Man of destiny

In Imran, Pakistan has a cosmopolitan defender of the faith

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 29.07.18

Imran Khan is an era in himself. His public career joins Sunil Gavaskar and Virat Kohli in the minds of desi cricket fans of a certain age. He made his debut in Test cricket in 1971, the same year as Gavaskar, and he's back in the middle, measuring out his run. Forty years ago, cricket pundits argued about the relative claims of Imran, Botham, Kapil Dev and Richard Hadlee to all-round eminence; now, for better or for worse, Imran's peers will be Macron, Modi, Trump and Xi Jinping.

It's interesting that on the few occasions that mass media celebrity is parlayed into real political power, the political persona is invariably conservative. The American precedents are instructive: Ronald, Arnold and, of course, Donald. Imran (it's hard to call him Khan or Niazi, since his first name is his brand) has built his political career on an Islamist, anti-corruption, anti-Western platform. There are obvious ironies here, none of which is particularly interesting, but they're worth ticking off if only to rehearse the clichés in which political commentary is done.

Because Imran was born into a post-colonial Anglophone elite, went to Oxford, played county cricket and spent a significant part of his adult life in England, and now presents himself as an orthodox Sunni, unembarrassed by his closeness to the Taliban, his political persona is often seen as a repudiation of his upbringing. This is a silly conclusion. Aitchison College and Oxford are no more likely to produce progressive liberals than Eton and Oxford or Mayo and Oxford. It's worth pointing out here that Imran's cousin, Majid Khan, also went to Oxford and went on to captain Pakistan and, like Imran, was teetotal and religiously observant. A posh education was a claim to privilege, not an initiation into free-thinking enlightenment.

Imran is interesting because he is the starkest example of the 'man of destiny' you can find in the modern world. There is something both comic and impressive about his long-standing belief that he was destined to redeem Pakistan's cricket team and, eventually, the country itself.

Imran first came into his own in 1976 when he bowled Pakistan to a 1-1 tie against Australia in Australia. This was before live telecasts so my memories are made up of black-and-white Sportsweek photographs of this Olympian from central casting, single-handedly levelling a series against a very good Australian team. And then, in the first foreign tour telecast live on Doordarshan, Indians saw this god-like athlete swing the ball in a yard at extreme pace, the spearhead of a Pakistan team that flattened Bedi's Indians.

He wasn't captain at the time, nor when Pakistan came touring India for the first time in nearly twenty years under Asif Iqbal. He was a lethal fast bowler and a wonderful all-rounder who didn't always do his batting abilities justice. I have a theory that the self-aggrandizing man-of-destiny came into his own when two things happened one after the other: Imran's first stint as captain in 1982 and India's wildly unexpected triumph at the 1983 World Cup.

Till the early 1980s, Imran was a great cricketer and a man-about-town. He was your standard-issue expatriate celebrity. In 1983 when Rushdie came to Delhi to promote Shame, he did a reading at the India International Centre where he was upstaged by Imran walking into the hall. The two of them shook hands and Rushdie made a good-natured joke about having had his thunder stolen. This bit of by-play is important only because nearly thirty years later, Imran refused to attend a conclave organized by a publication in Delhi because Rushdie was invited too. In his Muslim man-of-destiny avatar, Imran couldn't urbanely share the same space with a man who he now believed was an apostate-provocateur. It was so important for Imran to put clear blue water between him and Rushdie that he declared to the Indian press that he had never met Rushdie in his life which was, of course, patently untrue.

Imran's Napoleonic turn was prompted by his taste of captaincy. Given how badly South Asian countries did at most things, being the captain of the Indian or the Pakistani cricket team is a heroic business. Cricket was the only competitive arena in which India and Pakistan did relatively well and leading the national team was literally like having the nation arrayed behind the captain. I suspect that Imran was both piqued and inspired by the tsunami of celebrity that buoyed up Kapil Dev's Indians after they won the World Cup in 1983. Inspired because he saw that winning the World Cup for a subcontinental team was a national triumph that brought inexhaustible celebrity. Piqued because Kapil Dev, a provincial desi just five years into his career, had scooped cricket's greatest prize. Imran, with good reason, believed that he was the greatest all-rounder in the modern game after Garfield Sobers and he dedicated himself to winning cricket's greatest prize because it was the guaranteed South Asian route to adulation and immortality.

When Imran won the World Cup in 1992, he was nearly forty and over the hill, which made his triumph even more extraordinary. He won the World Cup by will alone and he was in no doubt at all that it was his victory: he was the captain, he was the eagle-eyed talent scout who had championed the young genius, Inzamam-ul-Haq, and when he made his victory speech, trophy in hand, he was so completely up himself that he dedicated the win to the cancer hospital he was building in his mother's memory without once mentioning his teammates. I can still see Javed Miandad at the ceremony, pop-eyed and unbelieving at Imran's self-absorption.

It took Imran 21 years to scale cricket's Everest, and just over a year longer to become Pakistan's prime minister-in-waiting after he turned politician in 1996. Unlike lesser men like Kapil Dev and Arjuna Ranatunga who frittered away their World Cup fame by becoming sporting mascots, for Imran the World Cup victory was a dress rehearsal for the great role he was destined to play: Pakistan's redeemer.

It was a part for which his upbringing had trained him perfectly. Raised in privilege in a kitsch-feudal republic, Imran embraced the Establishments that defined his nation: the army, the ulema and the Sunni insurgency that had remade Pakistan in its own image. His willingness to stigmatize Ahmediyas and defend the fanatical laws that criminalized their faith was not out of character; it was par for the course, it was the price of entry into Pakistan's majoritarian politics. Imran embodies the Pakistani ruling class as completely as WASPs once defined America's. Even the acronym fits; he is a Westernized, army-sponsored, Sunni patriot.

Some liberal commentators saw a silver lining in Imran's elevation: at least the parties led by bearded fundamentalists did terribly. They did, but that was beside the point: in Imran, Pakistan has found what its founding mandated: a clean-shaven, cosmopolitan, English-speaking defender of the faith.