Imran Khan faces severe test in second innings
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Imran Khan faces severe test in second innings

From India’s point of view, whether he sees ‘sportsmanship’ or ‘gamesmanship’ as the basis for relations between the two countries is the looming question.

mumbai Updated: Jul 27, 2018 01:19 IST
Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon
Hindustan Times
mumbai,pakistan,cricket
Over the past two decades observers have found his politics difficult to fathom. (HT file photo)

Social media can be the devil’s playground, but also a boon. Providing instant answers to vexing questions is one of its amazing benefits. When Imran Khan became prime-minister-in-waiting in the Pakistan elections, I asked on Twitter whether he would be the first international sportsperson to reach this status (or equivalent) and my timeline was swiftly flooded with responses. The most reliable was Mumbai-based statistician Mohandas Menon (@mohanstatsman) whose expertise is not restricted to cricket as is widely believed for he seems to know everything about everything, and could give Google a complex. Mohan revealed that footballer George Weah played for Liberia between 1987 and 2007 (scoring 22 goals) before going on to become his country’s President.

Journalist Tunku Vardarajan (@tunkuv) chimed in from the US that England’s C B Fry – a great player from the Golden Age – had been offered the throne of Albania when working as assistant to his contemporary K S Ranjitinshji at the League Of Nations in 1920. Yet, Fry never ascended the throne. And as Mohan followed up in a separate tweet, the veracity of the offer made to Fry has been seriously questioned by historians.

Perhaps it was just some fun and games between him and Ranjitsinhji! For the record, four first-class cricketers have become Prime Ministers, as another journalist Ricky Eyre (@rickyeyrecricket) informs: 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 Nawaz Sharif (Pak PM 1990-93, 97-99, 2013-17).

But no international cricketer has achieved the political stature Imran Khan has got now. A remarkable achievement considering he was never involved in political activism in his playing days, and started his party only 22 years back, in 1996 after retiring from the game.

As a cricketer, he had been brilliant. The playboy image he carried from his young days tended to overwhelm everything else, but in his pomp, Imran was the world’s best fast bowler, best all-rounder, best captain, the game’s top draw. After Pakistan, he was perhaps most popular in India, developing a special affinity for Mumbai in the 1970s and 80s when bilateral cricket relation between the two countries was still alive. He had several friends from films, business, cricket here which made for quite a few informal visits. Around 15 years ago, I interviewed him at an industrialist’s house at Walkeswhar where he spoke about his political ambitions, and at greater length about Mumbai, its energy, its cosmopolitan ethos. Comparison with any city in Pakistan was unsaid, yet implicit.

On the cricket field, however, this never reduced his intensity to get the better of India. His battles with Sunil Gavaskar are legendary. And who can forget him disdainfully looking the other way when 16-year-old Sachin Tendulkar was hit in the face by Waqar Younis at Sialkot in 1989?

Imran’s most interesting cricketing connect with Mumbai, though, does not come through a player, but umpire Piloo Reporter, who was called to Pakistan (along with umpire V K Ramaswamy) to officiate as ‘neutrals’ in a daunting series against West Indies, then world no.1. Imran didn’t want Pakistan’s victory to be sullied by allegations of cheating against the home umpires, and chose to call two Indians to everybody’s surprise, including Reporter. A year later, he got two English umpires to officiate in the home series against India, which nonplussed the cricket world even more.

“There is so much vested in India-Pakistan cricket, but ruined by mistrust of umpires,” he said before the series. He had taken a gamble. Pakistan had never lost to India at home earlier. The series was drawn, but neutral umpires, for which Imran had lobbied aggressively, soon became the norm.

The deep ambition, self-belief, tenacity, and risk-taking capacity, which highlighted his cricketing success, have obviously helped Imran reach this stage in politics too. But how the future unfolds when he becomes Prime Minister is the crucial question. While his cricketing credentials are impeccable, over the past two decades observers have found his politics difficult to fathom.

At various times he’s been called a neo-liberal, centrist, pacifist, nationalist, hawkish and lately even ‘Taliban Khan’. Whatever the merits or otherwise of these labels, leading a country– especially as complex as Pakistan – will be vastly different from captaining a cricket team. In his second innings (if he assumes power), Imran faces his stiffest test yet with the eyes of the entire world on him.

From India’s point of view, whether he sees ‘sportsmanship’ or ‘gamesmanship’ as the basis for relations between the two countries is the looming question.

First Published: Jul 27, 2018 01:19 IST