The excited commentator hollered out, “Imran has struck again…Vengsarkar…” A few minutes later, he said the same thing...almost, except for the fact that the batsman's name was different: “Imran has struck again…Gavaskar…” Now, the commentator was clearly running out of words to describe the way the bowler was running through the much-vaunted Indian batting lineup. The scene was Sharjah in March 1985. The bowler was Imran Khan, one of my great inspirations. Pakistan had just been comprehensively defeated in the final of the 1985 World Championship of Cricket at Melbourne a few weeks prior to that. Still seething from the defeats in Australia, Imran Khan ran in like a man possessed to return sterling figures of 10-2-14-6 (Pakistan still managed to lose by 38 runs!). That was not the first time Imran conquered high quality opposition. That was certainly not the last time either.
Imran Khan was gifted. Naturally gifted. But the thing about Imran that impressed me the most was how he kept setting himself tall goals against the best of teams and how he sought to- through a tremendous work ethic and application- keep improving himself. For instance, bowling fast came naturally to him. But bowling reverse swing was something that he learned from fellow pacer Sarfraz Nawaz and used it to deadly effect. Hitting towering sixes came naturally to him. But batting in a technically perfect manner and dropping anchor when required were things that he developed over time.
Imran, the Uber Talented Cricketer
Imran Khan’s career can be neatly divided into two parts. Pre-shin fracture and post-shin fracture. Prior to the shin fracture, Imran was a terrifyingly quick bowler who could also bat. As a captain, he was in the Kapil Dev mode of leading from the front through fine all-round displays but being distinctly uncomfortable when it came to motivating or helping his team members to fully realize their potential. In the 1982-83 series against India, he took 40 wickets at an average of 13. But his shin fracture meant that he could not bowl for the next two years. The early 30s are considered the maturing years of a cricketer. Between ages of 30 and 32, Imran could hardly bowl. But he came back with a vengeance and how! He led Pakistan to series wins in India and England in 1987 and while he shone with the bat against India, his magnificent spell won Pakistan the series at Headingley. Even as his bowling declined in the late eighties, he improved his batting tremendously and contributed one way or another. He would later lead Pakistan to victory in the Nehru Cup in 1989 and finally, the memorable 1992 World Cup. More on that in a bit…
The sides of Imran that I don’t admire
Before I talk about how Imran has inspired me, let me first state that Imran had certain qualities that I did NOT admire. I state this because I think it is imperative that we sift out what we perceive as undesirable traits from leaders like Imran while taking the good stuff. I did not like the fact that he was ruthless as a captain. He would back his favorites like Abdul Qadir and Wasim Akram to the hilt but could be unreasonably obstinate and quickly dismissive of others whom he perceived as mediocre. While others may think of this ruthlessness as necessary to lead a disparate group of individuals, I believe in Susan Cain’s (author of the wonderful book, “Quiet”) concept of Asian soft power where you win people over and not beat them up. I also did not appreciate Imran’s “victory at any cost” attitude which was evident in the way he tampered with the ball (and later admitted to it in his autobiography!) to achieve reverse swing.
Imran, the Leader Nonpareil
There are three traits of Imran that I admire a lot –his self-belief, steely resolve in the face of adversity and the way he mentored his proteges. You had to take one look at his body language to know that he was completely sure of himself. He had absolutely no room for self-doubt, no time for people who had any doubts about themselves and no care for people who doubted him or his team! If that kind of confidence is infectious for an admirer like me, I can only imagine what an inspirational effect that it had on his team and what a chill it would have sent down the spine of his opposition. As a person who aspires to be a successful leader in the future, I have looked up to Imran for being completely sure of your abilities and not project even an iota of circumspection. Of course, there is a thin line between confidence and cockiness and I want to be keenly aware of that difference. But Imran’s confidence, which sometimes veered in the direction of cockiness, was something that you could not miss.
His self-belief also meant that as a leader he rarely believed that a game or a series was lost until it was actually lost. This was most evident in Pakistan’s proudest cricketing achievement – the 1992 World Cup victory. Mid-way through the tourney, you would have given Pakistan absolutely no chance. They had gotten only 3 points from 5 games and had to not only win the remaining three games but also had to have a couple of other games go a certain way. As Randy Pausch said it eloquently, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” Sure, Pakistan had a fair share of luck, especially when West Indies lost their must-win game against Australia when chasing a manageable 216. But again, the “preparation” part of that quote was something that was entirely in Pakistan’s hands. They won against New Zealand in the last game which was no mean feat for NZ had come into the game after 7 consecutive wins. Imran, through his now famous “fight like cornered tigers” speech to his team, inspired his team when one would have thought that the return trip to Pakistan is what they would have had on their minds. Imran’s two pupils Inzamam ul Haq and Wasim Akram made telling contributions in the semi-final and final respectively to take Pakistan to their only (as of 2012) World Cup victory till date. In the final, when Allan Lamb and Neil Fairbrother had put on a superb 72-run partnership, Imran threw the ball to Wasim knowing that the latter could work reverse swinging magic with the old ball and what happened later is history. Wasim broke the back of England’s middle order by bowling Lamb and Chris Lewis off consecutive deliveries. Pakistan’s victory after that was just a formality.
As I mentioned in an earlier section, once he believed in someone’s ability, he would go to any lengths to back them. Qadir, Wasim, Waqar Younis and Mushtaq Ahmed all benefited from Imran’s backing and timely tips. I read that Imran once advised Qadir to sport a French beard to add to his aura and mystique as a mystery leg spinner before a tour of England! And, Wasim and Waqar have always waxed eloquent on how Imran – past his prime as a bowler – essentially helped them outthink the batsmen. So, even when he couldn’t bowl, Imran the captain would put on his bowler’s hat and guide his talented young bowlers who would follow his advice and see immediate results. Now that was a thinking captain!
So, there you have it- Imran was one who polarized opinion not always without reason. You could like him or hate him but there was no way you could ignore the fact that as a person and as a leader, he possessed and instilled a sense of belief that victory, despite any adversity, was always something to be chased, not just desired.
PS: As an aside, one of the encomiums that have been laid at the feet of Imran is the fact that under Imran’s leadership, Pakistan drew 3 consecutive series against the West Indies. While it is factually correct, what is seldom mentioned is that West Indies of the late 80s under Viv Richards - when Pakistan played and drew these series - was weaker than the West Indian juggernaut of the 70s and 80s led by Clive Lloyd (Lloyd, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Michael Holding had all retired by then).