Watching the dismal images of a SWAT team bundling the ex-prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, into an armoured vehicle – allegedly ‘under arrest – I doubt there is a single member of the wider cricket fraternity who is not dismayed at what has transpired. The domestic politics of that country are tribal, vicious and opaque, and Imran must have known what a snake pit he was probing when he decided to run for office. Whilst he was at Oxford, he had a brief fling with Benazir Bhutto, who was a contemporary of his as an undergraduate.She became Pakistan’s prime minister in 1988, the first liberal, secularist woman to be so elected in a Muslim democracy. She had been steeped in politics since birth and had been president of the Oxford Union. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, also an alumnus of Oxford University, had served variously as president and prime minister of Pakistan but was ousted by a military coup, arrested, tried and executed in 1979. Benazir herself was assassinated in 1996. So, politics in Pakistan is not for the faint-hearted.
Sharing a distrust of the military with the Bhuttos – with good reason – Imran, it seems, had been openly critical of the Army and its leading figures, and speculation is rife that this opposition is central to his arrest. If that is the case, one fears for his future. But I do not intend to dip my toe into Pakistan domestic politics; I wish only to chronicle my - admittedly occasional - association with him.
I first encountered him on an England Schoolboys tour of Pakistan in 1969. We were playing in Lahore and Imran was in the Pakistan team. He was young, even for a schoolboy team, 15 or 16, as I recall, though we had become mightily suspicious of the alleged ages of our opponents when we noticed grey flecks in their wicket-keeper’s beard (seriously!). Imran didn’t bowl but looked on fleeting evidence to be a half-decent bat (I can’t believe I am writing this about one of the greatest all-rounders in the history of the game). I don’t remember talking to Imran during or after the match. There was an obvious hierarchy in their team, and he was far down the pecking order. I got to know Wasim Raja well, who later had a successful Test career, though I’m guessing our friendship owed largely to the fact that he was one of the few who spoke English fluently.
Imran was always destined for an education in England. He very nearly came to Malvern College. He had been signed up and a place allocated in one of the boarding houses but at the eleventh hour, it was decided that a closer eye could be kept on him by his guardians if he attended a day school rather than exposing him to the amoral and licentious culture of an English public school (heaven forbid!). Instead, he went to nearby Royal Grammar School in Worcester. From there he went to Oxford, by now having thrown off the shackles of interfering guardians, where he cut a romantic swathe through the undergraduate body. Oh yes, he played a bit of cricket too. Of course, Worcestershire signed him up, where he learnt to bowl fast, really fast, with that devilish late in-swing, as well as polishing his cultured batsmanship. But he got bored. “Tell me,” he complained to his team-mates, “What is there to do in Worcester?” Actually, I felt that was a little unfair on that historic cathedral city. We always enjoyed playing at Worcester.
Inevitably, he decamped to the South Coast and joined Sussex. There is admittedly much to do in Brighton and the fleshpots of London were but an accessible car journey away. Furthermore, Hove has a discernible slope towards the sea, down which Imran could gallop before coiling himself into that great leap before delivery and terrorising county batsmen with balls that would fly head high to the wicket-keeperstanding so far back that he might just as well be mingling with the sunbathers on the beach.
The next time I met Imran was not, thankfully, from 22 yards distance but actually much closer. Sussex and Hampshire were playing in the Scarborough Festival. I forget the year. In the evening, we were in search of a decent restaurant when we saw the Sussex lads enjoying a drink on a pub patio. Imran was with them; I recognised him instantly. He had, as women frequently observed, drop-dead good looks and I can assure you he was even more handsome in the flesh than in photos. He looked up, fixed me with a stare and called me over. “I don’t know whether you remember me,” he said, “but I played against you in Lahore.” I feigned ignorance of this encounter…but only for five seconds and he had the good grace to laugh at my feeble attempt at humour. We chatted for about five minutes or so and he couldn’t have been more friendly. He had a reputation of being a little arrogant, haughty and aloof, probably exacerbated by his much-imitated patrician tones, but the Sussex boys got on with him extremely well and said that his imperious manner covered up an essentially shy and modest character. But they were his team-mates; I doubt opposing batsmen would have shared that view. But take as you find has always been my maxim. He had no need to seek me out and if truth be told, my face was far less recognisable than his. And no, he did not divulge the secrets of reverse swing – at which he was a master. Our desultory chat centred more upon the Yorkshire womenfolk, of whom there were a few in that bar casting him unchaste looks. For make no mistake – in spite of his later assertions to the contrary to bolster his credentials as a good Muslim and a putative political leader – Imran was a ladies’ man. As my team-mate, Mike Taylor pointed out, “It would be a waste of God-given looks if he wasn’t!”
Most of us, team-mates and opponents alike, were astonished at his adoption of Muslim garb in the place of flared jeans and shirt unbuttoned down his chest but secretly I imagine all of us are in awe of his principles and his bravery in seeking, and gaining, political influence. I’m assuming he is not corrupt – but you never know on the sub-continent – for he did marry Jemima Goldsmith, so was never short of a rupee or two. And he did spend all his cricket wages building a new hospital in his mother’s memory.
We looked on with horror when the stage from which he was giving a speech collapsed under him and feared for his life last year when he was shot in the leg in an assassination attempt and now, he is in the hands of the military junta, a situation which rarely ends well. Still, he elected to bat on the minefield that is Pakistani politics. Let us hope his technique – nobody doubts his courage – is equal to the endeavour.