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A far cry from gossip columns, Imran could yet lead Pakistan
- Maybe in 10 years, he will be ready for the country and the country ready for him: Rameez

The most alluring figure at Lord’s over the weekend was Imran Khan. Perhaps his absence makes our heart grow fonder. Still pencil slim and marvellously sculpted, the years have done little to diminish his appeal. You suspect that were he still roaming the streets of Knightsbridge, the ladies would not be far from his grasp.

Famously, sadly, his marriage to Jemima fell away but the families remain close and were together in the Mound Stand on Saturday and Sunday. The eldest son, Sulaiman, was stirred by the Ashes last summer and has retained his interest; the youngest, Qasim, concentrated on his Game Boy. They see their father mostly at home, in the foothills of the Himalayas outside Islamabad, where he lives comfortably and alone. It is there that he builds the reserves of energy needed for his political campaign.

Once a magnificent cricketer and irresistible captain, his battles now are against the military dictatorship led by General Musharraf, who four years ago asked him to become Prime Minister. That may have been a case of the general looking to keep his enemies even closer than his friends for he surely realised the danger of a heroic figure standing apart.

Imran’s anti-corruption platform comes through the Justice Party he formed in 1996. He is its lone voice, an autocrat fighting for democracy in a country ravaged by uncertainty. Forever the Lion of Lahore, where he was born and raised, his quest to be crowned King of Karachi and thus impact upon the breadth of the land is less promising.

For one thing, Karachi is the home of Javed Miandad, on whom Imran notoriously declared when the world record score beckoned against India at Hyderabad back in 1983. Javed had 280 when the captain called them in, so he was hardly on the brink of Gary Sobers’ 365, but Imran is still not forgiven. For another, Musharraf’s coalition with the Muttahida Quami Movement operates out of Karachi, a stronghold Imran doubts can be broken.

His belief in the need for social and economic change is not far-fetched. Rameez Raja, who played under Imran when the World Cup was won and calls him an extraordinary leader, has very different politics at present, seeing Imran as ahead of his time. “In 10 years maybe, he will be ready for the country and the country ready for him,” Rameez says.

We had to smile about the old Imran and the new for he is a far cry from the clubs and gossip columns that dominated his playboy years. The change came with the death of his mother and the crusade to build the cancer hospital that defines his life. “It was a spiritual thing, the move to selflessness from materialism,” he says.

The hospital is an achievement he puts above the World Cup win of 1992 but he understands how one set up the other. His finest cricketing achievement came in the Caribbean in 1988, he says, where nobody had won for 15 years. “They were the best team I’ve seen with the best batsman, Viv Richards, as well as all the fast bowlers. I took 11 wickets in the first Test, which set us up. It was a fantastic effort to draw the series because on paper we were no match.”

Fast bowling remains close to his heart, though he now watches little cricket, and he speaks effusively about Mohammed Asif who, he thinks, will continue the line of thrilling Pakistani fast bowlers. “It’s a shame,” he says, “that Asif, along with Shoaib Akhtar and Rana Naved, is missing, as well as Flintoff and Jones. If all of them, and Michael Vaughan and Younis Khan, had been fit this would have been a fantastic contest on such a good pitch, the sort that only allows the best bowlers to take wickets. The match lacks something because of it.”

He says cricket in Pakistan is still tainted by politics and the dictators who run it ' mini-Musharrafs, he calls them ' never mind the shambolic structure of the first-class game. “Our success comes from our natural talent, just as it does on the squash court, and in spite of the administrators ' not because of them. There’s no accountability, so nothing improves.”

He resigned from the captaincy twice himself, refusing to take the field with players he knew were not up to it. When he came back it was on the condition that he had the final hand in selection and, says Rameez, “this is much the way he runs the Justice Party”.

Imran remains fearless and outspoken, attributes as likely to bring him down as take him to the summit. His Pathan roots drive him on, a man of ambition determined not to be oppressed by the authority he so reviles. Pakistan’s cricketers miss his wisdom and unwavering belief; Pakistan’s people may one day be the beneficiary.

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