“Imran was a figure who propagated warmth and revolutionised success and for that, the sporting arena will forever remain indebted to him”.
Dark, broody, mysterious, tortured and charming. Charlotte Bronte’s Mr. Rochester in her much-acclaimed play “Jane Eyre” at first appears a character who is “very grim” to look at; even disdainful and scornful in his ways. He is imperious in his mannerisms and can even be called a being who was difficult to deal with. He was cruel, he was selfish, and he was also what someone would call indifferent but despite all his queerness, there lay an undefined charm about Rochester that made him romantic and charismatic at the same time.
If we were to take up personalities from the world of cricket and anoint them with literary characters, the one name that would unanimously be associated with Bronte’s hero would be Pakistan’s Imran Khan – soft, stern, lovable yet powerful. The one who was beautiful (and I mean, not just his looks!), educated, agonising, virtuous and courageous. The humbled individual with a strange aura about him that made one fear him yet made one want to ape him. His gait, his swagger and his professionalism.
If it was his bowling that made gully-cricketers lengthen their bowling, his looks mesmerised the ladies – young or old, together they remained overawed by his raw sex appeal or his suaveness that seemed to transcend borders. He demanded respect – by the journalists, by his teammates and even by his opponents and in the era of all-rounders, Imran nonchalantly arrived to overtake them all.
He was not only a technically sound batsman who could defend or attack without difficulty, he was also one of the main architects of the reverse swing that was later perfected by Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. He had genuine pace and, in his ability, to swing and seam both the old and the new ball, he soon emerged a leader. Not only did he hand over Pakistan with their most glorious cricketing memory after making a comeback to the sport, he was also a leader off the field – with Akram time and again stating that the new bunch of cricketers in the late 1980s from Pakistan went about copying Imran’s dialect and his style; his panache and his charm.
But the world would not have appreciated Imran’s skills if there had been another player as good as him. His batting average ended at 38 and his bowling at 23 – numbers that emphatically state how impactful the Pakistani was. At times, his figures were the best in the world and even though he was fiercer with the cherry in hand, he emerged into his own with the bat after a severe stress fracture forced him to limit his bowling. While ordinary cricketers would have remained bogged down by the blow, Imran transformed himself with the willow and in the last five years of his international career, his batting average was the highest in the world.
He announced his arrival in 1976 with 14 wickets against New Zealand in three Tests and later that season in Australia, broke all records by scalping six-wicket hauls in both innings in Sydney. In the next decade, he improved himself so much more by 1988, his batting average was tilting towards 40 and his average with the ball was a jaw-dropping 18. In his last three years as a Test player, his bowling form dipped – falling to 33.53 but this is when he picked up his batting, scoring almost 947 runs in 15 matches, with seven fifties at two tons at 72.89.
But Imran was always the ageless warrior despite his injury concerns even when the all-rounders around him were slowly but surely losing their grip on the game. Sir Ian Botham slowed down, and his swing soon lost the zing. Kapil Dev, India’s prolific match-winner had phases of inconsistency and Richard Hadlee’s batting never quite matched up to the other three. Imran, on the other hand, kept going for 21 years and even when he lost the spring in his step, he made it up with his deceptive guile. He would bring in the pace variations, mixing the faster deliveries with the slow yorkers, and such had been his impact in a nation starved of icons that Imran was asked by the then-Pakistan President Zia-ul-Haq to return to the game after he had announced his retirement in 1987.
His performances against the West Indies ranked the best amongst the likes of Kapil, Botham and Hadlee but more than his potential with the bat and the ball, what made Imran so admirable was his astute leadership skills, which is not only limited to the World Cup win in 1992, when a 39-year-old Imran bid farewell holding aloft the revered trophy. In 48 Tests that he captained Pakistan, he averaged 52.34 with the bat; which fell to 25.43 when he was not leading the side. His bowling average as captain was 20.26 – 25.53 when he was not.
His captaincy style was crude and classy, derived from insane self-belief and confidence. In an interesting anecdote, Imran, who would always fire a word of praise for the opponents before a high-octane clash refused to tread the path before the 1982-83 series against India. Instead, he flew down to New Delhi and Calcutta on a “private visit” to get himself interviewed by media outlets and fired a warning that his team would emerge victors rather comprehensively in the upcoming series. His days of extending a friendly hand were over – here he was the enemy, the rival and the competitor who would not only psyche India out but also do his best to ensure he had the upper hand.
But the champion’s tales do not end on the field. Such was his magnanimous presence that even umpires on the field of play let go of a few no-balls by Imran, stating that such instances were but natural when a bowler is in the flow. The men who matter loved watching him, as did everyone else and it remained no secret. The player who fought for the revival of leg-spin and for neutral umpiring wore his subcontinental identity with pride and in an age when colonialism burst forth, he was one of the few non-white cricketers who voiced his opinions on the dictatorship that was being run forward by the western countries.
His unabashed entry into the political world, when he could rather have enjoyed the perks of his superstardom showed his seriousness in bringing about a change that was not just limited to changing the fortunes of the Pakistani cricket team. Despite his cold exterior, Imran was a figure who propagated warmth and revolutionised success and for that, the sporting arena will forever remain indebted to him.