This article first appeared in my book, The Pakistani Masters. It has been updated following Imran’s success in the general election in July 2018, which left the PTI as the largest political party and Imran set to become his country’s next leader, in only the second transition from one civilian government to another in Pakistan’s history. It is reproduced here in three parts.
It is a truism that sport is all about the mind, that the spirit and the will are what single out the champions. When it comes to great cricketers – that narrow band of players who legitimately merit the label – there are few in respect of whom mental strength, the spirit and the will, is demonstrated more clearly than Imran Khan.
There must first be no doubt about the premise. Imran was unquestionably a great player. His record in Test cricket tells us that 3807 runs at 37.69 and 362 wickets at 22.81 is absolutely outstanding. The best comparison is with his three contemporaries. Ian Botham and Kapil Dev had batting averages comfortably lower (though Imran had 25 not outs, to Kapil’s fifteen and Botham’s six) and bowling averages comfortably higher than Imran’s. Richard Hadlee’s bowling average was marginally lower at 22.24; Hadlee’s batting average was 27.16. Imran scored centuries against India (3), England, Australia and the West Indies. He took ten wickets in a match against England, Australia, India (twice), Sri Lanka and the West Indies. When a hundred cricketing luminaries were asked to vote for Five Cricketers of the (20th) Century for Wisden, Hadlee and Imran came equal tenth, with 13 votes each: Botham was sixteenth and Kapil twentieth.
On figures alone Imran was a highly effective all-rounder. But it goes without saying that Imran’s most remarkable achievement as a cricketer was to succeed in the way he did as captain of Pakistan. In that regard, he stands alone. There is no point in comparing him with anybody from elsewhere, contemporary or otherwise. He can only be compared with other captains of Pakistan. And the fact is, there is no comparison. It is a bit like modern French history: a succession of ineffectual leaders presiding over assorted disasters; then a giant, de Gaulle, who shapes the country as he pleases; but once he is gone, chaos rules again. This is how it was with Imran as Pakistan’s leader. And the men who came before and after him were not the type of nincompoop or nonentity who headed whichever Republic happened to be in place in France on any given day before or after de Gaulle. They were often accomplished and capable men. But none of them received the respect and loyalty of teammates accorded to Imran. As a leader he did not simply inspire his “boys” to play for each other and for Pakistan; just as importantly, he raised his own game, and his greatness as a player coincided to a large degree with his period as captain.
That goes some way to demonstrating why the mental side of Imran’s cricket was so important. But there is more to it than that.
Imran made himself into a great cricketer. The raw materials were there, of course, but he was not a natural. His disciples, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis stepped up to the international arena not perhaps as the finished product but as aggressive fast bowlers who could immediately pose problems for experienced batsmen. By the time they emerged, Imran had forgotten more about fast bowling than they knew and his standing and reputation and his need to harness their skills to the national cause meant that they were able to hone their talents and follow in his wake. But it had been very different for him as a youngster. Botham and Kapil had burst upon the international scene as accomplished cricketers almost from the start, racing each other to be the youngest all-rounder to do this or that. Again, it is perhaps Hadlee who provides the most intriguing comparison; reared in a family devoted to cricket, a tearaway fast bowler who had to think his way to cricketing effectiveness, who grew to know exactly what he wanted, and who, in the end, usually got it. Yes – not a bad comparison.
The fact is that, although Imran came from a relatively affluent, privileged and fortunate background in a country where privilege really does mean something, things did not come as easily to him as one might expect. He did not reach his peak as a fast bowler until he was 28 or 29, when most fast bowlers are thinking of easing up. The captaincy of Pakistan was not handed to him or a plate as a young pup. He became captain as a result of a typical administrative imbroglio. At his belated peak as a fast bowler he suffered an almost literally crippling injury that cut a couple of years from his bowling life. Imran gritted his teeth and got through it all.
Although affluent upper middle class rather than the equivalent of royalty, Imran was born in the purple in cricketing terms. His mother, of the Burki clan originally from Afghanistan, had two sisters and each of them had given birth to a child who became an Oxbridge blue who went on to captain Pakistan: Javed Burki and Majid Khan. They were Imran’s childhood heroes. Nor did his advantages end there. He went to Aitchison College – the Eton of Lahore – and he had another relative who was chairman of the Lahore selectors. In his boyhood games in Zaman Park in Lahore, Imran thought he was the bee’s knees. But he rapidly realised that perhaps he was not. When he discovered a wider world, the Lahore Gymkana Club and beyond, he also discovered cricketers with far more talent than himself: Wasim Raja, the future middle-order batsman and a contemporary from Lahore, was one who Imran himself admitted was more gifted naturally.
The difference between them was that Imran had the hunger that separates one type of talented player from another. Nothing came easily to him, although by the end of his career it often looked as though everything did, especially when he was batting. Often, but even then not always. In the last innings he played as an international cricketer in the World Cup final against England at Melbourne in 1992, he played in a manner, which if followed today would have the player concerned installed in a home for the bewildered or alternatively investigated for match-fixing. Imran won the toss and put himself in at number three, as he had done since the penultimate match of the group stage. He came in with the score at 20 for one. It was soon 24 for two. Imran and Javed Miandad, his chief lieutenant, then proceeded to settle down. It was extraordinary. At one stage, three runs came off the bat in eleven overs. Imran gave a half-chance to England’s captain Graham Gooch in the 21st over but Gooch could not hold on. At the end of the 25th over, halfway through their innings, Pakistan were 70 for two. Then Imran hit Richard Illingworth for six, and gradually the scoring accelerated. Miandad fell for 58: he and Imran had put on 139 in 31 overs. Seventy-nine runs came in the last ten overs. Imran’s 72 occupied 100 balls stretched over 39 overs, with five fours and a six. As David Frith said, it was nerveless and probably match-winning. But it was not easy, Imran set out to lay a foundation and that is exactly what he did.
In those early games in Zaman Park, it was his batting that caught the eye but Imran always wanted to be a fast bowler. He made enough of an impression to be selected to tour England with Intikhab Alam’s side in 1971. There was no fairytale beginning, although because of a spate of injuries he did find himself opening the bowling with Salim Altaf in the first Test at Edgbaston. His figures were really rather good in the first innings: 23 overs for 36 runs (England followed on in the wake of Pakistan’s massive 608 for seven and the game was drawn). Imran did not take a wicket and was the first to admit that he was out of his depth.
He stayed on in England after the tour signing for Worcestershire and continuing his education at the Royal Grammar School, Worcester and later at Keble College, Oxford. It seemed as if he were a batsman who could bowl, rather than an all-rounder; in 1974, however, when he captained Oxford and played in three Tests against England, his first-class figures for the season were 1016 runs at 36.28 and 60 wickets at 30.13; although only five of those wickets, at 51.60 came in the Tests.
Glenn Turner, the New Zealand opener who was Imran’s county colleague at Worcestershire, told him that he did not have it in him to be a fast bowler. But Imran worked at it. He was constrained by the fact that the “old pro’s” at the county, such as Norman Gilford, wanted him to stick to line and length like an English seamer. By 1976, Imran had had enough of this and decided to let off a bit of steam. By now he had filled out and was stronger and faster. Gilford saw the merit of letting him have a go and started giving Imran the new ball. Against Lancashire at Worcester, he opened the bowling and dismissed the first four batsmen to reduce the visitors to 45 for four, extracting considerable movement from a dry surface. He returned to take three of the last four wickets, his final figures being seven for 53. Lancashire were all out for 140. Any doubts they had about the pitch were put in perspective when Worcestershire reached 187 for two. At that point Imran came in and made a glorious 111 not out in three hours and twenty minutes with two sixes and fifteen fours. Worcestershire were all out for 383 and then Lancashire capitulated again for 211: Imran took six for 46, taking the last three wickets in eighteen balls. In Championship matches that year, he scored over a thousand runs and took 61 wickets.
Imran’s cricketing development took a signified step in 1976-77 when Pakistan went on successive tours of Australia and the West Indies, then the two most formidable outfits in world cricket. Australia, however, on a cuop. The magnificent side led by Ian Chappell was beginning to break up and matters were not helped when Jeff Thomson was sidelined by a serious shoulder injury sustained while fielding during the first Test. But as one great fast bowler departed the scene, albeit temporarily, so another arrived: Imran.
Australia went into the final (third) Test at Sydney with a one-nil lead. Australia batted after Greg Chappell had won the toss but the conditions, warm and humid, turned out to be ideal for Imran and his new-ball partner Sarfraz Nawaz. Before long, Australia were 38 for four and ultimately stuttered to 211: Imran took 6 for 102. Pakistan gained a first innings lead of 149 and bowled Australia out for 180: Imran took six for 63 and Pakistan levelled the series. Imran’s pace – certainly equal to that of Dennis Lillee, and his aggressive intent, with plenty of bouncers, were too much for the Australian batsmen. The great left-arm swing bowler Alan Davidson, presenting Imran with a match award, said it was one of the outstanding achievements he had seen at Sydney. It was Pakistan’s first victory in Australia.
There followed an equally interesting and close-fought series in the Caribbean, which the hosts won two-one. Imran and Sarfraz were outstanding for Pakistan and came close to securing victory for their side in the first Test at Bridgetown which the West Indies saved with their last pair at the wicket. Imran worked immensely hard: he bowled sixty overs in the match for five wickets; overall he took 25 wickets at 31.60. But he knew he was not the complete fast bowler yet. Gary Sobers, one of Imran’s cricketing idols, after watching Imran in the nets at Bridgetown, said that if it was true that Imran bowled as fast as Lillee in the series in Australia. Lillee must have been operating at half pace.
While the Pakistanis were in the Caribbean Tony Greig, the England captain arrived on a recruiting mission for Kerry Packer’s still nascent World Series Cricket. It was a signal to Imran that he had “arrived” that he was one of several Pakistanis invited to sign for Packer.
In general, the battle lines were clearly drawn on the Packer issue. In England, Australia and the West Indies, for example, the players who signed were, sooner or later, banned from Test cricket until “peace” was declared in 1979. In Pakistan, inevitably, things were more complicated. Initially, the Pakistani players were also banned; then they were not banned, then they were banned again because England objected to facing Packer players on their tour to Pakistan in 1977-78. But it was likely that there would be civil unrest if Pakistan went into a series against India, scheduled for 1978-79, and the first meeting between the sides since 1960-61, without the Packer players, so they returned once and for all.
Like many of the participants in World Series Cricket, Imran found the games exceedingly challenging. From a personal point of view, he felt it was largely beneficial particularly because of technical assistance he was able to pick up from experienced bowlers. Packer cricket was especially challenging for the batsmen because of the formidable battery of pace bowling present in each of the teams. That was why Imran never wavered in his view that, of all the batsmen he played with or against in his career, the greatest was Vivian Richards.
1977 saw another change for Imran. He left Worcestershire, to their considerable irritation, and joined Sussex. He did not really enjoy Worcester as a place: and no doubt it was deficient in terms of social “throb” and the presence of suitably appealing glitterati, as Imran’s personal horizon’s expanded. Brighton clearly had more appeal as of course did Hove, where Maurice Tate and John Snow had held sway. When Garth Le Roux, another Packer player, joined the county in 1980 they really were a considerable force. The following year, 1981, the county came closer to winning, the Championship then ever before in their history. Imran scored 857 runs at 40.80 and took 61 wickets at 22.18.
His single most telling contribution came during the Eastbourne festival week, in August (25,000 spectators attended during the week). Imran bowled splendidly during Derbyshire’s second innings to take five for 52 (one bowled, four leg before) including a spell of four wickets in five balls. “That was clever bowling”, he said to John Barclay, the Sussex captain as they left the field. “Now I want to bat!”. Sussex needed 233 to win. Imran was number seven on the card. “I want to bat high in the order, I feel it is my day, we must beat this lot. I think I shall bat at four”, he told Barclay. “The others won’t mind”.
“Why do you always let him have his way?” Barclay was asked. ‘Because he says he’s going to win the match for us”.
Imran went in at 74 for two and made 107 not out, with three sixes and eleven fours reaching him century in 88 minutes. Sussex won by five wickets with five balls to spare.
Overall in first-class cricket for Sussex between 1977 and 1988 Imran averaged 43 with the bat and 19 with the ball.
Imran’s main complaint about World Series Cricket was that it lacked the passion and intensity of Test cricket. There was certainly no shortage of those ingredients when India toured Pakistan in 1978-79. Pakistan won the three Test rubber two-nil. Imran and Sarfraz again were dominant figures, establishing a supremacy over the Indian batsmen on the first day of the second Test at Lahore that they never yielded. Imran took five wickets in that innings and as so often was not shy of using the bouncer, hitting Mohinder Amarnath on the head and forcing him to retire hurt. In the third Test, at Karachi, Sarfraz and Imran bowled flat out on an unresponsive wicket to bring Pakistan victory. Imran bowled 60 overs in the match. He also saw Pakistan home in a thrilling run chase, taking them to victory with two sixes and a four in the match’s penultimate over.
It was all a bit different the following year when Pakistan toured India. India won a six-Test series two-nil. The difference for India was the progress of their opening bowler, Kapil Dev, who took 32 wickets in the series. Pakistan by contrast suffered two setbacks. Sarfraz, the leading wicket-taker in the previous series, was not selected; and Imran was troubled throughout by a muscle strain near his rib cage. He still took 19 wickets at 19.21. The first Test, at Bangalore, was a slow-scoring draw; Imran, despite the unhelpful conditions was Pakistan’s most effective bowler with four for 53 in 28.4 overs in India’s only innings. In the second Test at New Delhi he bowled with venomous pace at the start of India’s first innings but broke down after seven overs. Sikander Bakht took eight wickets and India were dismissed for 126 in reply to Pakistan’s 273. India scrambled to a draw but must surely have lost had Imran been fit. He was a passenger in the third Test and missed the fourth, which India won, on as grassy and green a pitch as can ever have been seen at Kanpur. Imran was back for the fifth Test at Madras. India won that by ten wickets, thanks to a big hundred from Sunil Gavaskar, and a fine all-round performance by Kapil Dev. Imran took five for 114 in 38.2 overs. The “dead” sixth Test, at Calcutta, although drawn, was dominated by Pakistan. On another slow wicket, albeit with uneven bounce, Imran took nine wickets in the match, including three in a ferocious opening spell in India’s second innings. The result of the series was a bitter disappointment to Pakistan’s players and their fans. The series was played in an increasingly acrimonious atmosphere, in contrast to the previous year’s series in Pakistan. The ever sagacious Dicky Rutnagur said that Pakistan’s players were increasingly distracted by “commercial and social interests”. “All of us dreaded returning home” said Imran.
The West Indies toured Pakistan in the following season, 1980-81. The visitors were well on their way to supremacy in world cricket. They had enjoyed a successful tour of England in 1980, dominated by their cohort of fast bowlers. In Pakistan, they had Joel Garner, Colin Croft, Sylvester Clarke and Malcolm Marshall. Despite the slow, unhelpful pitches, the unremitting pressure brought what seemed to be the inevitable reward. Pakistan fought hard but lost the four-Test series one-nil. The pace quartet shared 54 wickets between them. Imran, playing a predominantly lone hand in an attack dominated by spin, took 17 wickets at 17.84, including five for 62 in the final Test at Multan.
In the first Test, at Lahore, he scored his first century. Pakistan had taken a while to remember that Imran was rather a good batsman. Prior to the Lahore Test, he had made two half-centuries in 29 Tests. He usually batted in the middle order in county cricket. He gradually crept up from the tail in Tests and had reached number seven at Lahore. When he went in, Pakistan had slid from 65 for one to 95 for five. His 123 enabled them to reach 376. He completed the Test double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in the process. He was 28 in the course of the match. No, nothing came easy. By the time they were 28 Botham and Kapil were well on the way to the “double double”. But there was one difference between their Test baptisms and Imran’s. Much of their early Test cricket coincided with the Packer years. They thus faced sides from Australia, England (in Kapil’s case) and Pakistan (in Botham’s case) shron of their Packer players. It was somehow typical that Imran, having honed his skills in World Series Cricket should have scored his first Test century against the game’s most demanding attack.
In 1981-82, Pakistan played series in Australia and at home to Sri Lanka. Imran was man of the series in Australia. He took 16 wickets at 19.50 conceding 312 runs in 150.2 overs. He made 70 not out and took five wickets in Pakistan’s innings victory in the third and final Test at Melbourne; Australia had won the first two Tests, despite some spirited spells of high-class pace bowling in both games from Imran. He missed the first two Tests against Sri Lanka, the first of which was won and the second of which was drawn. Returning for the third Test at Lahore, he showed what might have been by taking eight for 58, in what he himself described as one of his better spells in Test cricket, and six for 58. Pakistan won by an innings.
The reason Imran (and several other senior players) did not play in the first two games of the series had been because of a bitter row between them and the cricket board in Pakistan regarding Javed Miandad’s captaincy. Miandad had been in charge since Asif Iqbal’s resignation after the defeat by India in 1979-80. His had been a controversial appointment then and his relative youth and excitable temperament did not make things any easier. The tour of Australia had been an unhappy and contentious episode but the last straw was a statement issued by the board to the effect that senior players had been disloyal to Miandad. This led to a stand-off which resulted in Pakistan fielding what was virtually a second eleven in the first two Tests. When Pakistan only narrowly avoided defeat in the second Test at Faisalabad (where Arjuna Ranatunga made his Test debut) sanity prevailed. The disgruntled players returned and Miandad was prevailed upon to resign at the end of the series. So a new captain was required. A number of senior players, notably Zaheer Abbas thought it was their turn. But the job went to Imran.
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