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Pitched for a new innings

Vijay Lokapally | Updated on August 03, 2018 Published on August 03, 2018

Man for all seasons: The cricketer who gave Pakistan a state-of-the-art cancer hospital is now ready to guide the country’s destiny   -  REUTERS/ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA

Be it in cricket or politics, Imran Khan is always up for challenges

When Imran Khan marked his run-up, I used to launch into a silent prayer. Save India, I intoned. This was in 1978. India was touring Pakistan and we were a bunch of youngsters hooked to that historic series. We had heard and read a lot about this debonair cricketer from Pakistan. He was Oxford-educated, handsome, and more of a film star than cricketer. He bowled fast during an era where Indian cricket relied mostly on Sunil Gavaskar to show the way. True, the team had GR Viswanath, Dilip Vengsarkar and Mohinder Amarnath, but none to match Gavaskar’s tenacity as an opener tasked with the arduous responsibility of standing up to Khan. Their duel took the series to great heights and there was not a loser, really.

Khan, much respected across the cricketing world for his unnerving pace and amazing self-belief, was a hero in Pakistan. And a hero in India, too. The 1979 tour to India was marked by Khan’s popularity with the Indian masses, particularly women. Hotel lobbies would be crowded with young girls dying to catch a glimpse of him.

He continued to fascinate women even decades later. He had come down for a television assignment to Delhi during the 2011 World Cup and was put up at a hotel in Noida. There would be scores of women waiting to greet him at the ground floor restaurant during breakfast every morning. His well-crafted public appearances caused such a stir that some of the other guests took to ordering breakfast in their rooms.

Cricket has seen many great bowlers but Khan was one who put fear in the mind of his opponents with his ability to produce a wicket-taking ball out of the blue. A well-set batsman had no guarantee that he would see the day off because Khan would come roaring. Such was his propensity to cause dents in the batsman’s defence that spectators on either camp could expect a tantalising contest between Khan and the rest all through the day’s play.

For me, the visit to Sharjah in 1994 stood out for a memorable meeting with Khan. The sports editor suggested an interview with Khan, who was one of the commentators. To get two minutes with the man in Sharjah was considered an achievement. I was expected to pull it off, but was nervous when I approached him. “The Hindu. Big paper,” was his warm response when I chased him on the top floor of the stadium. He guided me to one of the private boxes in the VIP stands. “Wait for me here,” was his firm instruction. I stayed put.

An hour passed but there was no sign of Khan. I was dejected. I was dreading returning to the Press Box, where a few Pakistani journalists had discouraged me from approaching him. “Arrogant” was their one-word description of this magnificent cricketer.

I had ignored their suggestions, and I am happy I did. Khan returned to the VIP box with a crowd in tow. He brushed them away, firmly told a security man to ensure he was not disturbed, and settled down to give me an hour-long interview.

He must have noticed my discomfort as I fumbled for a pen even as I set up the dictaphone. “Relax. You will get enough time for the interview,” he said, giving me confidence. And then he put me absolutely at ease with a “you can ask me anything” assurance. For me, it turned out to be one of the most exciting conversations ever with an international cricketer, as he spoke eloquently on various aspects of the game.

I remember a more-than-gracious Khan who had kept his word to my senior colleague, KP Mohan, during the 1987 World Cup in Pakistan. Mohan was told the interview could be done at the end of the World Cup. But Pakistan crashed out of the Cup and the interview seemed to go up in flames. When Mohan reminded Khan, he asked, “Do you think it is the right time for an interview? Do you think there is any point in my giving an interview?” But Khan did give the interview to Mohan at his Zaman Park residence in Lahore. Despite the crushing semifinal defeat, he had set aside the grief and kept his word.

Another time, a bunch of journalists had huddled around Khan. We thought it was a private conversation. And then someone asked him, “Is it on record. Can we quote you?” His reply floored us all. “Imran never speaks off the record. You can quote me freely.” It not only showed the man’s confidence but also the fact that he realised journalists had a job to do. Khan always made for great copy.

He also always shared a special bond with Gavaskar. A few years ago, Gavaskar told former Pakistan captain Rameez Raja on air that he saw Khan as a future Prime Minister of his country. Raja had just mentioned how Viv Richards used to “brutalise” bowlers by hooking and pulling. “And then there was Mr Gavaskar who used to neutralise the likes of Imran Khan by just swaying away from the line of the ball. And after every 10 minutes, I used to field at short leg, Imran would say, ‘Dekho, yeh kaise khelta hain (look at how he plays)’,” he said. Gavaskar’s prophetic response to Raja was, “Be very careful, Rambo, who you mimic on television. Could be the next Prime Minister of Pakistan”.

With Khan set to become the Prime Minister, I asked his former captain Asif Iqbal, who played a stellar role in shaping his career. “This is the best thing that has happened to the country. As we all know, Imran loves challenges and (there is) no bigger challenge than rescuing Pakistan from further sliding into economic uncertainty and chaos. Like he brought glory by winning the cricket World Cup, god willing, and his strong faith in his own capabilities, I do see Imran fulfilling the promises he made and won the election on. Pakistanis will have to be patient and support him. We all want Imran to succeed as he is our last and only hope to bring peace and stability.”

The cricketer who gave Pakistan a state-of-the-art cancer hospital is now ready to guide the country’s destiny. Yes, he did snare Gavaskar first ball of the 1987 Test in Jaipur. My fears had come true that day. But Khan does not bowl any more and I need not pray in silence. He, however, remains one of the greatest characters of the game and one of the most important figures in the history of Pakistan.

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Published on August 03, 2018
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