Our black four-wheel-drive Toyota accelerates uphill, weaving past potholes and buffalo, en route to the hilltop home of Imran Khan. Hours earlier, aboard a Pakistani air force helicopter, I toured for two hours the areas north of Islamabad devastated by the worst floods for nearly a century. So, I ask myself, which is the riskier journalistic venture: flying in a Russian-built M1-171 over a terror-stricken, nuclear-armed country often described as the most dangerous on earth, or squaring up to the bowling of Imran, one of the finest cricketers of his generation?
Fixing a time and location for our sporting encounter has proved a challenge. Imran is a professional politician these days, the founder and head of the opposition Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Movement for Justice. He is also a prodigious philanthropist. Inside two-and-a-half weeks, he raised Rs2.5bn to help the flood victims; now he is in the middle of a $20m annual fund-raising exercise for the cancer hospital he set up in his native Lahore in 1994 in memory of his mother, a victim of colon cancer. He is also expanding Namal college in the rural north, built in association with the University of Bradford, where he is chancellor. Plainly, there is not much spare time for anything, let alone cricket with the FT.
“I almost didn’t make it,” says the great all-rounder and six-hitter, by way of confirmation. Like many of his countrymen, Imran is enraged by the stand-off between president Ali Asif Zardari and the judiciary, which is challenging the president’s right to immunity against long-standing but unproven corruption charges. Imran has an ill-disguised contempt for Zardari, the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. “We were ready to go out on the street at any time,” he says, with a booming laugh.
“We were ready to go this morning.”
Imran talks rapidly, just like he used to bowl. I first saw him play in The Parks in Oxford in the summer of 1975. Two things stick in my mind: Imran’s wonderfully high action, which allowed him to generate far more pace and bounce than most mortals; and the fact that the Varsity side, which Imran captained, was playing Somerset, an exciting county team which included Viv Richards, the swashbuckling West Indian batsman, and a promising young fellow all-rounder by the name of Ian Botham.
It is time to break the news: Imran and I were contemporaries at Oxford but we never met at the crease (thankfully – Ed). “Really?”’ exclaims the maestro. “What years? And which college?”
Imran has obviously become accustomed to every Tom, Dick and Harriet claiming to have been at Oxford with him in the 1970s. But he appears satisfied by my own credentials (St Edmund Hall 1974-78). I ask Imran what he makes of the recent betting scandal involving the Pakistani national cricket team.
“It’s more prevalent than you think. It could be going on everywhere.”
Imran remembers how, toward the end of his 10-year reign as Pakistan’s cricket captain, he was woken in the middle of the night by an anonymous caller claiming that four members of Imran’s team had been bribed to throw the game. Imran summoned his side the following morning: “I told them I knew how well each of them could play and if anyone did not perform I wouldn’t just have them banned, I would personally ensure they went straight to jail.”
Yet the man who greets me in his airy and stylish home is in excellent physical shape. He is tall, sinewy and, at 57, still strikingly handsome. The mop of ebony black hair shows no sign of fading, let alone receding. He is wearing a white shalwar and cream kameez and brown Peshawari chapal (sandals). By contrast, I have brought a new cricket bat, new pads and new batting gloves, courtesy of Farhan Bokhari, the FT’s long-time Islamabad correspondent. And I have lugged my quasi-antique protective box (Dulwich College 1st XI 1971-72-73) all the way from London. Is Imran Khan taking me seriously?
Imran retired from cricket in 1992, aged 39. In fact, he tried to stop earlier but the fearsome dictator General Zia-ul-Haq literally bounced him out of retirement, insisting he carry on playing to serve the national interest. Imran calculated a few more years of celebrity would help him raise money for his cancer hospital, so he went along.
Since retirement he has only played twice, both times alongside his two young sons against their cousins, on Ham common, near Richmond, London, after the titanic Ashes series of 2005, which England won. Imran says that he no longer plays or watches, though his boys are passionate. Enough of the excuses, I say.
It’s time to play cricket!
We stride out into a magnificent garden overlooking Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Having inspected the makeshift wicket, I mutter about uneven bounce and speculate, in my favourite Richie Benaud accent, that there could well be some turn for the bowler. Finally, after a semi-professional roll of the shoulders and twirl of the bat, I prepare to take strike.
Imran’s first delivery is a slow loosener. I move forward to the pitch of the ball and skew it 15m into the would-be covers near the house. Mental note: move feet more adeptly. Imran’s next delivery is slightly faster. I play a forward defensive stroke with the bat slightly angled to leg; Imran says he is impressed and asks me what grade cricket I played at Oxford. A couple of games for The Tics (The Authentics; Oxford University second and third team) I reply proudly.
The next ball catches me slightly unawares and I fall into the old bad habit of tipping over to the leg side, a technical flaw never ironed out at school. Quietly cursing, I compose myself for the next ball, an off-cutter which grips the grass and darts into me, catching the left glove but not so viciously as to offer a chance to a would-be short square leg. Imran’s dog, a female shepherd called Sherni (Lioness), barks approvingly at her master’s cunning delivery.
I decide it is time to take the offensive. Imran is barely bothering to bowl with a run-up and although his action is still admirably high, the pace is more than accommodating. For some reason, he is also complaining about the weight of the white ball. His shirt is carrying a small island of sweat. The next delivery is full length and I hit it with a straight bat, but without quite timing the shot.
Imran compliments me on my drive and bowls the last ball of the over, another full-length delivery. And this time I do everything right: the feet move quickly, the bat-lift is high and the follow-through is confident. Ball meets bat and races past Imran 50m or so to the edge of the garden and on down the hill into the underbrush.
Imran is momentarily surprised but immediately gracious. “Good shot, but we will not find the ball now.”
I had imagined floating a few Freddie Titmus-style off-spinners to the Great Man but I rapidly sense this is the time to retire to the pavilion. And so we march in together, honours even. Imran signs the bat and then reverts to politics, talking eloquently and passionately about Pakistan, Afghanistan and the counterproductive American military presence. As I take notes, I look briefly around the room: three tribal swords from Waziristan on the wall, two beautiful carpets hanging to the left and right – but not a cricket trophy in sight.
“I auctioned them all for the cancer hospital,” explains Imran. He never realised his own sons would share his passion for the game. As we bid farewell, I sense that I have been in the presence of not merely a (great) player but also a gentleman. The product of a bygone age, not just in cricket but also in politics.
Lionel Barber is editor of the FT
Five career highlights of the ‘lion’ of Pakistan
1971 First selected for Pakistan, aged 18
1976/77 In Sydney, during the Third Test against Australia, Khan takes 12 wickets; his Test career takes off
1982 Makes his debut as Pakistan captain
1986 Leads Pakistan to win the Test series in India; followed in 1987 by victory against England
1992 Pakistan, under Khan’s captaincy, win the cricket World Cup