If there is a stampede in the VIP stands at Sharjah, you would know Imran Khan has arrived. No film star, no cricketer, no other personality evokes such from the public as Imran does. You have to see it to believe it. Officials, former players, fans, everyone likes to be seen with Imran in Sharjah. Sitting to him ensures the attention of the TV cameras. The day he made a brief visit to the Sharjah stadium during the Australasia Cup, Imran got tired of posing for photographs. The queue of autograph hunters endless, and he had no choice but to leave the arena and rush back to his hotel in Dubai to catch up with the match.
"Imran Khan zindabad" went the slogan and it must have been embarrassing for the Khan himself. In fact, he blushed as his requested friend him to rise and acknowledge, the slogan shouters. Imran waved and the crowd, satisfied, turned its attention to the Pakistan-New Zealand semifinal in progress.
"It's a great feeling really. To be recognised and honoured like this. I must thank cricket for all this," Imran said. People close to him say that Imran has changed over the last couple of years. He is very approachable these days (not necessarily for journalists). He is no more the fiery personality that he
was. Signs of age are visible on his face. But he is as energetic as ever in seeking help to give shape to his dream – the cancer hospital in Lahore.
Can you believe this: Imran Khan has no time for cricket. Not even a minute. Still Imran is a controversial figure in Pakistan cricket. He fumes when he defends himself. "It really upsets me. I don't understand why they drag my name everytime something wrong in Pakistan cricket. I have never interfered, never. Ever since I quit, I have never, ever, entered the dressing room. Once I gave up cricket, that was the end of it. I had nothing, and I have to do with cricket in Pakistan."
But why? "I returned to cricket because of the hospital. I quit because of the hospital. After leaving the scene, cricket was never on my mind. I had my own commitments regarding the hospital work. I never wanted to get involved with cricket politics in Pakistan and I never would. I deliberately kept myself out of it all the time. I am so immersed in my hospital work that I have no for cricket. I really don't interfere with cricket and it hurts me when people drag my in and controversies."
Was he not behind Javed Miandad's ouster? Imran laughs. “I felt sad to see Javed retire the way he did. Good he came back to quit gracefully. When Javed struggled in the West Indies, he said he had no motivation left. He said it on TV, on the national network. His comeback depends on how fit he is, and how his motivation is."
Did he not when he asked Wasim Akram to not join the team for the tour to New Zealand? "That my personal opinion. There were nine members in the team who had revolted against Wasim and it not the right atmosphere for him. What if something had happened during the tour. There was so much dissension in the side. You have to have some cohesion in the side. That was no way to run a team. Unless the players get their act together, Pakistan will become a mediocre side, no matter how much talent they have."
And, as for such things happening, Imran has a simple answer. “This trait, to become captain, is only in the sub-continent. Everyone wants to become the captain. You won't see this anywhere else in the world. It is only in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India."
Imran is surprised at the dissension in the Pakistan team. "I don't how understand how it started. When I left the side after the World Cup, there were no such problems. It was the best side Pakistan had ever had. I haven't had the privilege of playing with players that we have in the side today. They must sort out their problems before it becomes too late."
Imran always took pride in beating India. He had gone on record saying one of his was to beat India in India. He achieved it in 1987. How did he view this India-Pakistan rivalry. "It is exciting. Like England-Australia. You get that extra pleasure in winning. But we carry it too far. I mean the crowds in the two countries. It is just a game. Look at England-Australia. They also play very hard but that doesn't affect the relationship. Even the India-Pakistan rivalry hasn't been that bad. At least we have not had an instance of the two countries breaking the relations because of cricket. I feel sad that we don't play each other often."
Why has cricket failed in bringing the two countries (India and Pakistan) together? Imran does not waste time. "Because people don't follow cricket purely as a sport. Rather than cricket heroes being appreciated, and looked up to, what is happening is cricket is followed on emotional lines and not on cricketing lines. As a result, the cricket field becomes a battle field between India and Pakistan. Rather than becoming a place where cricket is appreciated by people of both the countries and taken as a sport, it becomes something more. Like I said, there is intense rivalry between England and Australia but the cricket heroes are appreciated in both the countries. Sadly, it doesn't happen when India plays Pakistan."
Does he believe India and Pakistan can resume cricketing ties? "Not in the near future, I don't think the atmosphere is conducive. With the two Governments hitting out at each other and this Kashmir problem unresolved, I don't think we should visit each other."
How about a India-Pakistan Test in Sharjah? "It doesn't make sense playing Test cricket in a neutral country. It is nice to have one-day competitions in Sharjah. It has an electrifying atmosphere but then you can't be playing consistently in a neutral country."
But India has had problems in Sharjah too. Playing conditions, umpires, atmosphere... Imran is angry. "What nonsense. We beat India in India. We beat India in Pakistan. We beat India in Sharjah. What is this great thing about losing to Pakistan in Sharjah. There is nothing wrong in Sharjah. In 1991, I told Azhar to reduce the overs. He didn't agree. Those three leg before decisions (in the final). You show them to any neutral umpire and I am sure he will say they were all out. All this talk is nonsense. We have always won fair and square in Sharjah. Why crib because you keep losing to Pakistan in Sharjah."
Imran stressed the importance of a role in bringing about a revolution. He has been a role model for thousands of cricketers in Pakistan. "Forget me. You need a role model in every sphere of life. A role model is very important. You need role models in sports. You need role models for nations too. You have to have someone to look up to. Someone to follow."
Apart from having a role model, what does he think is important to become a cricketer? "Not just in cricket, but to become successful you have to education. There are two things you must remember. One is education and the other is hard work.
“It is very important to study, All play and no study doesn't make you an all-rounder. You got to develop your capabilities and education helps you a lot in doing that. Then hard work. God gives you talent but you have to work hard to do justice to that talent."
How does education reflect on the field? "It does. As it does in other walks of life. You can't, go anywhere in the world without education. It is the key to success in life. A sportsman should remember he can't be playing all his life. What happens once you stop playing. If you are not educated, you can't rise in life. Education helps you hone your cricket. It is an intellectual game, I would say education is a must in cricket and life."
Imran does follow cricket through newspapers and television. It is interesting to watch, he says. But he disagrees with all the cricket Boards placing so much attention on limited overs cricket. "I would like to see a balance between Test and one-day cricket. At the moment I am worried one-day cricket will overshadow Test cricket. And that would be sad."
Who, in Imran's opinion, were the great fast bowlers of his time? "I saw some of the greatest bowlers from 1976 to 1986. Marshall had tremendous variety. Lillee was great. Holding was the most talented. Roberts was extraordinary. Hadlee was so versatile. They were all great bowlers. Akram, I think, rates among them. He is a dangerous bowler because he slants the ball from that height. He moves the ball both ways at pace. Waqar is stronger and quicker."
On swing, Imran was candid. "People don't know what reverse swing is. To say that illegal methods are used to reverse swing is complete nonsense. If you play on a wicket like Sharjah, the ball would be roughed up in 15 overs. All you have to do is shine one side and if you have the capability you will be able to reverse swing it. At the same time, there are illegal methods used by some to reverse swing the ball but then they are used in normal swing and bowling also. By lifting the seam. So that's illegal. You can't say reverse swing is illegal."
If he ever became a coach, what would Imran tell the youngsters? "Hard work is never wasted. That was the first lesson I learnt. The benefits may come later but they would come. But you must enjoy that hard work. You must have the enthusiasm to be a keen student of the game. If you want to become a good fast bowler, you must have the pace and the ability to move the ball. Just pace doesn't help. On slow wickets, you got to move the ball to deceive the batsmen. You must be fit, have a big heart."
Imran does not a single meeting concerning the Shaukat Khanam Cancer Hospital, built in memory of his mother, who died of this dreadful disease. "I am very strict about anything concerning the hospital," Imran informs you. He makes no mention of the fact he still the Qaddafi Stadium daily. In the Imran can be spotted at the Qaddafi Stadium, running and training, spending time at the gymnasium.
In between, if he is required at his office, Imran does not waste time in changing. He is reported to have attended important meetings in track-suits. At heart, the greatest all-rounder from Pakistan is still a sportsman.
People have found fault with Imran for using cricket to collect money for the hospital. His speech after the World Cup victory in Australia made no of his team members but included his passion for his hospital. "It a fault. I should have mentioned my team members in that moment of triumph but it was not deliberate. Needless to say the World Cup victory was a team effort."
But the hospital is a charitable venture and in Imran's words “essentially it is for the poor." At present, there is a collection campaign in Pakistan to assist the hospital work and people from all comers been generously donating money. "Zakat" as it is known in Pakistan is where people donate money voluntarily for the poor and needy.
Ever since he quit playing, the hospital has been Imran's only ambition in life. He is excited as he talks about his dream which promises to be fulfilled by the year end. "In the beginning it was tough. When my mother died, I made this rash statement that I would build a cancer hospital. It was an emotional statemenr not knowing how tough it would be. I really didn't realise the impact that statement would make. People expected me to fulfill it. It was really tough but as time passed it became a passion for me.
The hospital became my motivation in life. The hospital has given me the greatest fulfillment of my life. I have achieved so much in cricket. Winning the World Cup was my greatest moment ever but more than all that, it is the hospital which has given me the greatest satisfaction. It has surpassed everything I have achieved in life."
You can see the pride on Imran's face when he says that by this year the hospital would be fully operational. "Come and see it for yourself," he adds before going to the TV box, his only connection with cricket now.
This interview first appeared on Sporstar on May 14, 1994 .
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