Continuing with our series on the greatest cricketers of all time, here’s No. 12 on our list.
No. 12 – Imran Khan
The lasting image of Imran Khan in my mind is of him lifting the 1992 World Cup for Pakistan. To me, that tournament defined Imran’s career, without which there would have been nothing remarkable or extraordinary about his career. What I didn’t know, of course, was that he had retired from international cricket prior to the World Cup. I didn’t know that he was 39 years of age when he batted, bowled and led Pakistan from the front at the end of the Australian summer that year. I didn’t know that he was already a legend well before the 1992 World Cup even took off.
I’ve always envisioned Imran as an all-rounder, but where does he lie in the pantheon of greats? When we talk about the fast bowlers of that era, there’s scarce mention of anyone outside West Indies and Australia, yet Imran’s average and strike rate from 1980-1988, during the days of Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Dennis Lillee and Richard Hadlee, stands above everyone else’s. If statistics are to be the measure, he was arguably the best bowler in the world in those times.
In that era of 1980s, there were 4 all-rounders vying for supremacy – England’s Ian Botham, India’s Kapil Dev, Pakistan’s Imran Khan and New Zealand’s Richard Hadlee. There’s no doubt that the people of these 4 countries wanted to anoint their own as the best among all. And it is with a tinge of sadness that I realize what a treat it must have been for those watching that spectacle; to be able to see not just one, or two or three, but four great all-rounders giving their best to outgun each other. But who was the best among them? Who stood out as the most consistent? Who made sure that when one aspect of their game was receding, they reached a whole new level with the other? Who was, in short, the best all-rounder since Sir Garry Sobers? I haven’t seen any of them play in my lifetime, but I can strongly say that despite the flaws each of them had, it is Imran Khan who stands the tallest among them all.
Imran Khan’s story is that of transformation – transformation from a medium pace bowler into a genuinely fast opening bowler, transformation from an irresponsible batsman into a dependable number 3 for his side, transformation from a reckless and arrogant playboy into a mature yet flamboyant leader of a young Pakistani team. Starting out in 1971, when Pakistan cricket didn’t have a legacy and didn’t have any pacers, Imran Khan was picked purely as a promising talent. He was a rough diamond, lacking the cut required to shine at the highest level. It was another 5 years before he established himself at the Test level. After 14 wickets against New Zealand at home in 1976, he traveled to Australia later that season and took a six-wicket haul in each innings at Sydney to register the best match figures for a Pakistani in Australia till date. He further took 25 wickets in 5 Tests in West Indies and capped off the 70s with a bullish performance in the 2 seasons of World Series Cricket with 25 wickets at 20.84 runs apiece.
But these figures actually look insignificant when compared with his performances over the next decade. Such was the aura of Imran Khan Niazi over the next decade that at different points of time, he was one of the best in the world with the ball and among the best in the world with the bat. He had always been a tough competitor – aggressive and resolute. But the level of competition and the presence of the world’s best and fastest bowlers in Packer’s rebel series deeply inspired the man. He admits, “It was the highest standard I’ve played. It was the greatest number of fast bowlers ever concentrated in one place – very high-caliber fast bowling.” He started off as a medium pacer but his inspiration to bowl fast and deadly came from none other than the premier exponent of fast bowling of that era, Dennis Lillee. He says, “I watched Dennis Lillee bowl and that’s when I decided I wanted to be fast. It was the first time I’d seen a genuine fast bowler. Pakistan didn’t have any, and I just loved it. It appealed to my instincts, my aggressive way of playing.” In a famous speed test at WACA in 1979, Imran Khan(139.7 kph) came third behind Jeff Thomson(147.9 kph) and Michael Holding (141.3 kph), to which his reply was, “We were bowling bouncers and Jeff Thomson was bowling full-tosses, so there was a slight distortion, although he was probably still quicker. Out of eight balls I bowled, seven were quicker than Holding. I wasn’t even at my peak – I was quicker in the next two years.”
From 1980-1988, Imran Khan averaged almost 40 with the bat and less than 18 with the ball. None of his competitors had even come close to displaying such consistency with both bat and ball. Against a great Indian batting line-up consisting of Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar and Gundappa Viswanath, he took 40 wickets in 6 Test matches at an average of 13.95 (Australia fared only a little better – 29 wickets at 16.65). These were extraordinary numbers against one of the best batting line-ups in the world. Many people of the current generation are baffled to see that despite clearly being the better side over the last decade or so, India is still behind Pakistan in the head-to-head record between the two. The answer lies in the fact that Imran’s Pakistan had a clear dominance over India and surged ahead in that period.
Sarfaraz Nawaz may have been credited as the first bowler to employ reverse swing, but Imran Khan was the one who made it a deadly force. That series against India where he took 40 wickets, he took 11 in a match at Karachi – 3 in the first innings and 8 in the second, with 5 of those 8 coming in the space of 25 balls with an old ball. It triggered the popularity of the art of reverse swing and the world came to terms with a secret and deadly Pakistani technique. It came with a lot of controversy too – Imran was accused of ball-tempering. But he countered by declaring that all teams did ball-tempering of some kind or the other and it was only when the effects became visible that it was classified as ‘cheating’. Imran Khan, in my opinion, was an honest player; a hard and competitive player, but an honest one. He was flawed in his own way, but he made up for his flaws with his tremendous performances.
Imran Khan never really took his batting seriously. He had textbook technique, so he never had to rejig that aspect of his cricketing skill as much as he did with the ball. There was that careless approach which always left him short of true greatness, but that was before the ‘Renaissance’. Batting against England at Leeds in 1982, he scored 67*, batting mostly with the lower order. In his words, it was a ‘watershed’ moment. He averaged almost 52 in his last 50 tests after that, scoring 5 more centuries (he had 1 prior to that) and 14 more half-centuries (he had scored only 4 before that).
A severe stress fracture in the shin took away possibly the best 3 years of his bowling. He ended up with 362 Test scalps, but could have easily crossed 450 had it not been for injury. But that’s precisely the moment where one realizes the greatness of Imran Khan. When he knew that his bowling had taken a back seat, he improved his batting to such a level that he was easily one of the best batsmen in the world in the twilight of his career. Between 1987 and 1992, he averaged 59.69 with the bat over 28 matches, scoring 1552 runs. His average was second to only Martin Crowe in the world at that time.
But Imran’s legacy in Pakistan cricket isn’t restricted to just numbers. He is a cricketing legend in his country not just because of his ability with the bat and the ball but also because of his extended influence over a bunch of 10 other players who played under him every time Pakistan went out on the field. If he could do something on the field, everyone else could do it too, he told his boys. In the tumultuous world of Pakistan cricket, Imran Khan was the source of inspiration and a guiding light to so many talented youngsters who went on to become great cricketers in the decade after Imran Khan retired. Rameez Raja mentions how despite the most unfavorable of circumstances, after all those heartbreaking defeats earlier in the tournament, Imran Khan was the one in the dressing room with inspirational words – the captain who kept urging them to not give up. Wasim Akram always had the talent. He was, in Imran Khan’s opinion, the most talented bowler since Michael Holding. But that talent needed nurturing, and Imran’s was the best guidance that Wasim Akram ever got. He set the fields for him, advised him on the lines and lengths to be employed at different stages of the game, specially at the death. He took into his custody a talented but raw Wasim Akram and guided him to the path of greatness. Pakistan cricket can never thank him enough for that.
Imran Khan had decided to retire from international cricket at the end of the 1987 World Cup after losing to eventual winners Australia but was recalled by Pakistan’s president in 1988. He rejoined the team and led Pakistan to series wins in India and England. He was the only captain to not lose to West Indies over 3 series (all drawn) in that period and says that “We drew 1-1 but with neutral umpires we would have won 2-0.”
In a brittle batting line-up, he promoted himself to number 3 and along with Javed Miandad, anchored the Pakistani batting in the 1992 World Cup. He was the highest scorer in the final and dismissed the last English batsman to lift Pakistan to World Cup glory. Everyone vividly remembers that image – Imran Khan lifting the Benson and Hedges Cup. That was the last international match Imran played. He retired permanently six months after the final and left a tremendous legacy behind him. He was the most stylish, quintessentially Oxford flamboyant persona that Pakistan ever had. He was their king, their captain; flawed, yet magnificent.
The following clip gives the highlights of Imran Khan’s 10 wicket haul in the 3rd Test against England in 1987 at Leeds. Pakistan won the Test by an innings and 18 runs, and eventually, the series 1-0.
These are the other players who have made it so far:
Read the detailed write-ups on all the players in this list here: