Field Marshal extraordinaire

N. SRIDHARAN

Imran Khan turned out to be the messiah of Pakistan cricket, an inspirational genius piloting it to the promised land. This tribute by Nirmal Shekar to the former captain appeared in `Frontline', April 1992, after Pakistan won the World Cup.

To be a leader of men one must turn one's back on men. — Havelock Ellis.

A bottle of mineral water in hand, an enigmatic grin creasing his handsome face, he could have been just another onlooker at a Melbourne Cricket Ground that was awash in megawatts of neon and reverberating to the triumphant beat of the celebrating Pakistanis on that historic night.

Simply put, it was his moment of apotheosis, the finest hour of his life as a cricketer. And there he was, almost aloof, seemingly untouched by the giant waves of emotion sweeping his team-mates off their feet and propelling them into one another's arms for a passionate hug or two.

Even when a senior colleague rushed out from the dressing room and thrust a huge national flag into his hand, the man seemed a reluctant performer. It was as if in the greatest moment of his life Imran Ahmed Khan Niazi needed to be alone — alone in front of millions of television viewers and thousands of spectators at the stadium, alone in a crowd of Pakistanis dancing in frenzied excitement, alone with all the regal mystique about him intact.

Given Javed Miandad's (above, in discussion with Imran Khan during the final of the 1992 World Cup against England in Melbourne) personality and his place in the team, not to speak of his history as captain, it was only natural that he and Imran should share a love-hate relationship.-N. SRIDHARAN

It was a symbolic moment, a moment that may have provided fresh insights into the Imran Khan persona to a very few while contributing little to explain the psyche of Pakistan cricket's most successful captain for most others. In the event, it was a moment that was at once a revelation and a conundrum.

Revelation it may have been to a few and a conundrum it may continue to be to many, but neither the few nor the many can honestly claim to have found the secret behind the Pakistan skipper's stupendous successes as team leader and his extraordinary ability to motivate temperamentally-divided men towards set goals.

There are no easy answers, really. A man who is essentially a loner, one given to haughty impassivity and fits of controlled rage in bizarre turn, a man who seems remote yet is approachable, one who is despotic yet shows, sometimes, an attitude that is basically democratic, has turned out to be the messiah of Pakistan cricket, an inspirational genius piloting it to the promised land.

How these essentially contradictory qualities can co-exist in an individual is perhaps not as important as the fact that the owner of these diverse qualities/attitudes has triumphed in achieving something that had proved agonisingly elusive to a succession of Pakistan captains.

And, to be sure, Imran Khan's success as a captain is not reflected merely in his team's performance in the Benson and Hedges World Cup. Nor is it to be seen in the historic trail-blazing Test series wins in England and in India under his leadership.

In real terms, Imran's greatest triumph is the manner in which he beat the Pakistani cricket system — something that was mired in layers and layers of nepotism and corruption — to be able to pick his own team and then inspire the men on the path to glory.

If there was a touch of the autocratic in Imran's words and deeds, then it has not hurt Pakistan cricket in any way. On the other hand, it is difficult to see how a consensus-minded soft-option seeking captain could have succeeded in Imran's place.

"The selection process is entirely Machiavellian in character and any player who does not scrape or bow is in trouble. The usual method is to weed out the undesirables at a trial training camp in order to make room for favourites," writes Imran in his autobiography. It was hardly on the cards that such a system would have given way to anyone other than a benevolent dictator such as Imran.

But then, it is one thing to be able to get what you want in terms of personnel and quite another to be good enough to whip them into a performing unit on the international stage. "An advantage of aiming high is that one is never satisfied with one's performance. This unfulfilled feeling always made me strive for improvement. The hardest thing was to impart my ambitious approach to the Pakistan team and to break through the negative attitudes that had prevailed for so long," writes Imran in his book.

The negative attitudes were particularly evident when Pakistan played abroad. The team was a lion at home and a lamb for slaughter overseas. Also, there were always too much infighting and personality clashes which came in the way of the team performing as a single well-motivated and goal-oriented unit.

Ian Botham, the English all-rounder, made this critical observation of the Pakistan cricket team in the early 1980s: "They've always had a lot of talent. But they are like 11 women. You know, scratching each other's eyes out and wanting to do this and that. That's always been their downfall as a team."

It is against the background of this critical assessment that Imran's leadership qualities and the victories they earned for his team must be evaluated. Napoleon Bonaparte, who knew a thing or two about leading men, said, "A leader is a dealer in hope." And Imran himself has dealt in hope with tremendous success from time to time.

And it took a special kind of dealer in hope to help an almost demoralised, off-form Pakistan team stay motivated halfway through the league games of the World Cup. After five of its eight matches, Pakistan had a mere three points and it was clear then that even if the team won its three remaining matches — which it did, eventually — only a miracle could see it through to the semifinals.

Yet Imran, always a man with a certain sense of destiny and the will to seek to fulfil it, did not lose the mother of all virtues vis-a-vis success — faith. And when a leader who is as charismatic and awe-inspiring as Imran retains faith, the team itself manages to stay afloat on the life-boat of hope.

And with each little success, faith multiplies, as it did in the Pakistan camp in the 1992 World Cup before belief translated into glorious reality. Behind all this was the inspiring genius of the field marshal extraordinaire who, it would appear, simply refused to consider the possibility of Pakistan not winning the World Cup.

Besides his stature as an all-time great in the game and one who has been the centre of gravity in Pakistan cricket, what has helped Imran Khan become such a successful captain is his willingness to rise above personal considerations and reach a point where he could not distinguish anymore between his own personal triumph and the triumph of his team.

It does not take long for team members to find out if the leader is selfish or not and a captain's decisions, however harsh they may seem on certain individuals, are generally well taken by the men if they believe there is no element of selfishness involved.

Also, in Imran's case, quite a few members of the team were talented youngsters whom he spotted and elevated to national and international status. As such, it is hardly surprising that wonderfully skilled young men like Wasim Akram, the man of the World Cup final, and the revelation of the climactic matches, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Aaqib Javed, show such fierce loyalty to their leader.

What was difficult for Imran in the early days was winning the loyalty of the other titan in the Pakistan team, the irrepressible Javed Miandad. The gunslinger in cricket whites, who found himself ascending to the captaincy throne rather too early for his own good, had neither the leadership qualities nor the sophistication of Imran. And it was after Miandad was deposed in a players' revolt that Imran himself came back to lead the team against Sri Lanka in 1986.

Given Miandad's personality and his place in the team, not to speak of his history as captain, it was only natural that he and Imran should share a love-hate relationship. However, it was not long before Miandad accepted Imran's special status and developed a rather grudging admiration for the all-conquering all-rounder.

For all that, it is difficult to believe that Imran, given his attitudes and his approach, would have been as successful with a team of Englishmen or Australians. A key to his success is the strict obedience to authority that is so much a feature of Pakistan society, much of which is still semi-feudal. And a benevolent dictator can hardly fit into the scheme of things elsewhere in world cricket — perhaps not even in India.

Finally, we may have missed out one little input that has gone into making Imran Khan such a successful captain. And this is his English training. From grammar school in Worcester and through Oxford and on to the professional ranks in county cricket, Imran acquired professional virtues that stood him in good stead.

The natural authority of a born leader of men came easily to the descendent of land-owning tribal chiefs of Turkish-Afghan Pathan blood. And this found refinement in the atmosphere of county cricket to turn Imran Khan into one of the greatest modern day captains in the game.