Ravi Shastri | Photo credit: Twitter / @ RaviShastriOfc
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Imran Khan is one of the greatest captains and players the game has seen. Why I have this view hardly needs qualification. His track record speaks for itself and, if further validation is needed, it comes from the experiences of those who have played with or against him.
The first time I saw Imran play was on television, during a tour of India in Pakistan in 1978. He then established himself as one of the best all-rounders in cricket after a rather early career. slow. His performances in Australia in the 1976 Series and in Kerry Packers World Series Cricket had helped his reputation soar. Against India, Imran was quick, but without quite the same control that would make him so formidable a few years later. His big hits, especially in the thrilling chase of the third test in Karachi, then earned him greater fame in India.
When Pakistan came to India the following season, I made sure to secure a seat in the north stand at Wankhede Stadium. It was a star team, in which Imran was the biggest attention-grabber for cricket and other reasons. Imran didn’t have a great game however, injuring himself and not bowling in the second innings. He struggled with his fitness throughout the series, which affected his team’s chances. Pakistan lost the Bombay test and subsequently the series against a determined Indian team.
But how brilliantly he made up for this disappointment during our tour of Pakistan in 1982-83! Now I was part of the Indian team and got to experience Imrans’ fantastic skills with the ball and bat just 22 yards away.
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In his heyday, in the early to mid-80s, I had said without hesitation that he was the best fast pitcher in the world. He had both the pace and the ability to swing the ball deadly late. Had it not been for the injury he suffered in the series against us that kept him from bowling for almost two years thereafter, he would have easily picked up 150,160 more sticks.
Imran’s strength was his remarkable control over the swing and the reverse swing. The steep-curved late inswingers, or indippers as they were called then, made life hell for the batsmen. We didn’t have much understanding of reverse swing back then, and Imran bamboozled us. His precision meant there was no respite. He could vary the duration of the delivery depending on the terrains, conditions and countries in which he was playing. Even the best batsmen struggled to cope with the late movement that sent the ball in or out at the last second.
In the 1982-83 series, Imran demolished us despite having a strong and experienced batting team in fields that couldn’t quite stand fast bowling. Opening the rounds of the sixth test in Karachi in the series, I could see Imran exhibiting his full repertoire of wonderful skills. I scored my first century of trying in this game, but there wasn’t a single delivery when I wasn’t threatened while bowling. Although Pakistan had already won the series and Imran had a sore calf, his desire for success was relentless.
Over the next six or seven years India and Pakistan entered several Tests and ODI contests and Imran easily outscored all of the players on his side. It might just have been a perception, but he also seemed to be the most aggressive against India. I realized how fierce he can be thanks to a few exchanges in the middle.
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In 1987, when I was leading the Under-25 team against Pakistan, Imran arrived late for the game at the stadium. He apologized, saying he was stuck in traffic. Okay, but he wanted to start bowling right away, which I didn’t agree with because it was against the rules. Sensing that the refs were hesitating, I told them to mind their own business and follow the book. Imrans’s message to Wasim Akram and the other bowlers in this game was to send the shit back to me.
Some time later while we were playing Pakistan in Sharjah I suddenly had stomach cramps while playing batting and asked for a runner. Imran refused. We were then 100 something without loss. I fell in a few deliveries. From a strong start the wickets started to tumble and we lost the game by chasing a modest 240 odd.
Imran had not forgotten what I had done to him earlier and had reimbursed me in kind. But while he played very hard, he left the competition on the field. Other than that, he was friendly but reserved, pretty much keeping to himself. Many thought he was distant and snobbish; I think he was reserved, and not the type to socialize easily.
Among the four great all-rounders of this time, Imran was the best drummer, technically and by temperament. He could strike any number and, more importantly, as the situation demanded. His long stint in County Cricket and his experience in World Series Cricket had made him appreciate professionalism rather than unnecessary bravado. Wasim Akram told me about the countless lectures, some very harsh, that he and other young players received from Imran if they had thrown their wicket or played poorly when Pakistan had won.
Winning the World Cup at the end of his career, when he was a quarterback of the bowler he was, was nothing short of extraordinary. It was pure self-confidence that made Imran chase this honor. He led from the front, beating order in the semi-finals and final to control the heats.
The pride he took from playing for Pakistan not only boosted his own performances but also inspired several generations of young cricketers from his country to excel. He was a demanding captain, but he also made the heroes of others, his greatest quality as a leader. He was autocratic but also inspiring and determined to leave a legacy.
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I admired his composure and calm on the pitch. He never looked disheveled, no matter how serious the situation; never let his opponents know he was under pressure. His decision making was swift and, if it didn’t work, he would move on, taking the next bet. He was a man of action, not a brooder.
Also of unwavering determination. The cancer hospital that Imran built in memory of his mother bears witness to this. It took years to raise funds and bring the project to fruition, but he never gave up.
Shortly after his retirement he joined politics, making little progress in the early years. When I asked Wasim Akram on one of our commentary missions if Imran had made a mistake in getting into politics, he replied: If Khan Saab has decided something, he will never give up, even if ‘he is a hundred years old.
A decade later, and more than twenty years after entering politics, Imran Khan became Prime Minister of Pakistan.
This clip from Stargazing: The Players in My Life by Ravi Shastri was published with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India.
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