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’.