Imran Khan, Considered

In The Review, I have a review of Christopher Sanford’s Imran Khan in which I briefly consider the man. Below is what didn’t make it into the review – for fairly obvious reasons – but, I thought I’d spin it here. No pun.

Much has been written on Imran Khan’s transcendence from the game of cricket but little justice has been done to his game itself. Sandford, as well, finds it hard to capture any sense of the player even as he pays exquisitely detailed attention to life and politics on and off the field. Before we turn to all those enticing issues away from the game, let us linger, for a moment, on the game itself. Imran Khan was one of the smartest cricketers. His greatest strength as fast bowler was that he was a true batsman. He knew how to think as a batsman which meant he made sure that the batsman played every ball he hurled at them. Consider that in his entire ODI career he bowled 216 overs with only 18 maidens. Now most would read this as sign that he was easy to score against, but his economy rate of 3.7 runs conceded per over belies that supposition. Simply put, he bowled at the batsman. This quality, above all, not only contributed to him being one of the highest wicket takers during his career, but it ensured that his co-bowlers consistently picked up a higher percentage of wickets.

As a batsman, he had a high arch to his bat and a tendency to commit to the front foot often and early. He wasn’t too orthodox in his shot selection yet had an enviably straight bat. He was also one of the best players of the short ball (a much needed skill since his own tendency to bowl short balls guaranteed reprisals). His hooks and pulls were always a joy to watch and he rarely succumbed to the third-man trap.

In the field, he wasn’t the swiftest nor the surest. As a true embodiment of “gentleman’s game”, he rarely flung himself at the speeding ball. Still, he had safe hands and rarely dropped a catch. But from his long-off perch, he managed the entire field as a seasoned sea-captain coordinates the crew – constantly shifting the field, swapping players, speaking with the bowler. His fields were always dynamic organisms, drawing in and out in sync with every ball that sped towards the bat.

This last was his particular strength as a captain. Unlike other team sports, the cricket captain has to act both as the heart and the mind for the team. When on field – which was the only place some of us could witness him in action – Imran Khan was a hybrid conductor and a puppeteer. He orchestrated every movement of the other ten men on the field. He was quick with a scold as with a pat, and always in complete control. Not for nothing that Imran Khan, as the captain, was often called ‘the dictator’.

16 Replies to “Imran Khan, Considered”

  1. Why this sudden interest in the cricketing abilities of this man who retired long ago. Is it anything to do with him becoming the disciple of General Hamid Gul and Taliban’s civilian face?

  2. Imran was definitely one of the best cricketers we ever produced. The aggressive approach of a captain, that we miss so much today in our Tableeghi captain, can be called a brain child of Imran; at least for Pakistani cricket.

    I have my reservations over him being a great sportsman though. His authoritarianism did lead to some issues in the game.

  3. I didn’t quite frame my response correctly. I wanted to indicate that the team had seasoned county cricketers and were not untalented. Re – mercurial, again, I mixed the two terms; mercurial and seasoned. Mudassar was clearly not a mercurial bat, whereas Mohsin was.

    My point was not about his captaincy skills. I rate him highly. It was more to do with the statement that “he was great great leader of men who weren’t all that talented”. I think they were a talented, if underperforming lot.

  4. Quizman: one Fazal Mehmood does not make for a tradition; prior to Imran, Pakistan had Fazal; after Imran, Pakistan has had an enduring tradition of fast bowlers, such that at any given point, Pakistani fast bowlers are among the world’s 5-10 best. [Stated differently, I see Fazal as analogous to the fact that India had an Amar Singh or a Kapil Dev, but these individuals were one-offs…]

    On your other point, Zaheer was nearing the end by the time Imran’s captaincy was firmly established (I think he retired in 1984 or so didn’t he?); Majid and Imran did not get along, and Majid Khan’s painful fade meant Imran didn’t have to deal with him all that long; the likes of Mushtaq Muhammad and Asif Iqbal properly belong to the pre-Imran (captaincy) era. I don’t know why you would call Mudassar Nazar and Mohsin Khan mercurial: but even if they were, these two owed many of their breaks precisely to Imran Khan, and were hardly likely to trouble him…

  5. Qalandar,

    When Imran became captain, he had his share of former ex-captains & egos to handle; Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad, Wasim Bari, Majid Khan, and Sarfaraz Nawaz. He also led a mix of mercurial players & seasoned cricketers like Mohsin Khan, Sikander Bakht (on/off), Mudassar Nazar, Haroon Rashid, Iqbal Qasim et al.

    I disagree that Pakistan was an India when it came to fast bowlers. They had Fazal Mohd who played for almost a decade. Also, a bunch of them played country cricket in the 70s and were seasoned (Mushtaq, Sadiq, Asif, Haroon, Sarfaraz, Zaheer, Javed)

  6. Aside 2: Imran Khan’s other great strength as a bowler was a very simple one: he was able to swing the ball both ways at very high pace, without sacrificing accuracy. To date (and even accounting for the relative unfamiliarity with reverse swing in the day), his performance of 40 wickets on rather flat Pakistani tracks in a 6-test series against a powerful Indian batting line-up ranks among the greatest fast bowling performances in my book. Simply astounding.

    As a captain, I can’t prove this, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that he was great great leader of men who weren’t all that talented. I wonder how he would have handled the outrageously talented teams of the 1990s (by the end, even he was having keeping the entire flock together if the rumor mill was to be believed). What I mean is that this sort of captaincy “model” — the dictatorial, my-way-or-the-highway approach — works if your players are Ramiz Raja, Ijaz Ahmed, with a Miandad and hero-worshipping proteges like Wasim are thrown in. It might have proven more difficult to execute in the 1970s, with a team brimming with stars like majid, mushtaq muhammad, asif iqbal, zaheer abbas, etc.; or later on. None of this detracts from his great record as captain — he achieved more from that team in the 1980s than anyone had a right to expect — but if Pakistani cricketing excellence (especially fast bowling excellence — it is easy to forget today that prior to Imran, Pakistan was an India when it came to fast bowlers) is Imran’s legacy, so too is a certain egotistical dysfunctionality in the cricket team and structure.

  7. Aside: on the cricket I highly recommend Sujit Mukherjee’s “An Indian cricket century”, a selection of Mukherjee’s writings — includes an excellent chapter on the communal teams of the colonial era (“Hindus”, “Mohammedans”; “Parsis”; “Anglo-Indians” and the like), and on India’s deadliest ever new ball pair (Mahomed Nissar and Amar Singh Chauhan), not to mention chapters on Pakistani greats like Imran and Zaheer Abbas. It’s great fun — I’d also recommend Mukherjee’s wonderfully evocative “Autobiography of an Unknown Indian Cricketer”, for those of us who have played our cricket in schoolyards and galees, not at Eden Gardens or Lords…

  8. 1. I give slightly higher marks to Imran for his politics because the creation of Shawkat Khanam and Namal College are deeply political acts. Its not his fault that only bayan bazi and party bazi are considered politics in Pakistan. On those two accounts he is every bit as much a failure as everyone says he is.

    2. Molvi Fazlur Rehman Diesel is the head of the Jamiat-e-ulema-e-Islam and not Jamat Islami.

    3. He was for the Taliban in Sawat before he was against them. His supportive interviews are out there on YouTube. It takes a while to dig them up.

  9. Re: Farangi’s comment: not to drain all the fun here, but it’s really a particular kind of “Oriental despot” no? I mean, the rugged warrior, the (crazy?) mountain dweller with his (fucked up) tribal code, etc. That is to say, the stereotype of “the Pathan”, not generally of “the Oriental” — the latter more associated with the general unreliability and shiftiness and sheer lying (desi legspinner, watch him wile!).

    Agree with her on the “wonderfully” bit.

  10. Always wonderful to read on cricket, although, somehow, I expected a more critical appraisal of Imran as captain from an anti-authoritarian :-)

  11. How dare you call me European! My teeth are straight and in their expected order. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to return to desidwarvesinheat.biz. For research.

  12. You are just aroused because “shag” and “Oriental” are so close together, you damn European. Overwritten. HA.

  13. I call shenanigans on “the conflicted European fascination with the sexual powers of the shaggy-haired Oriental despot.” I don’t know whether to cuff you or hug you. Overwritten, even with tongue in cheek. But also wonderfully overwritten, and circulated in the hundreds of thousands, I’m sure. So: kudos, you verbose peacock.

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