Imran Khan – Made in EnglandMartin Chandler |
In light of what happened as his life and career developed it is perhaps surprising that Imran Khan did not immediately take to cricket, but certainly in his early childhood it was a long way from the top of his list of priorities. One suspects it was probably his father’s influence. Imran was the only son amongst five children and, a gifted engineer with no great interest in or understanding of the game of cricket, it is only to be expected that Ikramullah Khan would not have sought to steer Imran towards what was to prove his ultimate destiny.
In any event Ikramullah doubtless felt that were the young man to need any introduction to the sport of choice for his wife’s family, that they were in by far the better position to provide it, given that the majority of the family all lived and played the game on the same priviliged housing development in Lahore, at Zaman Park. A whole raft of them played First Class cricket and two of Imran’s cousins, Javed Burki and Majid Khan, were fine batsmen who enjoyed lengthy Test careers.
Reading the earlier of his two autobiographies suggests that Imran was anything but a pleasant youngster. He seems to have been petulant, arrogant and a very bad loser, something at which he had plenty of practice where cricket was concerned. The enduring problem he had however was that all of his friends and family were captivated by the game, so he couldn’t avoid playing cricket. Eventually being a strong and athletic youth, coupled with having an eye for a ball, he was able to derive some limited pleasure from batting. So when he went up to prep school in his first innings there he had a quick slog and struck two or three boundaries and was happy enough with his work. It was that day when things changed though, as his teacher told him he wouldn’t be playing again unless he took on board the basic tenets of batting – with that gentle admonishment the game finally worked its way under Imran’s skin and into his psyche.
The young Imran was a batsman, comfortably the best in his school, Aitchison College, one of the most prestigious in Pakistan. In those days young Pakistanis modelled themselves on the country’s early batting masters, men such as the Mohammad brothers, Hanif and Mushtaq, as well as Javed and Majid. The youngsters were in no hurry to model themselves on their nation’s bowlers, the medium pace of Asif Iqbal and Niaz Ahmed proving less than inspirational. There was one quality opening bowler, Salim Altaf, but his fitness record was not good and he wasn’t quite fast enough to fire the imagination of his country’s impressionable youth.
Like all batsmen Imran would turn his arm over in the nets, but not always, and even when he did without generally bending his back. On the odd occasion he would also have a few overs in the middle, and he did then tend to try and bowl as fast as he could, although he concedes that was usually a source of greater concern for his fielders than for the batsmen. He first bowled seriously at a trial in 1968 that was held to select a Pakistan Under 19 XI to play their English counterparts. It was only after making a mess of his chance to shine with the bat that Imran decided that he had better try and impress the selectors with his bowling that that aspect of his game was “spotted”. Imran gained selection as a bowler although the whole experience was a sobering one for him, as he realised that outside the Aitchison College goldfish bowl he wasn’t as good as he thought he was.
Imran’s First Class debut came in the 1969/70 season when he was 16, in the way of the times in Pakistan that was not especially young – Majid had made his bow at 15, and got a century and taken a five-for to boot. Imran’s debut was less impressive, and then there was a back injury which affected his bowling for a year.
By 1970/71 Imran had regained his fitness, and the ungainly open-chested action that he had developed in order to reduce the strain on his back produced a big inswinger. He had some sypathetic handling from his skipper, cousin Javed, who kept him away from the better batsmen, and he reaped a rich harvest of wickets amongst batsmen who by habit played across the line and who by and large lacked the ability or inclination to defend with a straight bat. Only Sarfraz Nawaz took more wickets that season so, with thanks largely to Javed, 18 year old Imran found himself in the party chosen to tour England for the first half of the 1971 summer.
Imran was honest enough to write of himself; The 1971 tour party to England contained one player who must surely rank as the rawest, most conceited cricketer ever to represent his country. At the start of the tour he had problems with his run up and found it difficult to control the swing of the ball in English conditions and after just eight expensive wickets he was in no form at all going into the first Test. In fact had it not been for injuries to Salim and Sarfraz he would have been nowhere near the side and he was selected only by dint of Pakistan quite literally having no other option.
Had the weather not intervened on the last day at Edgbaston, and Asif Masood not been restricted by stomach problems, or either of Salim or Sarfraz been available Pakistan would have recorded a famous victory. As it was they had to be content with a moral victory. For Imran there was a terribly wayward opening spell, although after that he at least bowled economically, but match figures of 28-9-55-0 were not a memorable start. Salim was back for the next two Tests so Imran slipped quietly into the background. A tour return of 12 wickets at 43 and 172 runs at 19 were not what he had dreamed of when he left and the Imran who ended the tour in July was much chastened from the man who departed Lahore in April dreaming of a double century on Test debut.
As the rest of the touring party returned to Pakistan Imran moved on to Worcester. He had encountered the county side the previous winter, and taken a half century from them and he had been offered terms there and then, as well as the opportunity to finish his education at Worcester Royal Grammar School. He had promised his parents that he would get on with his education as soon as the tour finished and he had ambitions to follow Majid to Oxbridge.
And this is where I begin to admire Imran. He had not had a happy tour, and at the end he had to listen to his teammates openly criticising both his cricket and his personality. I suppose it might have been easier to kick back, but he acknowledged that almost all of what was said was justified. He didn’t get much “pastoral” care and support from the management either, who preferred to fine him and some of the other younger players on the one occasion they decided to sneak out after curfew – he didn’t even have Majid to support him, his mercurial cousin being up at Cambridge, only joining up with the rest of the squad for the Tests. He must have wanted nothing more than to get home to the familiar comfort blanket of Zaman Park, and to be the outstanding cricketer at Aitchison College, but instead he was off to an unfamiliar provincial city in a country where the only person he knew was 130 miles away, at a time when his self-belief had, to say the least, suffered a few setbacks.
To start with Imran had a few second eleven games with his new teammates. He had little success with the ball, and went wicketless against the touring Indians on his sole outing with the first team, although a century against Derbyshire seconds would doubtless have perked him up a little. Most significant though were a few words of advice from a fellow young overseas player, New Zealander John Parker. It was Parker, who Imran greatly respected for his grasp of the technical side of the game, who first suggested that Imran could combat his front on action by jumping in his delivery stride in order to get more side on and, so Imran hoped, cultivate an away swinger to complement his inswing. Although the move was not immediately successful Imran decided to stick with it, even though Parker changed his mind after seeing the fruits of his advice and counselled otherwise.
The autumn saw Imran facing unfamiliar weather and he would never before have experienced anything remotely like the English winter that followed. He struggled to integrate with his contemporaries at school,coming as he did from a totally different culture, and it must have been equally difficult for them, as despite Imran’s failings in the summer just gone he was still a Test match cricketer. So it was cold, unexciting and lonely for the young man from Lahore, the one saving grace being that as he had to pack two years of A Level studies into just nine months he at least had plenty to occupy his mind.
Imran would doubtless have been sustained through the long winter evenings by the thoughts of the coming cricket season, but 1972 turned out to be another searching examination of his character. For a start the two men who had persuaded him to join Worcestershire were now gone, and the club reduced by a third the terms on which handshakes had been made. In addition the county had a tricky decision to make. They were allowed to register two overseas players for the County programme. Their number one choice was, and had for some time, been the West Indian quick Vanburn Holder. For the second, and contrary to the indication he had been given in Pakistan, they went for Parker, thus condemning Imran to a season in the second eleven.
The Second Eleven Championship was cricket designed for looking at youngsters and allowing injured or struggling first teamers to play themselves back into form. Imran hated cricket that lacked any competitive edge, and he took just 17 wickets in nine matches, with a highest score of 45. But at least he succeeded in the exam room and got into Oxford University to read Geography (he later switched to History and Politics). This had the added attraction of meaning he would be able to play First Class cricket for the University in the first half of the 1973 summer, and by the time he got back to Worcester for the long vacation he would, after two years in England, have the residential qualification that would enable the county to play him alongside Holder and Parker.
By the 1970s the First Class status of Oxford and Cambridge was being to look like the anachronism it had undoubtedly become by the end of the 20th century, but the Universities were not yet the cannon fodder they became in years to come. Imran enjoyed his cricket again in 1973, and five wickets and a half century against Worcestershire must have been particularly satisfying. He scored nearly 500 runs and took 30 wickets in the nine matches he played and was elected skipper for the following season. His batting was disappointing when he got to Worcester, but he took 34 wickets at 24, and his position with the county was secure.
It will come as no surprise to those familiar with his later career to learn that Imran thrived under the responsibility of captaincy in 1974. He comfortably topped the batting averages with 767 runs at 38 and there was 160 against India and, carrying his side to an unexpected victory, 170 against Northamptonshire. He was Oxford’s leading wicket taker as well (45 at 26), so Worcester didn’t see him that summer as at the end of term he joined the Pakistan party who were, as they had in 1971, sharing the summer with India albeit this time they had the July and August shift.
Buoyed by his success in the Parks Imran would have been looking forward to showing his detractors from 1971 what he had become, but sadly for him personally little went right. He played in all three Tests, making up a strong pace attack with Sarfraz and Asif Masood (who had done well in 1971 and who John Arlott delightfully described as having a bowling action like Groucho Marx chasing a pretty waitress), but shone with neither bat nor ball. That said his side became the first since The Invincibles of 1948 to go through a tour of England unbeaten, and Wisden saw enough to say Imran showed his quality as an all-rounder and went on, presciently, to express the view that he should be a powerful figure in Pakistan cricket for years to come
Understandably Imran had a good deal on his mind in 1975, foremost being his final examinations which meant that he could play only four First Class matches for Oxford. He cannot however have been completely distracted as he still managed to top both the batting and bowling averages. There was then a cameo appearance in the first World Cup, which was enough to suggest that the outcome of that might have been different had not his examiners required Imran’s presence on the day his countrymen were due to play their group match against eventual winners, West Indies. It might have expected that the weight of his finals off his mind might have led to a vintage late summer with his county, and he did bowl pretty well, but his batting was a great disappointment, only an unbeaten 42 against Glamorgan deep in August followed by 64 against Essex enabled him to average 10. In 17 other completed innings he scored just 73 runs.
His education complete, in 1976 Imran had his first full season of county cricket in front of him, as well as a pressing desire to regain his Test place, Pakistan having eleven Tests scheduled for the following Southern Hemisphere summer. He began to look like the real thing. He topped 1,000 runs and scored four centuries for Worcestershire. With the ball he took 65 wickets. He began the season as first change, but soon wrested the new ball from Paul Pridgeon, and he and John Inchmore were as effective an opening pair as any in the country. There were two particular highlights, the first at home against Lancashire in July where he was the architect of a comfortable all round victory. The Red Rose county batted first and were all out for 140, Imran ripping out the top order and then coming back later to end a brief rally. His unbeaten three hour and twenty minute 111 was then the cornerstone of Worcestershire’s 383. In Lancashire’s second innings Norman Gifford spun out the early batting and Imran then snared six more victims to end up with 13-99 for the match.
Later in the season Imran hammered 166 in less than three hours at Northampton. Coming in at the fall of the fourth wicket at 128 he marshalled the tail superbly to score all but 19 of the runs that the last six wickets added, through much of which time the bowling was in the hands of Test players Sarfraz Nawaz, Bishen Bedi and Mushtaq Mohammad. The game really should have been Worcestershire’s, but sadly Imran picked up a finger injury which prevented him taking any further part in the match, and Northamptonshire were able to knock off a challenging target with four wickets in hand.
But storm clouds were gathering just as Imran’s reputation was flying. First of all he told Worcestershire that he wouldn’t be staying with them for the 1977 season. His reasons were simple enough. He found the sleepy West Midland city mind-numbingly dull. After a day’s play his teammates either went home to their families or took to the local pubs. For a young, successful, vital and teetotal professional sportsman there was simply nothing to do. There was no comparison with the many diverse sources of entertainment available in Oxford and London, and Imran was desperate to be within easy reach of the capital, but if he thought Worcestershire would understand he was mistaken.
At the time Imran told Worcester of his intention he had not begun to think of another county, but Worcester saw a conspiracy, and an ungrateful young man who they had nurtured and stood by deserting them just as he reaped the benefit of their faith in him. It was hardly fair, but there was a great deal of bitterness. The club’s Chief Executive was Reverend Michael Vockins, who in 1980 published a history of the club. There was a statistical appendix, set out in such a way that it had to contain Imran’s name in a couple of places, but there was no mention of him in the narrative. Such was the ill-feeling engendered by the departure that once Imran was contractually free to do so and signed for Sussex, Worcester objected to their attempts to register him. There was a hearing at Lord’s, and Worcester were partially successful too, as Imran was unable to play for his new county in the Championship until the end of July. Initially the bar was in place for the whole of the summer, but the prospect of legal action prompted a compromise.
In years to come Worcester were to enjoy great success under the captaincy of Phil Neale, who clearly liked and respected Imran but perpetuated the party line; I was very sad that I played just one full season with Imran because I got on really well with him, and we shared some exhilarating partnerships in the 1976 season. He left Worcester in controversial circumstances, saying he thought the city’s social life wasn’t lively enough for him. That was a little unfair to the club that put him through his education at Worcester Royal Grammar School before he went to Oxford. In a sense the club had invested in a young player’s future, and he upped and left before a dividend could be declared.
The senior players were less forgiving, Glenn Turner writing it was disappointing to the club when, once he’d become a good player, he decided to leave. His reasons for leaving were unexpected. Imran demanded respect from the lads before he earned it, and as a proud individual – he often referred to his strength as a Pathan – he didn’t like being ragged by his teammates. But that didn’t sit comfortably with Neale’s observation that I didn’t find him at all arrogant and a story he tells of Imran’s sense of humour He once got five noughts out of seven innings, and Norman Gifford teased him about how bad he was against the spinners, and said he didn’t like men round the bat. Whenever he played against us for Sussex, Giffie would put himself on early, and post the close fielders round him. Imran could see the joke – he would smile and say “Oh no Giffie” – and we would have a great battle.
There can be little doubt that Worcester over-reacted, although the loss of other leading players twelve months beforehand, and the fact that they had not the slightest inkling of Imran’s desire to leave does represent an understandable reason for that. They had not however been particularly good to Imran over the years. Early on there was the failure to honour the wage originally offered, and the indication that they would make him an overseas registration in 1972. Later on in 1976 he was let down badly at the start of the season when the club failed to arrange accomodation for him on his return from Pakistan. For a few days he had to sleep on Turner’s floor, and after that was put up in a very poor hotel, part of the cost of which he had to bear himself. The county also always maintained that they had paid for Imran to attend Worcester Royal Grammar School, as Neale noted, but Imran has always said that his father paid the fees – it seems improbable that the family were wrong about that.
No sooner had he upset one employer than Imran crossed swords with another, as he became one of the Pakistani players who consistently held out through the various Test series of 1976/77 for better terms. At the time Pakistan players picked up just GBP50 for a Test – to put that in context near neighbours India paid their Test cricketers GBP350 per match. The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) used plenty of stick, with the occasional carrot, in order to weaken the resolve of the Pakistani players but Imran and five others stood firm and eventually secured better terms for the whole team. In Worcester this lingering dispute was of course interpreted as further evidence of Imran being financially motivated, but in truth money for him was irrelevant. For Imran the desire to play for Pakistan was so strong that he would have done so for no remuneration at all, but there was an important point of principle at stake for him, and he was acutely conscious of the financial strain placed on those members of the side who did not have the priviliged background that he had.
Despite all the pressures on him off the field Imran arrived as an international cricketer that winter, particularly as a bowler, but he remained dogged by controversy and the press had barely shut up about his leaving Worcester and standing up to the PCB when, having been persuaded by his new skipper Tony Greig, he signed for Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in April 1977. Imran was a little way from the centre of that particular maelstrom, and unlike for his English and Australian teammates public opinion back home was not entirely against him. There were plenty of ordinary Pakistanis who viewed him as a mercenary, but just as many who took pride in the fact that he and the other four Pakistanis who signed had been selected – the fact that not a single Indian had signed for Packer helped swell the numbers who took that view.
From his personal perspective Imran misjudged the impact that WSC would have. He had expected something akin to a storm in a teacup, and he felt acutely the loss of 18 months Test cricket. He was particularly sorry to have to miss the 1978 tour of England, during which he performed with great consistency for Sussex whilst without him, Majid, Zaheer Abbas, Mushtaq Mohammad and Asif Iqbal, his country slipped to a heavy defeat. No one was happier than Imran when the rift was healed and he could play for Pakistan again something which, as all readers of this feature will know, he did with great distinction for more than a decade. But without those years in England in the early 1970s that made him the man he is I don’t believe that Imran Khan would have been quite the phenomenon that he turned out to be.