Imran Khan was a change agent extraordinaire.
Because of him, hundreds of young Pakistani lads started lengthening their run-ups and hurling them down quick on heartbreakingly flat baked-mud wickets.
Because of him, cricket in Pakistan and the subcontinent gathered a following like never before, including thousands of swooning ladies enchanted by the raw sex appeal with which the suave Oxford-educated Pathan went about his job.
Because of him, a nation of incredibly talented but rudderless cricketers suddenly became a major force to reckon with, holding their own against the mighty West Indians and finally winning the World Cup in 1992.
Imran enjoyed his heydays when four all-rounders lorded over the world of cricket. Ian Botham was the maverick who turned matches around with bat and ball on his day. Kapil Dev added a dimension of fast bowling and hard-hitting batting that was virtually unknown in India. Richard Hadlee was the wizard with the ball, making it perform tricks that had spectators gaping and batsmen walking morosely back. Imran was the fourth axis, a pillar of glittering brilliance, the only one which refused to wither with age.
Through the eighties, Botham deteriorated in slow but sure steps, evident perhaps to all but himself. The match-turning performances became less and less, and the prodigious swing turned increasingly innocuous. From 1984, Kapil went into a long dry wicket-less period. His bowling average crept up higher and higher till it steadied into something just about respectable.
Hadlee remained right at the peak of his wicket-taking ability till the very end of his days, but he was the first among the four to finish his career. And he was not really in the same league with the others as far as batting was concerned.
However, Imran was the most incredible. He played for 21 years and kept getting better with age, like the choicest of wines. He never stopped taking wickets, and scored more and more runs as time stood confused and still.
After a five-year struggle to get his bearings in international cricket, he came into his own with a 12-wicket haul at Sydney which helped Pakistan draw the series with Australia in 1976-77. Soon after, he was also transformed from a young strapling with spots on his face to a heart-throb of all the female fans of the game around the world.
His first century came against Malcolm Marshall, Colin Croft and Joel Garner in Lahore 1980. And he never looked back, with the bat or the ball.
His bowling touched new peaks as he mastered the art of reverse-swing. In the 1982 series against England, he picked up 21 wickets at 18.57. This was followed by a mesmerising series accounting for 40 wickets at 13.95 and 247 runs at 61.75 against the hapless Indians. One can still see his two hundredth scalp at Karachi, with Gundappa Viswanath shouldering arms only to see the wicked delivery veer in and peg back his off-stump.
Imran suffered from injuries, which saw him play the 1983 World Cup purely as a batsman. Hamstrings gave up and there were stress fractures. But, he always managed come back as a bowler, and as he lost pace, he made up for it in guile. His iconic delivery action and follow through, with those poison tipped in-dippers, were garnished with subtle changes of pace, variations – and often bursts of speed which batsmen had smugly ascertained to be beyond him. His flamboyant batting, which was renowned for massive hits into the stands, became more and more steady and dependable. Added to it was the incisive captaincy which made him one of the most astute leaders in the game.
The second coming
Imran retired after the 1987 World Cup with stands in Pakistan singing Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna. Yet, the nation considered him indispensible. President Zia-ul-Haq asked him to continue and he did so for five more years, as a captain who finally held aloft the World Cup in 1992. Even at the age of 39, he walked in at No 3 to add his aeons of experience into the scheme of things, guiding his team to memorable victories in the semi-final and final.
World Cup aside, his premier achievement was perhaps sharing the series with West Indies on two occasions as captain. He never gave an inch against the formidable side and their battery of pace bowlers and power packed batting line up. Touring the Caribbean in 1987-88 after his first retirement, he took 23 wickets at 18.08.
Incredible as it may sound, his final 51 Tests since the 1982 England tour yielded 2477 runs at 51.60 and 204 wickets at 19.90. Seldom has any cricketer matured this gracefully and profitably with age.
Imran’s final figures read 3807 runs at 37.69 and 362 wickets at 22.81, which put him way above his contemporary clutch of great all-rounders. His batting numbers are superior to the rest by some distance, and as a bowler he is just a fraction off the average of the great Hadlee.
He is also considered to be the most successful captain of Pakistan, although it is an error of perception. The figures actually show Javed Miandad with an equal number of wins – 14 – with six losses to Imran’s eight. Misbah-ul-Haq has won nine till now while losing just one. But, there is no doubt that he was the most charismatic of them all. His characteristic style – classy denouement with stern and sometimes crude ways of ticking off non-performing players – remains etched in memory. He backed his team to the hilt and although the likes of Manzoor Elahi struggled to keep up with his prediction of becoming the second Botham, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and several others did emerge as fruits of his nurture.
While one can perhaps contest whether he is the greatest cricketer ever produced by Pakistan, however slim be the arguments against the claim, he remains without any semblance of misgiving the country’s greatest icon. From his high profile marriage and subsequent split with socialite Jemima Goldsmith to his forays into the political world, he remains in the news, and even at 59, a figure of evergreen charm.
At the age of four, the wife of this writer collected posters of the gifted all-rounder in his prime, having lost her young heart to his charms. And decades later, the writer’s mother, well into her sixties, could hardly control her school-girl like glee when she came across the veteran Pakistani statesman in the Zurich Airport.
Such is the timeless appeal of the man. A true legend!
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
First Published: November 25, 2012, 10:37 am