End of an era

A proud Pathan’s single-minded determination to succeed paid rich dividends. He became a prima donna in Pakistan. His views were respected, both on and off the field, by players as well as the administrators. The cricket world will miss this fierce competitor. An appreciation of Imran Khan.

Imran Khan... the Pathan was more than a cricketer.   -  V. V. Krishnan

The nearest cricket had to a warrior prince was Imran Khan Niazi. His retirement, final this time, from the theatre of conflict will rob the game of much glamour. The Pathan was more than a cricketer. There are traits in his character which made him resemble more a military leader who excelled in taking his troops into battle. He may not have come out victorious in all engagements. But at the end of a career he can derive much satisfaction from the fact that history will acknowledge that he and his corps won the war.

Imran is different from the Asian sporting stereotype of persevering achievers with a bit of a complex which inhibited them from thinking they can rub shoulders with the best or even better them. His personality came through powerfully, not half because he was good looking and had a presence, to which the swooning ladies will swear, but more because he was able to bring out his intensity of thinking in words that he did not mince and which proved inspirational to those who are natural followers. As a communicator, he must have had an excellent record when it came to his team because none in his side was ever left in doubt about what the boss wanted.

Many a man has taken pot shots at Imran. The Pakistani captain had only nasty words for the Pakistani press and worse words for the Pakistani cricket system. But Imran built a system within a system which he was able to nourish and sustain despite different degrees of opposition from various quarters. He was allowed this system within a system because he produced the goods. His critics were silenced as the means to an end finally became unimportant since the end was just what everyone wanted.

His family background would suggest that Imran was, from a very young age, accustomed to giving orders. There must have been any number of domestics who were at his beck and call. But what may have helped forge his strong personality was the stint at Oxford University. An English education at Oxford is not rare for the scions of Pakistani families headed by landed gentry. Yet, the years in England may have helped bring out from within him the feeling that he was equal to or better than his Anglo-Saxon colleagues.


The propensity to harbour strong likes and dislikes may have come much later. The Imran who came out of university and went into international cricket was a modest, even shy, lad who kept his own counsel even as he strove to cope with the matter of first gaining recognition in the world. The aspiration to go ahead and try to conquer it must have come much much later. The pleasures of the life of a celebrity may even have delayed the flowering of a personality.

When he had scaled his personal Mount Everest on a colourful March night at the Melbourne Cricket Ground he was as close in his life and career to becoming the ultimate egomaniac. But then he could be forgiven for thinking only of himself and his all-consuming obsession, the cancer hospital, since at that moment in time elation may have been the elixir which made him so drunk with glory that he forgot the team which made such a triumph possible and the nationalism that bred such fervour as to bring the Cup for a team that had been on the very brink.

Imran Khan with Javed Miandad... Pakistan captaincy went back and forth between the two.   -  The Hindu Photo Library


Imran’s finest image as the cool general was actually built around his being able to weld together a bunch of egomaniacs into a powerful cricket team. To achieve that he had to assume the role of a despot only because authoritarianism could fetch him the needed loyalty from a society such as that of Pakistan from which came talented cricketers who had to be trained to play for the common cause. The mystery is whether Imran became the dictator in order to achieve results or the results came to him because he was a natural despot.

There is no contesting the fact that Imran had, with the help of Inthikab Alam, melded an egotistical bunch of players into an united team. And, for years, he fought such fissiparous tendencies as may have been represented by clashing loyalties engendered by the captaincy sort of going back and forth between him and Javed Miandad. Here, too, Imran’s powerful personality settled the issue because Miandad himself became the loyal lieutenant who looked after the nitty gritty of everyday cricket while Imran kept his thinking in tune with his expanding vision.

There is no doubt either that Imran had the vision. He foresaw a domineering role for cricketers of the calibre being produced, almost routinely in the sub-continent, despite the absence of a well-defined system like those in countries such as England and Australia. He pursued his vision even at the cost of making many enemies. Any general in absolute command had to play favourites and he did that without too much care for criticism which, however, always irked him. For every cricketer who made the grade under him, he may have picked two who failed and he may have killed one who may have become as good had he persisted with the selectors’ choice rather than his own.

Imran had the sang froid to carry himself in the face of opposition. His great achievements may have been made possible by his relentless support of fellow pace bowlers whom he nurtured with care. But it is never to be forgotten that the young Imran bowled his heart out in near solitary splendour for a few years after Sarfraz Nawaz’s best had gone. The emergence of Wasim Akram, and then Waqar Younis, provided the team the ammunition even as it had the rare fortune of having a bowler-captain who knew best how to keep his attack in good order.

There were times when he bowled like a man possessed just when his colleagues were waning. There is a spell of bowling that is most highly regarded by those who saw it. This was in the Port of Spain Test on a wicket that offered little. Imran bowled and bowled from one end like the thoroughbred pace bowler that he is, to send the West Indians tumbling to defeat.

He picked up a fearsome reputation after what he did to the Indians at home in 1982-83. This was probably Imran at his best as he ripped through Gavaskar and company to pick up 40 wickets in six Tests. The figure itself pales in comparison to the effect he was having on a deep batting order, with swing bowling at a pace far beyond that, as it was believed then, at which the ball could actually move in the air. He was bowling well beyond the established concept of a critical speed.

Imran Khan with the World Cup in Melbourne in 1992.   -  Getty Images


The cricket world may be feeling the impact of the research that the Pakistanis had patiently carried out for years under the guidance of Sarfraz Nawaz, the big pace bowler with the swing that helped him achieve and the booming voice and the swear words that carried those achievements further. In some ways, Sarfraz was Imran’s guru though Imran himself will say that it was the years spent in Packer’s World Series Cricket which made him realise how quick he could be. He began remodelling his action after watching the successful West Indians while being able to recall with perfect ease the high flowing leap and the side-on delivery style he had been blessed with. The mixture of two techniques made him a bigger force since he could take the ball out while side-on and bring it in some way when he went wide of the crease.

As with all achievers, Imran had this ability to keep moving the goalposts. He would say that his one remaining ambition was to beat the West Indies in the Caribbean, an ambition that was to be denied only, as they say, by dubious umpiring. He followed that up by saying he wanted to beat India in India. His side did not beat Australia in Australia on two different occasions, on the first of which Imran was at his worst as a non-playing captain who tried to shape the team’s fortunes from the sidelines, and on the second when some more dubious umpiring is said to have baulked him.

Imran’s ultimate ambition, of winning the World Cup, was not to be realised in the Reliance Cup though everyone then thought it was a walk-over — so well was his side performing around 1987. That victory came when it was less expected must have made it seem all that sweeter though there were moments of such self-doubt that Imran permitted himself rare criticism of his own team in Australia early this year. He termed them no-hopers during the warm-up, a view that was thought to have had its confirmation in early defeats, at the hands of the West Indies and India.

It was from such depths that Imran’s side rose, an ability that only reflected its own leader’s rise from the ashes each time they said his career was finished due to injury. He may not believe in the law of karma but regrets to this day that he kicked an intruder off the pitch, during a riot by students in a Karachi Test against India. For not long after that, a recurring shin trouble worsened and that kept him in and out of the game for a few seasons.

There came a time when he could not move the goalposts anymore. The World Cup was his and his team’s and there was nothing to keep a 40-year-old in the arena. Cricket may become a chore for those above 40. Imran had to bid adieu and it is as well that he has done so now, rather than in the bitter aftermath of defeat as he once did when the Reliance Cup semifinal was over and all seemed darkness and doom. To see the light after four years and a bit was his good fortune. But then fortune favours the brave.

And there have been very few as brave as Imran, in his cricket and in his thinking. Most of all, he believed in himself which may have been the real key to success. For a general must know himself if he has any hope at all of knowing his troops. What would such a person do outside the battlefield? His is a multi-faceted personality, he wrote a book on a subject other than cricket and is known to hold very strong views on politics and religion. There must be a good life beyond the game for such a warrior prince, a Genshis Khan of cricket.

This article was published in The Sportstar of October 17, 1992

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