Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shahid Afridi and Mohammed Aamir are among many renowned players from his country to have gushed over Imran’s splendid performance at the hustings. But the hosannas are not restricted to just Pakistani cricketers.
Congratulatory tweets from Geoffrey Boycott, Sanjay Manjrekar, Ian Bishop, Adam Holliake inundated social media while Imran’s contemporary and former India captain Kapil Dev made known his delight on television.
Fraternal joy over Imran’s success is understandable. Among sportspersons who have played at the international level, only George Weah, who represented Liberia in football, went on to lead his country in politics.
Four cricketers have become Prime Ministers -- F H D Bell (New Zealand PM in 1925), A F Douglas-Home (British PM 1962-64), Kamisese Mara (Fiji PM 1970-87, President 1994-2000) and Imran’s nemesis Nawaz Sharif (Pak PM 1990-93, 97-99, 2013-17) -- but they never went beyond first-class level. Imran is the first international to reach such political heights, and remarkably, by starting his own party only 22 years back.
It’s been a long and largely lonely struggle, against heavy odds, that appears to have finally borne reward.
"I have no doubt he will be Prime Minister one day", I recall Wasim Akram telling me in 2013 when we were part of the same TV commentary team. "Even if he’s 90 and doddering, he won’t give up!"
The self-belief, tenacity, resilience, deep ambition and optimism – which have brought him to this stage in politics – were defining attributes in Imran’s 20-year career in international cricket too. While his Casanova image grabbed headlines all over the world, at his core Imran was immensely hardworking and dedicated, driven to excellence and triumph with unremitting passion.
Starting as a tearaway fast bowler in 1971, with little control over line and length, he worked relentlessly to hone his technique and skills till he became the world’s best for a few years in the early 1980s. It had taken him over a decade, but he had reached his goal. In this period, he was also arguably the world’s best all-rounder.
And unarguably the best captain for a decade, reining in Pakistan’s scintillating but mercurial players, spotting and blooding talented but rank youngsters to become world beaters. His authoritative (many said `autocratic’) leadership was matched by inspiring personal example in determination, as I remember from my first tour to Pakistan in 1982-83.
This was a series India lost badly 0-3 largely because of Imran’s brilliant swing bowling. Not many know, however, that he continued bowling of his full run-up despite suffering an ankle problem midway through. He couldn’t bowl for two years after that, but Imran’s intent to beat India by the largest margin wasn’t to be stymied by injury.
At one stage, it appeared that his dream of winning the World Cup would remain unrealized. He had played in all tournaments from 1975, and Pakistan had been semi-finalists in 1979 and 1983. In 1987, playing at home, they were favourites, but lost again in the semis to Australia. Dejected, Imran announced his retirement, the only instance I remember where he was consumed by setback. Subsequently he was convinced to return by then President Zia-ul-Haq, and went on to lead his team to a memorable victory in the 1992 World Cup.
Apart from aforementioned sterling qualities, Imran had also shown himself to be a fearless risk-taker, and a visionary. For instance, in 1986, when West Indies (then the world’s best side) toured Pakistan, he asked for neutral umpires from India, leaving people on either side of the border stumped.
Mumbai’s Piloo Reporter and Hyderabad’s V K Ramaswamy were chosen to officiate in what turned out to be a tense, memorable series. I watched the last Test of that series in Karachi, and asked Imran why he was so eager to have neutral umpires.
"Our umpires always come under flak," he said. "To be the best, you have to beat the best, but this would only have meaning if there was no allegation of cheating."
As it happened, the series was drawn. But Imran had scored a major point.
In 1989, he went a step further, demanding neutral umpires for a series against India! Pakistan’s cricket administration was aghast, but Imran was adamant.
"There is so much vested in India-Pakistan cricket, but ruined by mistrust of umpires,” he said before the series.
This was a gamble of sorts, at least psychologically, for Pakistan had never lost to India at home earlier. As it happened, the series was drawn. But the agenda for neutral umpires, which Imran had vehemently campaigned for years to save international cricket from perennial bickering and mistrust, had been won.
The 1991-92 World Cup win was undoubtedly the acme of his cricket career. Past 39, Imran was a lion in winter. But his superb leadership – and mature batting in tough situations -- saw a young team pull off a remarkable turnaround, coming back from the brink of ouster midway through the tournament.
By this time, he was committed to building the best cancer hospital in Pakistan his mother’s memory, a monumental task even for a cricket superstar. Imran’s diligence saw the project through despite the obstacles. This experience of fighting the odds perhaps impelled his entry into politics.
In cricket, Imran stands on a pedestal. For those who know him through and for the sport (like this writer), he is the epitome of excellence as player and leader: In my opinion, the most influential along with Sir Frank Worrell in the post-War era certainly.
Politics, however, is a different ball game, and questions have been raised about his motives and methods. Over the past two decades, analysts have found it difficult to fathom his motives and methods. At various times, he’s been described a neo-liberal, centrist, pacifist, nationalist and hawk.
In the months leading to the recent elections months, compunctions about his proximity to religious ultras in Pakistan and a possibly subservient role to the army have worried political observers in the West, and particularly in India, what with relations between the two countries at a low ebb now.
Imran’s first response after the elections has been encouraging. He’s said he knows India more than anybody else in Pakistan and that he shouldn’t be typecast as some Bollywood villain, or words to the effect.
This reassurance hasn’t stymied speculation and suspense about the future though. As he prepares to start his second innings, whether Imran will captain the Generals or the other way around is the question that looms large.
First Published: July 29, 2018, 8:06 AM IST