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