, 4:57 GMT

    Totally disagree with KiwiRocker, Wasim Akram is by far the best fast bowler Pakistan has produced in terms of sheer skill. He could literally make the ball talk. With Imran and Waqar u always knew what was coming, 90% of the time it was the inswinging banana yorker. Of course being able to play it was an entirely different matter!!! But neither of them had the sheer variety of Akram. A true artist with the ball. He along with Shane Warne were probably the two most naturally gifted bowlers of the last 25 years

  • Haroon on December 2, 2012, 18:03 GMT

    wish Pak had someone like this today to lead their players back to the glory of 92

  • Dummy4 on December 2, 2012, 16:16 GMT

    What has changed from Imran's era to now? 1.Neutral Umpiring,professional umpiring,match referees and t.v referrals. 2.The ball which swings less than before by common consensus. 3.Wickets are generaly easier than the 80's/90's 4.More teams-Immy didn't have South Africa and S.L were very weak in his time. 5.More formats of cricket with 20/20. 6.Fitter teams 7.Higher intensity cricket 8.Better fielding. 9.No more awful tailend batsmen. 10.Longer batting line-ups. 11.Heavier bats,stronger batsmen and faster scoring. 12.Batters can play reverse swing far better than Imran's era since its not a mystery. 13.Demise of the Windies but emergence of much stronger English,Aussie,S.A and Indian teams than in Imran's time. 14.The allround role of the keeper as a frontline batter.

    Point being it is futile to compare different allrounders.All one can say is that Imran,Sobers,Kallis,Botham,Hadlee,Kapil.Rice,Proccie,Mankad,Miller and Benaud,etc were(are) magnificent cricketers and ambassadors.

  • Jawwad on December 2, 2012, 14:54 GMT

    @Meety - Very gracious comments. Cannot add more to what you have said. I am lucky enough to share his Alma Mater and have met the man on couple of occasions. One of those personalities that carry an aura around them and I understood how the fielders must have felt around him in the ground:0. But I would also highlight his greatest flaw of being unfair to Qasim Umar (as someone else also pointed out) primarily due to his background. Pakistan could have done better with Qasim Umar. When he was in Aitchison College he hardly played cricket. He was in fact the Captain of their hockey team. The man was in the making to be the leader he has become.

  • Zam on December 2, 2012, 11:24 GMT

    @kiwirocker, Bradman scored runs against South Africa also in quite a few series where if you look at the stats, its his Bradmanseque scores alone that seperate the two sides. Not taking away anything from Imran, but the conditions such as uncovered pitches, 1930s protective gear with no helmets, and a stacked legside field with Bodyline intimidatory bowling, at 90+miles and still getting a hundred in that series with an overall avg of 56 in that series does qualify as testing conditions. Imran's greatness doesn't need to be enhanced by downsizing the truly greatest batsman of all time!

  • David on December 2, 2012, 11:13 GMT

    KiwiRocker, you're not quite right there. Imran always struggled to assert himself against PCB nobodies and cliques within the team, and when he regained the captaincy in 1986 after two years struggling with a stress fracture he basically got rid of high-maintenance players like Qasim Omar and filled the squad (the reserves) with tribally-aligned people like Zakir Khan. The problem was that Omar was actually the best player of fast bowling (as he showed in Australia in 83-84) and he was the missing link in the West Indies in 1988. This left Miandad to face the might of the Windies with only the keeper Yousuf for serious support. And forget the talk of dodgy umpiring in the Caribbean: it was like that everywhere in those days, and other teams faced it in Pakistan. Omar wasn't the only prematurely discarded great player of fast bowling: Wasim Raja was Imran's contemporary, averaged 57 v Windies - and wasn't picked in any of the 9 Tests Imran captained against them. Missed opportunity!

  • Harsh on December 2, 2012, 9:53 GMT

    I can never forget Imran's superlative bowling efforts at Sydney in 1976-77,in Karachi in 1982 against India and at Leeds in 1987.Imran simply displayed the heart and ferocity of a lion.He strode on the field like a Greek God exuding fire.I will also remember his match-saving century versus West Indies in 1980 and his batting in 1982 in England and 1987 in India.

    Above all his inspiring leadership to revive Pakistan to win the 1992 world cup who were virtually ressurected from the grave will be written in the annal of the game forever.His comeback in 1987 to lift Pakistan to the top of world cricket is also unforgettable.

  • No featured comments at the moment.