Having made a good fist of the most difficult job in Pakistan, Imran Khan is all but set for a crack at the second-most difficult post in the country – that of its Prime Minister.
Results from Wednesday’s general elections were still not final and complete by Thursday evening (Pakistan time) – there was a delay in the counting process after polls closed early Wednesday evening. But the strong trends from nearly half the polling stations that had been counted had Imran, arguably Pakistan’s greatest cricketer and its most transformative captain, leading his party Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice) to a decisive win.
Almost 24 hours after polls closed Imran appeared on television to make an acceptance speech, albeit an unofficial one. During it he expressed gratitude at being given the chance to implement the manifesto he and his party had first unveiled in 1996, four years after retiring from international cricket, his last act the final wicket in Pakistan’s memorable – and so far only – World Cup win in 1992.
The party had been widely predicted to win in these elections. Success in politics was a long time coming, however, the party winning a solitary seat in the first three elections after its creation. A breakthrough came in the last general elections in 2013 when, though they didn’t win nationally, they were able to form a government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly known as NWFP, the North-Western Frontier province).
Imran had more or less disassociated himself from the game over the past 15 years or so, making only the occasional appearance as a TV analyst and every now and again speaking publicly about whatever may be the burning issue of the day. More or less his only link to the sport now has been the plentiful use of cricketing terminology in his campaigning and public speeches.
For most of his era, however, from the time he made his international debut in 1971 to that World Cup win two decades later, he was recognised as one of the world’s greatest allrounders. As a player he transformed himself repeatedly but at his peak, from the end of 1977 to 1982-83, he was as fast and effective as any fast bowler in the world. As a batsman, he blossomed late but operated from a sound enough base to be versatile in any given situation and any position.
It was as captain of the side, however, that he truly changed Pakistan. He took over as captain in 1982 and, under his charge, Pakistan became arguably the best side in the world alongside West Indies. The two sides went head-to-head three times with Imran as captain, each of the series drawn 1-1. Moreover, he was acknowledged as a key mentor to a number of young, exciting players who came up around him, including the likes of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis.
This latest transformation, in his non-cricket guise, is perhaps the most remarkable. At his peak as a player, Imran was among the most widely recognized Pakistanis anywhere in the world. In England especially he was a fixture on the social circuit, as likely to be seen at Ascot or hanging out with Mick Jagger as on a cricket field playing for Sussex.
Since giving up the game and concentrating first on building a state-of-the-art cancer hospital (free for those who cannot afford treatment) and then politics, Imran has campaigned from a conservative, right-leaning platform. It is, his critics contend, a far cry from his 80s heyday, though Imran himself has acknowledged it publicly as a reawakening.
His arrival could also hold implications for domestic cricket. He is a voluble and longstanding critic of a domestic system in which department teams such as banks and airlines are the main stakeholders and in which regional sides are very much the poor cousins. Long ago he argued that domestic cricket should mirror the Australian model, made of a small number of regional-based sides, focusing on quality rather than quantity.
As it stands, he is the first international cricketer to be elected Prime Minister; George Weah, the footballer, is a notable parallel, having recently been elected President of Liberia. Imran’s fiercest political rival over the last few years and Prime Minister until last year, Nawaz Sharif, has incidentally played one game of first-class cricket.