Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Imran stepping his first foot into the arena of test cricket, at Edgbaston cricket ground in Birmingham.It was reminiscent of Amitabh Bacchan flashing on the Hindi film screen for the first time, where he hardly even looked a shadow of his later self. It would have been very hard for anyone to gauge that he would emerge as a cricketing superstar.
The current prime minster of Pakistan Imran Khan, was arguably the most charismatic and impactful cricketer of modern times. He may not have equalled the towering or staggering statistics of Sachin Tendulkar ,Jacques Kallis ,Shane Warne or Glen Mcgrath, nor exuded the genius of Wasim Akram or Brian Lara. However in my view none of them equalled Imran’s sheer grit, determination, aggression or temperament. No cricketer contributed more to shape the destiny of nation’s fortunes like Imran who reminded one of a great military marshall.Imran virtually gave Pakistani cricket a new dimension. It is hard to describe the magnitude of Imran;s intensity on a cricket field who revealed the agression of a tiger. He simply made everything around look as though revolving around him. In full flow Imran was simply a colossus, who dictated proceedings like few cricketers ever. At his best Imran virtually lit a cricketing stadium, like an inferno. In full flow Imran was an incarnate of a Muhammad Ali,radiating an energy in surreal or mythical proportions. His feats on a cricket field were truly mythical.Imran infused an almost divinic energy into Pakistan cricket by knitting a scattered bunch of talented individuals into a most coherent force, which could challenge any great team in the history of the game.
Imran pioneered what came to be known as reverse swing and was the precursor of the later magical art developed by Wasim Akram and Waqar younus.Arguably at his best he was the finest exponent of the inswinger and the fastest bowler in the world. His bouncer could also be lethal. Till his time no paceman ever bowled as well or effectively as Imran on flat pancakes of the sub-continent. As a batsman he had sound defensive technique who on his day could even go on a hitting spree.
Unlike Wasim Akram,,Viv Richards ,Sachin Tendulkar or Ian Botham Imran was not as naturally gifted. He had to work very hard on every aspect of his game and till 1976 looked an ordinary cricketer
It was at Sydney in 1976-77 that Imran flashed his brilliance for the first time when capturing 6-63 and 6-102, and enabling Pakistan to win their 1st test and draw their 1st ever rubber on Australian soil. Few combined spells ever in the history of test cricket were more impactful or took cricketing ferocity to such a magnitude. No Asian bowler displayed such electrifying speed, or such sustained agression before.
Later in 1977 in West Indies he captured 25 wickets against the best of batting line ups.Pakistan all but drew that hard fought series, with Imran at his dazzling best in Kingston and Trinidad I can’t forget ho w he even perplexed the great Viv Richards with his inswing.
In Kerry Packer supertests from 1977-78 Imran captured 25 scalps and was comparable to the likes of Dennis Lillee and Andy Roberts.Memories of his dimissing Greg Chappell still flash in my mind in the supertest final in 1978.Imran’s sheer hostility trouble the likes of Viv Richards or the Chappell brothers. In that era he was the third fastest bowler in the world.
In 1978-79 against India his 14 wickets played a major role in Pakistan’s first series win ever against India. His barrage of sixes in the mandatory too played a key role in Pakistan winning the 3rd test at Karachi.
In 1980 against West Indies at Lahore,Imran scored his 1st century. Earlier he did reveal his talents with the bat, but now proved himself as a consummate cricketer overall. He resurrected Pakistan from dire straits at 95-5 to reach a 300+ total, and save the game. We got no better glimpses here of Imran’s character as a batsman, when the ship was sinking. He also bowled with telling effect in the 4 test series overall.
In 1981-82 in Australia arguably Imran emerged as the best fast bowler in the world. At times he may have bowled almost as quickly as Jeff Thomson .Although he had no 5 wicket hauls ,he was an epitome of consistency as a fast bowler with 16 scalps at an average of under 20.Deserving he won the man of the series, as he also scored a match-winning 70 at Melbourne.
The English summer of 1982 virtually gave a new birth to Imran who was appointed as captain for the 1st time.Imran brilliantly knit a bunch of talented youngsters into a binding force, tapping their talent to the fullest. Rarely have I ever seen a cricketer lead so much from the front and take all-round crick ting skill to such a superlative height. Arguably no paceman at such a sustained pace swung a ball in so much Imran captured 21 wickets at an average of 18,53 and scored 318 runs at an average of 53.His 7-52 at Edgbaston and 5-49 at Leeds ,in nine in ten situations should have won games, which his team unfortunately lost. Bad umpiring cost Pakistan the series at Leeds where Imran scoring 75 not out and 46 and taking 5-49 and 3-66.single-handedly steered the ship like few cricketers ever.Imran led Pakistan to their 1st ever test win at Lords in that series, where his handling of spin wizard Abdul Qadir was exemplary.I can’t forget Imran blaze away on the last session of the fourth day after England looked coasting home to their target of 219 runs to win. at 189-3.Imran created the impact of a hurricane emerging on a summer day when trapping both Mike Gatting and Derek Randall and putting Pakistan back into contention. In that series Imran overshadowed the great English allrounder Ian Botham.
In 1982 he started the season with bang, being a model of consistency in taking 14 wickets in a 3 test series against Australia. However it was against India in 1982-83 that Imran took cricketing prowess or achievements to a magnitude rarely scaled. In capturing 40 wickets at 13.95 in 6 tests matches Imran took the art of blending pace with swing in metaphysical proportions. Never had I seen a pace bowler move a ball so much at such sustained speed as Imran at Karachi in the 2nd test when he blew out the Indian middle order taking 5 wickets for 3 runs. His dismissals of Gavaskar whom he dismissed breaking through his gate and Vishwanath who shouldered arms to a ball which shattered his stumps rank amongst the most classical dismissals ever in test cricket. Later he shattered the gate of both Sandeep Patil and Kapil Dev.No doubt he benefited from Mohinder Amarnath being wrongly adjudged leg before who was in top form, with Dilip Vengsarkar surviving the spell. At Hyderabad Imran virtually ressurected this effort taking 5 wickets for eight runs. Rarely in cricket have I seen spells which have ripped the flesh of a batting line up, with such degree of intensity. Nor have I seen times when the spirits possessed a bowler more. He also scored a century at Faisalabad in that series where he also took 11 wickets. His batting average was remarkable 61 in that series.
Sadly his career suffered due to a shin injury which prevented him from bowling in the 1983 world cup bad a couple of test series till 1985. Still ha remarkably averaged above 70 with the bat in the 1983 world cup with century that ressurected his team from the grave against Sril Lanka and enabled Pakistan to qualify for the semi-finals.In Australia in 1983-84 he scored a couple of fifties with exemplary skill at Melbourne and Sydney.
In 1986 in a home series against West Indies he came back to hi s best taking 18 wickets .including match-winning six wicket spell in the 1st test. Even if not at his fastest Imran displayed spill of the highest virtuosity, causing great discomfort to great batsman. Above all Pakistan drew a rubber against the best team in the world.
In 1987 on tour of India although not so effective with the ball .his batting was consistency personified, which played an important role in shaping Pakistan’s first ever test series win in India. At Bangalore but for Imran’s rearguard effort to salvage his team with the bat, Pakistan would never have achieved their glory, with a 16 run win.Imran also led India to facile 5-1 victory in the ODI series.
Imran was a revelation in the 1987 English summer where his bowling and leadership, enabled Pakistan to win their first ever series on English soil. His 10-77 at Leeds .including magic 5 wicket spell on the third day of the test defined or illustrated the art of swing bowling at its highest scale. Even if at fast -medium Imran perfectly exploited the seaming conditions. His -6-129 later at Edgbaston was praiseworthy and his 118 at the Oval. Above all I never saw a skipper since Ian Chappell in 1971 lead team so astutely as Imran here, who marshalled his resources like a military commander.Imran captured 21 wickets at average of around 20 and averaged over 50 as a batsman which was remarkable.
In the 1987 Reliance world cup he bowled as well as ever taking 17 scalps at a most economical average ,but sadly pressure took its toll on Pakistan in the semi-final.Neverthless Imran made a fighting 58,which all but won a game for his team who were earlier trapped in dire straits.
After announcing his retirement Imran heroically came back in the 1988 series in West Indies, which was billed the unofficial world test championship .Ironically, he bowled better than he ever did in his career taking 23 wickets. At Georgetown he captured 7-80 and 4 wickets in the 2nd innings which won the test for Pakistan. In Trinidad in the 2nd test he captured 9 wickets, which all but won the match for his side. I can’t forget how explosive he was in the 2nd innings, when negating of an lbw shout of Viv Richards robbed Pakistan of a win. In the final test at Barbados bad umpiring robbed Pakistan of the glory of becoming the 1st team to beat West Indies in West Indies since Australia in 1972-73 ,and the unofficial world test championship.Imran got the best out of Javed Miandad,Abdul Qadir and Wasim Akram to bring Pakistan within the skin of the teeth of their first series victory in West Indies.. Never have I seen a pace bowler at such an age or cricketer, taking competitively to such a scale or galvanise energy in such proportions.
After 1988 Imran was never at his best with the ball but became a world class batsman. Till 1992 from 1988 he averaged above 60 with the bat, including a 136 at Adelaide in 1989-90 and match-saving fifties in New Zealand in 1989 and at home against West Indies in 1990.Although not so dazzling or dynamic,Imran exhibited high technical skill,and was ever consistent. His batting played an important part in Pakistan winning the Nehru Cup ODI tournament in 1989 in India. Few batsman displayed as much concentration or application of Imran then.
In the 1992 world cup it was Imran who ressurected Pakistan from the grave to reach the pinnacle of glory.Imran’s phenomenal consistency with the bat, including a 72 in the final played an instrumental part. I don’t have a word to describe how Imran galvanised his troops who were a battered army in the first part of the tournament. It was the mental tenacity and resiliency of Imran that created the sensation of a 360 degree turn of plot in a Hollywood epic. Without Imran’s tutelage Inzamam Ul Haq could never have scored his dazzling,match-winning 60 in the semi-final. I doubt anyone could have ever infuse a spirit in team as Imran did in his players.
Imran retired in 1992 taking 362 wickets in 88 tests at an average of 22.81 and scoring 3807 run s at an average of 37.69 .In ODI’s he had 182 scalps at an average of 26.61 and scored 3709 runs at an average of 33.41.His test bowling strike rate was 53.6.In test matches won he averaged less than 14 runs with the ball.
Amongst great all-rounders I would never place Imran as the equal of the great Sir Garfield Sobers, but still a strong contender for runner up spot. Without hesitation Sobers for me would still be the greatest ever, if you asess diversity, genius and contribution.
With a gun on my head as a pure all-rounder I would give Imran the joint runner up berth with Ian Botham,when raking the greatest allrounders ever in order of merit. Jacques Kallis and Keith Miller would come a whisker behind. Kallis has the greatest statistics scoring over 13,000 runs and taking almost 300 scalps, but would not win or turn matches in the manner of Botham ,Imran or even Miller. Keith Miller was more outstanding in terms of consistency with both ball and bat ,but did not play cricket at such a scale as those after the 1970’s.What marginally went against Imran was that he was not at his best ,unlike Sobers ,Miller and Botham, with both bat and ball and in peak era was mainly fast bowler. The likes of Botham, Miller and Kapil Dev were more flamboyant with the bat.
To me from 1981-1987 Imran was the best all-rounder in the world. No all-rounder equalled the contribution of Imran as a skipper ever. In his era Imran competed with the likes of Kapil Dev, Ian Botham and Richard Hadlee. On 2 occasions he won his battle with rival Ian Botham, in 1982 and 1987.
In my view for the title of the best all-rounder after Gary Sobers it was a virtual dead heat between Botham and Imran .Ian Botham captured 383 wickets and scored 5200 runs at an average of 33.54, with 14 centuries. In his peak from 1977-82 Ian Botham was the best, if you asess the 1980 Jubilee test and 1981 Ashes. Botham captured 5 wickets and scored a century in a test match on 5 occassions,which no cricketer ever did. No cricketer also so single-handedly ressurected a team from the grave like Botham in the 1981 Ashes when scoring an unbeaten 149 or taking five wickets for one run. With both bat and ball at his best in games and series Botham overshadowed Imran.However it was Imran who was the greater model of consistency. Imran was the better fast bowler, although I rate Botham the slightly better batsman, being more flamboyant and a better fielder. Botham was more explosive with the bat but Imran more responsible. As a skipper Imran was vastly superior.Imran also was the best pace bowling performer against West Indies, against whom Botham was hardly very effective. Still in that era amongst the all-rounders I would rank Richard Hadlee as the best bowler ,who had 432 scalps in mere 86 tests at an average of 22.29.Overall as a cricketer Imran would win my vote over Botham,because of captaincy. Noteworthy that in his time Imran bowled better against the strong West Indies team than any bowler. Possibly being fast bowling all-rounder Imran was a more suitable choice to accompany the great Gary Sobers in an all-time XI,but it is all subjective.
I would rate Imran Khan the best captain of his time, who motivated his players better than any skipper. He was not as astute a tactician as Mike Brearley or Ian Chappell as he displayed in the 1982 test at Edgbaston and the 1987 test at Oval, where he could not enable Pakistan to deliver the final knockout punch.Neverthless he galvanised a bunch of scattered individuals into a world champion team. Under Imran from 1987-1991 Pakistan were arguably one of test cricket’s most formidable team sever .Imran also led Pakistan to winning their first world cup in 1992 ,in addition to an Australasia cup in 1986 and a Nehru cup win in India in 1989.What eluded Imran was a test series win in Australia as morally Pakistan were the winners in 1988 in West Indies., when dubious umpiring robbed them of glory.
Purely as a fast bowler statistically Imran Khan was arguably the best ever in peak era from 1981-87 with an average of around 17 runs and strike rate of around 38 balls per wicket. Overall amongst all-time great fast bowlers in light of pure figures in test cricket Imran would rank only behind Richard Hadlee, Malcolm Marshall,Glen Mcgrath,Curtly Ambrose ,Dennis Lillee and Dale Steyn.Weighing all factors in my view Imran would rank around eight place amongst the best fast bowlers ever. By a whisker I would rate Wasim Akram ahead of Imran as a fast bowler, taking into account ODI performances.Imran had a better test record, but Wasim had more all-round skill, with the ability of moving the ball in and out. I must mention that against the best team ever, West Indies, Imran had the best record amongst pacemen of his day. What prevented Imran from joining the top 5 06 pace bowler of all time was his comparative strike rate which was 53.6 .It is purely hypothetitical whether Imran would have had a more impressive record had he not missed out due to injury g from 1983-83.
Personally I would rank Imran at eighth place overall amongst cricketers of all time. Only WG Grace, Gary Sobers, Jack Hobbs, Sachin Tendulkar, Don Bradman, Shane Warne and Viv Richards ranked ahead of Imran in my view. Late Cristopher Martin Jenkins placed Imran at 13th place amongst all-time great cricketers. David Gower paced Imran at 11th place in his book of 50 greatest cricketers.Australian cricket historian Geoff Armstrong placed Imran at fifth position, ahead of even Jack Hobbs,Viv Richards, SachinTendulkar ,Brian Lara or Malcolm Marshall. In my view Tendulkar’s longevity, Viv Richards intimidatory impact ,and Shane Warne’s magical match-winning wizardly gave them the edge over Imran by a whisker.
By a whisker Imran would miss out on my all-time test World XI. By a whisker I would prefer Wasim Akram, Richard Hadlee or Glen Mcgrath in my 1st XI. Amongst former cricketers Richie Benaud,Bob Willis ,Merv Hughes Malcolm Marshall, Ravi Shastri, Dilip Vengsarkar, Syed Kirmani,Kapil Dev chose Imran Khan in their all-time test XI.Wisden placed him their 2nd all-time team and not in the 1st XI,preferring stalwarts like Marshall, Lillee and Wasim.For most of the ex-Pakistan players Imran was an absolutely unanimous choice, apart from the legendary Zaheeer Abbas who chose Hadlee,Lillee and Wasim. Overall 21 former. Cricketers chose Imran in their all-time XI.Notable that the majority were Asian .Only 3 non Asian cricketers selected Imran.
Imran rated Viv Richards as the best batsman he ever bowled to, followed by Sunil Gavaskar and Ian Chappell.He rates Michael Holding and Wasim Akram as his best ever fast bowlers. and Ian Chappell as his best ever skipper.
No doubt Imran was amongst cricket’s most intelligent and cultured personalities. I admire him for supporting neutral umpires. He had trait of being very frank and fortright.However I would be critical of his denigrating of India in junctures or taking away credit from wins like 1986 test series in England.Imran stated that India beat a weak Indian team in 1986 under Kapil Dev, while Pakistan beat a champion one in 1987.To me he also did not give Sachin Tendulkar his due credit, classing Pakistani player InzamamUl Haq as more talented and better player of pace and being critical of Sachin for not being a genuine match-winner. Even as a commentator in the 1996 world cup he reflected a strong anti-Indian slant in the Indo-Pak game at Bangalore. In my view Imran also did not give enough credit to Kapil Dev,who single-handedly carried the brunt of the Indian bowling attack. When playing against England in 1982 he openly spoke about the price of Kashmir being paid .At one stage Imran confessed on using a cork top to swing a cricket ball and considered nothing wrong in tampering with a cricket ball. It set the tone of the later ball tampering. in the 1990’s by likes of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younus.However it is likely that many engaged in it before it was discovered in the 1970’s .
After his cricketing career Imran jumped into politics and similar to his cricket career from dire straits captured the throne of the prime minister. He was progressive in being harshly critical of the regimes over spending on the military and doing scant justice to fields like agriculture, literacy or housing. I admire him for most boldly raising his powerful voice against the isolation and attacks on minorities in India by the Modi led govt, scrapping of article 370 and 35a,introduction of NRC and NPR and in no uncertain terms condemning the Hindu fascist phenomena .However I am critical of Imran endorsing the policies of a military dictatorship completely and not spoken a word against Chinese territorial agression in Phillipines.Imran also formed friendship with the Saudi dictators and hardly gave moral support to resisting the fascist agression of Israel over the Palestenians.I wish in junctures Imran could have spoken out more against Islamic fundamentalism. Although an icon of the game, unfortunately he was glorified as a sex symbol, particularly in India. I know of many a friend who would eulogise or glorify Imran,but still whip up the strongest anti-Muslim or anti-Pakistani hysteria. and support Narendra Modi.I would not categorise Imran as a mascot of the liberal or anti-imperialist section.
Whatever his drawbacks Imran was without doubt one of the most remarkable personalities stepping on our globe, which virtually created a magnetic effect. He was charitable in building cancer hospital in memory of his mother. There was hardly an adjective which could do complete justice to Imran’s sheer presence on or off the cricket field. His personality reminded me of our very Amitabh Bacchan.
Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist.Toured India,particularly Punjab .Written on Mass movements ,,Massline,Maoism on blogs like Democracy and Class Struggle and frontierweekly .An avid cricket lover too who has posted writings on blogs like Pakpassion Indian Cricket Fans and Sulekha.com