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Tim Wigmore has published 16 articles

Pakistan's political cricketer

Cherwell looks at the cult of Imran Khan: politician and sportsman
Tim Wigmore on Saturday 23rd January 2010

When Imran Khan sits, he does so regally: this is a man who inspires awe in every room he walks into. Indubitably, he is one of the all-time greatest cricketers – rated the third best bowler ever by the ICC rankings. Cricket gave him his legendary status, of that there can be no denying. Yet could it be that his true legacy is not to a sport he served so brilliantly but to a country he loves even more dearly?

As a cricketer he captained Pakistan with distinction for a decade. This ultimate warrior-king had a presence so powerful it is scarcely believable, a product not just of his all-round cricketing brilliance but his bounding self-confidence (or outright arrogance, in the view of many). To this is added his searing intellectual abilities – a fearsome combination which helped him unify that most enigmatic of cricketing beasts, Pakistan. A nation of rich diversity, a fusion of misty industrial cities and passionate tribesman in areas of immense barrenness, this has traditionally been mirrored in their cricket side.

Throughout their cricket-playing history, they have been volatile to the point of caricature; brilliant but fickle to the point of tedious cliché. Imran – or, more accurately, The Cult of Imran – was able to transcend the petty squabbles that have characterised so much of their cricketing history. Under his transformative leadership, the ‘cornered tigers’ triumphed in the 1992 World Cup, by far their most significant cricketing achievement.

The ‘Cult of Imran’ is still at work today – but cricket, the sport that made him, can seldom have seemed so insignificant. His passion for the betterment of his country is fierce, and this is what he’s devoted his energy to more recently. Some may have expected a lecture on Pakistan’s problem; Imran responds to questions almost confrontationally. He interrogates an English-educated Pakistani; “Are you going to use this knowledge to come back and improve the lot of your own country?” To Imran, returning is a matter of duty.

And, just as he led by example on the cricket pitch, so he is doing so in trying to fix his fragmented country. In 1996, he formed his own political party, the Movement for Justice – something sorely lacking in Pakistan, where “you cannot imagine the cruelty that is going on to the common man, because there is no justice.”

Imran began studying PPE at Keble in 1972 as a 19-year-old, by which point he had, extraordinarily, already made his Test debut for Pakistan. What immediately struck him about the country was not the wealth or glamour but the way in which the poor were looked after. “When I saw what a welfare state was, that’s what I understood a humane state was.” This is in stark contrast with present-day Pakistan – “In what country do the poor people subsidise the rich?” He has attacted the interest of far too many gossip columns to name throughout his life, he has retained a desire to help those less fortunate than himself. This has primarily been through extensive charity work, and more recently through the political life that he has emhe has so immersed itself in.
As he freely acknowledges, his brilliant cricketing career allowed him to “rub shoulders with some of the jet set” – something he took great pleasure from. Yet “is the purpose of life comfort of the self?” Imran’s dream is to restore Pakistan to being the great Islamic welfare state it once was –his optimism is admirable and extraordinary considering the plight currently facing his homeland.

Khan compares present-day Pakistan to “France just before the French Revolution”. He warns of incredibly dangerous, yet incredibly exciting, times ahead, and pinpoints the next six months as being pivotal in shaping the future of the country.

What is this optimism based on? “The level of political awareness in Pakistan is unprecedented”; the people are aware of the corruption that is propping up the small ruling elite. With the people suitably engaged, “we have all the prerequisites…now all we need is an election.” A fair election, unlike that in 2007 which Imran boycotted, is essential for Pakistan’s transformation into the sort of state he dreams of. But he believes circumstances will make this inevitable within a few months.

Admittedly the task following the election will hardly be an easy one. He argues “the biggest problem is this war on terror.” Like so many, Khan has been disappointed by Barack Obama (after the stratospheric expectations, one could hardly fail to be), though he is more scathing than most in his comment on the surge in Afghanistan, going as far as labelling him “Bush +”.

Imran’s message, delivered forcefully yet with charm and charisma is unmistakeable. To all those Pakistanis currently living happily in England, “you have a responsibility to go back and help your own country”. He is himself proving as good as his word.