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Of ghosting Imran and other tales

Imran Khan (far right): straight-talking, dictatorial, inaccessible yet friendly PA Photos

1987
This was the first World Cup outside England, jointly organised by India and Pakistan. I headed to Pakistan with a media assignment to fund expenses. Frankly, I was more excited by the prospect of visiting Lahore, Taxila and Harappa than watching cricket.

The sights were delightful and easy to get to - the Mughal sites in Lahore, the Kushan era ruins of Taxila, and the exotic Khyber Pass outside Peshawar were magnificent. The trip turned into a crash course in ancient Indian history.

The cricket was exciting but marked by the typical general chaos that characterises major events in the subcontinent. The World Cup was a huge carnival, and my assignment was quite a challenge because I was the ghostwriter for Imran Khan. When it came to Pakistan cricket, Imran back then was perhaps more important than General Zia; he alone called the shots.

I first met Imran at the Niaz Stadium in Hyderabad, Sindh, soon after a Pakistan practice session, to discuss the modalities of our assignment. He was in the middle of a large group of fans, media persons and cricket officials. But as soon as the introductions were over, he came straight to the point: even as I extricated myself from the mob, he asked a question loudly, in an already booming voice: "How much am I getting paid?"

During the tournament, it was difficult to get through to him. Forever busy, surrounded by millions of people, Imran was largely inaccessible, though always friendly when you did finally get through. Soon after the first few pieces went to print, we worked out an arrangement that suited us both. I could write what I wanted (in his name) with one rider: don't create a controversy and get me into trouble.

With Imran, controversy was always one step away. During the World Cup, it was evident he was no less than a benevolent dictator. He did what he pleased and none dared get in his way. Nobody could describe him as a man of consensus or consultation; his methods were authoritative and autocratic. His was not the first or the last word; his was the only word.

"While India was slowly emerging from the era of booking "trunk calls", Pakistan had already transitioned into the modern world, installing electronic exchanges"

But it was not fear alone that worked for Imran. He generated fierce loyalty and the players looked up to him. He was an inspirational leader, feared and respected by players in equal measure. Imran bhai, they knew, was fair and had no agenda, except that he wanted Pakistan to win.

As part of this commitment, Imran worked incredibly hard on his cricket, setting high standards and demanding that others follow his example. Most observers missed this side of his cricket because his public persona presented a different, more colourful image. I saw first-hand how hard he pushed himself.

When I approached him after Pakistan's first game in Hyderabad for the column, he suggested we meet the next morning in Lahore. It is over 1000 km from Hyderabad to Lahore, and the journey involved a painful drive on a bumpy, busy road to Karachi followed by a late-night flight. Despite the physically draining cross-country trek, Imran was at the Gaddafi Stadium next morning running countless laps.

Covering the 1987 World Cup as a journalist was at times frustrating because interactions with players were unstructured and unregulated. There was no centralised ICC to coordinate arrangements, journalists chased players for information and interviews, captains were free to decide whether they wanted to spare time for the media or not.

The working conditions in the press boxes were basic. This was the era of the portable typewriter, white correction fluid and telex services. Lengths of tape were cut and fed into a machine, accompanied by silent prayers that the telegraph lines worked and the story landed intact (and not garbled) in newspaper offices.

On some occasions this did not happen: the lines went down and all prayers went unanswered. Once, I travelled all night by bus from Lahore to Peshawar, only to find out that play was delayed by rain. The match did start after lunch and a few overs were bowled. It was a struggle to put some words together to file a story, but the ordeal with the technology - such as it was - was far tougher to handle. The telex did not work, the message did not go through, and the all-night bus journey proved futile.

The facsimile machine had only just arrived. I had never seen one. When a touring British journalist at the World Cup told me that all he had to do was insert his typed story into a machine, and dial a number to send out his piece, I was awestruck. This was magic.

There was more. The telephone network and connectivity in Pakistan was more advanced than what I was familiar with in India. While India was slowly emerging from the era of booking "trunk calls" (classified as "ordinary", "urgent" or "lightning"), Pakistan had transitioned into the modern world, installing electronic exchanges and quick direct dialling across the country.

Telephones worked. One could simply pick up the phone and connect cross-country, as if making a local call back in India. Press boxes in Pakistan's World Cup venues were well-equipped with telephones and telexes, and there was plenty of food, because the hospitality in Pakistan is always a notch above that in other countries.

There was another first in Pakistan. In the press box at the National Stadium in Karachi, an attendant went about distributing bottled "mineral" water to working journalists. I remember being unsure of whether, as co-hosts, India had progressed that far.

1992
Conditioned as I was to Indian cricket's governance style, marked by last-minute firefighting and crazy scrambling to tie up loose ends, the 1992 World Cup was a revelation.

The Australian Cricket Board's (ACB) approach to its World Cup final, scheduled for Wednesday March 25 in Melbourne was an eye-opener.

As a member of the BCCI at the time, it was my duty to secure match tickets from the ACB. A phone call to their office confirmed the arrangement and a helpful voice offered me two options to pick up the invites. They could be picked up that day, Friday, before 6pm, or at the ticket window on match day. I asked if I could pick them up on Saturday, as it would have been difficult to reach their office that evening. The response from the other end was a polite but firm sorry, as they were closed over the weekend.

That the office was shut a few days before the World Cup final was strange but wonderful, I thought, as it showed how fully prepared they were for the event. In India, the days before a big event are madness. The venues resemble disaster sites, with seemingly millions of people running around as stands are painted, dressing rooms readied, television cables rigged, and those manically trying to secure match tickets scurry about.

Fearing a last-minute horror botch-up, I decided to dash to the ACB office to collect the tickets that evening. It was a breeze - a young official sitting at reception pulled out an envelope and handed the tickets over without a question.

On match day, we were comfortably seated in a private suite watching England play Pakistan in front of a packed MCG crowd. As the guests sat down to dinner at the end of the Pakistan innings, I was introduced to the person on my right by our host. It was the minister for sports, Government of Australia, an introduction I found disorienting given my previous experience in India.

Union Ministers in India are entitled VIPs. Why, I wondered, would a minister mix with ordinary persons and behave like a normal guest? Here, during the World Cup final, the minister was one of us. Nobody fussed over him, he received no special treatment and was not surrounded by a phalanx of security personnel. He fetched his own drink from the bar and had driven himself to the ground. I was delighted at the normalcy of it all - this was egalitarianism on two legs.

This article was first published in 2015