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Tuesday, Sep 17, 2019

The phenomenon called Imran

He was a rock star. He made the opposition shiver and women swoon. Akshay Sawai celebrates the man.

india Updated: Mar 04, 2007 01:02 IST


Imran Khan's acceptance speech after leading Pakistan to victory in the 1992 World Cup is infamous for having no mention of his teammates. But there were some good things about it.

It was an indication that Imran, South Asian cricket and the stature of the World Cup together had the steam to move mountains.

The speech focussed on the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre the Pakistan captain was building in the memory of his mother, a victim of the disease. He had started raising funds for the project in 1989.

The World Cup win galvanised the drive. In just over a month following the win, Imran collected almost two million dollars.

This was the early 90s. This was cricket, which, though popular, was not as lucrative as it is today. Two million dollars was a big amount to generate, especially for an individual. That Imran managed to do it proved what he and the game's popularity in South Asia could achieve.

Fifteen years on, the hospital is one of Pakistan's top medical centres. And Imran has thanked his teammates. He did it in 2002, at a ceremony to mark the 10th anniversary of the World Cup win.

There is no doubt, though, that Imran's lapse of courtesy and memory on the podium that March evening at the Melbourne Cricket Ground was ironic. Because in every other sense, Imran was a team person. His identity is of a leader.

There is no leader without a team. Nearly everything he did in his cricket career was with the team in mind. He once took the difficult decision of dropping cousin Majid Khan. Majid was family, Majid was childhood idol. But he was off form. He had to go.

Then, before the 1992 event, Imran asked cricket officials in Pakistan to organise an audition of local talent and picked a raw, untested Inzamam-ul-Haq. Even his cricketing designation – all-rounder – involved doing the maximum a player could for his team – contribute with bat as well as ball.

Despite reaching the semifinals in 1979 and 1983, Pakistan took time to make a lasting impression in the World Cup. The animal force of the West Indies defined the first two editions. The unexpected triumph of India's benign, smiling bunch overshadowed everything else in 1983.

But Pakistan's Sharjah chutzpah of the mid-80s and home conditions made them sizzling favourites for 1987. The other team expected to win, of course, was India. It was deemed almost certain that the two teams in the final at Eden Gardens would be India and Pakistan.

It didn't happen. England upset India in the semis in Mumbai. Australia upset Pakistan in Lahore. Australia in those days weren't what they are now, and the Pakistani players, assuming the semifinal was a formality, had already booked their tickets for Calcutta. Now they had lost.

In the dressing room, some spoke about going to Calcutta if only to watch the final. "Jisse taali bajaane jaana hain woh ja sakte hain, main nahin jaanewala (whoever wants to go to Calcutta to clap can go, I'm not going)," Imran said. No one went.

Imran did go somewhere — into retirement. But President Zia-ul-Haq coaxed him back. It was worth it. In 1992, closing in on age 40, hurting all around but still a tall, narrow-waisted emblem of fine physical architecture, he led the side to victory.

If he had declined as a bowler, he chipped in with the bat, topscoring in the final against England with 72.

The World Cup win was the red ribbon knot on the basket of memorable victories Pakistan achieved under Imran. The 70s and 80s were fecund decades which produced some of the game's extraordinary figures — Viv Richards, Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Allan Border, Ian Botham — but none of them won as much as Imran did.

He wanted to defeat India in India. He did it, despite Gavaskar's intense 96 on a serpent of a pitch in Bangalore. He wanted to beat England in England. He did it.

Under him Pakistan drew thrice with the then mighty West Indies. Then they won the Cup. It made Imran the Franz Beckenbauer of cricket — an imperious winner of every honour his game had to offer.

Heart, awe, charisma, leadership, politics, women are the themes that analyses of Imran normally contain. But he is also an interesting study in terms of sports medicine.

Imran's career could have ended in the early 80s, a whole decade before the WC triumph. His bowling action – run-up starting as early as the moment he turned to face the batsman, the final jump pronounced with the left knee raised high — demanded a heavy price.

In 1983, he suffered a stress fracture on the shin which kept him out of the game for two years. But he defeated it with rest and rehabilitation. Even at the 1992 World Cup, painkilling injections for a shoulder injury kept him going.

This showed the importance of sports science while adding one more conquest over adversity to Imran's name.

Post-cricket, Imran remains admirable in his refusal to live in the past, to soak in nostalgia. He doesn't have a single item from his cricketing life. He's given all away, mostly in auctions to generate more money for the hospital.

All that matters now is his political mission. It's been a struggle so far. As captain, he had 10 people with him.

Now it's the entire population of Pakistan. Winning them all over won't be easy. But he is fighting, working towards success. Because that he knows, failure he doesn't.

First Published: Mar 03, 2007 01:53 IST