Imran Khan is widely regarded as the greatest and most flamboyant cricketer that Pakistan has ever produced and one of the finest all-rounders to have graced the game. He was a fearsome fast bowler of incredible skill while still capable of commanding a place in the side on batting talent alone. During his reign as captain, the ‘Lion of Lahore’ transformed Pakistan from a talented, yet under-achieving group into one of the best teams of the era, culminating with the 1992 World Cup victory. Since his retirement he has stayed in the public eye with a high profile marriage (and divorce) to Jemima Goldsmith and entered the world of Pakistani politics, founding his own party in 1997.
Statistically, Imran Khan is the leading all-rounder of his generation; he played 88 Tests and 175 One-Day Internationals (ODI’s) for Pakistan over a 21-year international career (Tests - 362 wickets at an average of 22.81 runs per wicket, 3807 runs at 37.69 runs per innings, only the 3rd player to complete 300 wickets/3000 runs in Tests at the time/ODI’s - 182 wickets at 26.61, 3709 runs at 33.41). Watch this clip to see Khan in action
He played first class cricket for Lahore, Oxford University, Worcestershire, Sussex and New South Wales, finishing with 1287 wickets at 22.32, 17771 runs at 36.79.
The Early Years
Imran was born on November 25th 1952 in Lahore, the seventh child and only son in an upper middle class family. His mother’s side had the cricketing background - he had 2 cousins who played Test cricket for Pakistan (Majid Khan & Javed Burki).
His family were affluent enough to afford, in their view, the best education for their children. Initially schooled at Aitchison College, Lahore, Imran came to England to attend The Royal Grammar School, Worcester and subsequently Keble College, Oxford University.
This overseas education proved to have a strong bearing on his future - influencing his early cricketing career, as he played most of his domestic cricket in England, and giving him a taste for the finer aspects of life, earning him a reputation as a playboy.
A Quiet Start…
Unlike many of his world-class rivals, Imran started his career quietly before flourishing into the player that opposition feared throughout the late 70’s and the 80’s. He made his debut for Lahore at the age of 16 and signed for Worcestershire in 1971 as a medium-pace swing bowler who could bat a bit. His Test debut, aged 18, followed quickly that year during Pakistan’s tour of England but this early and brief (1 Test) introduction to the international arena proved unsuccessful and Imran was not selected again until a few years later.
His years at Oxford University (1973-6) gave him the chance to play first class cricket more regularly and he briefly returned to the national side in 1974 for 3 Tests, but it was only after a successful summer with Worcestershire in 1976 that he became a constant fixture for Pakistan.
Talented Youngster to World Class Performer
Imran continued to improve but it was not until the late 70’s that he developed into the bowler that terrorised opposition players in a manner previously belonging to the West Indian quicks of the era and Australia’s feared duo of Lillee and Thomson.
The transformation coincided with a tour to Australia in 1976/77 and Imran’s presence at Kerry Packer’s controversial World Series 1977-79. During the tour down under, Dennis Lillee later remarked in his autobiography that 'he improved so much as the tour progressed that I couldn't recognize the finished product against what I had seen of him in England in 1975...' - Imran took 12-165 in the final Test at Sydney.
Over the course of the World Series, Imran benefitted from playing with and against some of the world’s leading quick bowlers of the era and it became apparent after a few modifications to his action that Imran was a different bowler.
The transformation was confirmed when Imran competed in a fast bowling contest in Perth in 1979, finishing 3rd behind Jeff Thomson and Michael Holding. This extra pace combined with the ability to swing the ball, the orthodox way and reverse, produced a bowler whose record during the 1980’s was phenomenal (236 wickets at 17.77).
Serious Injury - What Could Have Been?
In February 1983, Imran was diagnosed with a stress fracture of his left shin after a gruelling 6 Test series against India in Pakistan (Pakistan won 3-0 and he finished 40 wickets at 13.95). His recovery was not helped by slow diagnosis and Imran did not return to bowling until October 1985, although he played as a batsman at the end of 1983. On his return he was as successful as before but had lost some of the pace of old.
While there is no doubting his record post-injury was still impressive it raises the question of what he might have achieved had he not suffered the injury, as when it struck he was arguably at the peak of his fast bowling powers.
Captaincy - His Greatest Moments
In 1982, Imran took over the captaincy and the extra responsibility brought out the best in him. During this time Imran proved himself to be one of the best cricketers of his generation - leading from the front he captained Pakistan to some of the finest moments in the nation’s cricketing history.
Imran himself has said that his best moments happened during this period (as well as the 1992 World Cup victory, see below) - a series victory in India, 1986-87, for the first time ever, and a 1-1 series in the West Indies, 1987-88, the only side to win a Test and avoid series defeat in the Caribbean between 1974-1995. Imran was inspirational in both series: in India he scored 324 runs at 64.80, while in the West Indies, he finished with 23 wickets at 18.08.
He led Pakistan to their first away series victory in England in 1987 - they lost only 3 series away from home under his guidance (twice in Australia and once to England, 1982) and went unbeaten in Test series at home.
His sensational performances against the Indians in 1982-83, watch highlights here, and others were recognised when he was honoured as Wisden Cricketer of the Year 1983 - 88 wickets at 14.03 and 717 runs at 65.18 in 14 Tests.
He transformed a traditionally fragile team, strong at home with a reputation for struggling overseas, into a team that was respected and feared wherever they played. Possibly more impressively, he moulded a team with a history of dressing room discontent into one that played together as a unit.
It was not all rosy though. During his tenure there were rumours of arrogance and aloofness towards certain players and he was criticised from various corners for being ‘authoritarian’ - it was rumoured he insisted on having the final word on selection.
Retirement to World Cup Success to Retirement
In 1987, Imran retired while still at his peak after the disappointment of Pakistan’s semi-final defeat at the 1987 World Cup. His retirement proved short-lived and following a personal request from the President, General Zia-Ul-Haq, Imran was back leading his country to a 1-1 series draw in the West Indies 5 months later. On his return he took 11-121 as Pakistan shocked the cricket world by winning the first Test: the West Indies had not lost a test at home for 10 years.
The World Cup victory in Australasia, 1992, was Imran’s greatest success. Aged 39, he led Pakistan to a most unlikely trophy. His side came into the tournament with little form and injuries to key players (Waqar Younis & Saeed Anwar among them) - add to this the traditionally unfavourable Australian conditions and a poor start to the campaign, losing 2 out of 3 games, and Pakistan were given little chance of playing a major part in the final stages of the competition.
Imran’s leadership qualities came to the fore as he famously called upon his side to 'play like a cornered tiger' - they did just that and won five games in a row to lift the trophy, beating England in the final by 22 runs. Imran retired for the second and final time after captaining Pakistan to victory against Sri Lanka in Faisalabad, January 1992.
Reverse Swing - Never Far From Controversy
Imran was one of the first to fuse outright pace with an understanding of reverse swing. Sarfraz Nawaz, believed by many to be the first genuine proponent of the art, passed on his knowledge to his teammate and Imran used it to deadly effect on the placid pitches of the sub-continent, previously seen as a pace bowler's graveyard. Reverse swing has for some time proved controversial (some methods used to bring on the phenomenon push the boundaries of sporting behaviour while others clearly cross the line) and this came to a head during 1992 when Pakistan toured England.
The Pakistani bowlers on that tour, notably Wasim Akram & Waqar Younis, ripped through the English side with a combination of pace, orthodox and reverse swing. Their ability to generate significant reverse swing caused the media and several ex-players to question the legality of it. The ‘debate’ continued and in 1993 Sarfraz Nawaz took former England International (& one time Northamptonshire team-mate) Allan Lamb to court over comments relating to ball-tampering and the ambiguous ‘Doctor of Swing’ moniker he gave Sarfraz.
Imran gave several interviews and released a book over this period - in the book he disclosed that he once used a bottle top to roughen the ball in a county game. In an attempt to clear his name over the controversy this caused, Imran claimed that all bowlers tampered to some extent - it was these comments that caused Ian Botham to sue. Further court action followed when Imran supposedly referred to Lamb and Botham as ‘racist, ill-educated and lacking in class’ and the pair took him to court for libel. Imran claimed he had been misquoted and was cleared in a case referred to as ‘a complete exercise in futility’. However the case still simmered away and Botham & Lamb returned to court a few years later in attempt to appeal against the initial ruling, eventually deciding to stop after spiralling court costs.
Off the Field - Playboy to Politician
Imran was more than just a cricketer: there are a few players in each era (Botham, Richards, Lillee etc…) who bring cricket to the masses and his charisma and charm on and off the pitch gave cricket a far broader appeal, not only in the sub-continent, but also across the cricketing world.
His education in England gave him a taste for the high life and Imran was often seen socialising with London’s elite. His move to Sussex in 1977 brought him closer to the capital where a number of high profile relationships with socialites of the time saw him develop a reputation as a ‘playboy prince’. His new teammates, meanwhile, were amazed by the amount of female fan mail he received.
Post-retirement, Imran devoted more time to Islam and dedicated himself to raising funds for a cancer hospital in Lahore. Having watched his mother die from the disease, he set about campaigning for the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital in 1989, finally gathering enough money to open the charity hospital in 1994.
In 1995, he married the UK socialite Jemima Goldsmith, daughter of the late Sir James Goldsmith. The marriage hit the headlines - the age gap with Imran at 42, being twice her age and the cultural and religious differences (Jemima with a Jewish background was marrying into an Islamic family) caused a stir in the media.
Jemima Khan converted to Islam shortly after the marriage and gave birth to their first child, Suleiman Issa in 1996 and in 1999 they had a second son, Qassim.
She helped him with fund-raising for the hospital and when Imran went into politics, she supported him on the campaign trail, but the cross-culture nature of the relationship put strains on them both and they announced their divorce in 2004.
Imran entered into politics and founded his own party, Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI or Movement for Justice) in 1997, though he has struggled to garner the sort of support he received during his playing days.
In 1999 he supported the coup that brought General Musharraf to power but has since became one of his most outspoken critics. Culminating recently in his detention under house arrest following General Musharraf’s declaration of a state of emergency, he managed to escape only to be arrested on his reappearance in public, possibly on terrorism charges.
He has since begun a hunger strike in prison where, according to relatives, he is being held in solitary confinement.