The first time I saw Imran Khan was on black and white television in India, in 1978, when the Faisalabad Test began, as India took on Pakistan after a gap of 17 years. As he came bounding in, bowling to Sunil Gavaskar, for a moment I thought this is what a classic duel is about: the world’s most exciting all-rounder bowling to the world’s greatest opener. Gavaskar excelled in that series, scoring 447 runs, including two centuries in the last Test (and two more near-centuries); Khan’s swashbuckling exploits played no small role in winning the series for Pakistan.
Later, he joined the Packer circus: Images of him wearing a T-shirt saying “Big Boys Play at Night” exuded a sex appeal cricketers possessed but had never exhibited. He was cricket’s first pin-up model.
Then I saw Khan in Sharjah: I was a correspondent with India Today, and I was there to cover a tri-nation series, which Pakistan won with ease. By then, Khan had become royalty: He had added an arrogant swagger to his persona. Men danced when he hit sixes, women swooned and boys had dreams of emulating him. Two years later, he won the World Cup for Pakistan.
The den: Khan at his London home in the 1970s; one visitor’s impression of it was, ‘a Sixties’ art gallery crossed with a sultan’s harem’. Courtesy HarperCollins India
All along, Khan was never far from the gossip columns. The paternity trial he faced in England did little to dent his reputation. For some, his mystique was enhanced when he married Jemima Goldsmith. That marriage did not last, though, and Khan became a politician, angry with the successive rulers of Pakistan and their duplicitous policy of appeasement with Americans on the one hand, and pretence of being holy at home. Khan himself flirted with dangerous politics, his views often appearing in alignment with oddball fundamentalists.
Khan’s is a fascinating saga: A world class sportsman who propelled his country to the top of the cricketing world, albeit briefly; lover of many women whose hearts he broke easily; a quixotic politician who failed to translate his personal popularity into political appeal in a country crying out for heroes; a man deeply affected by the death of his mother, which prompted him to make a herculean effort to raise nearly $60 million (around Rs281 crore now) to build a world-class cancer hospital in Pakistan.
In fact, his mother had a deep impact on his life. Early on in Imran Khan: The Cricketer, The Celebrity, The Politician, his new biography of Khan, author Christopher Sandford writes, quoting him: “‘Once, when I was 13,’ Imran recalls, ‘I was stopped by the police while I was driving my father’s motor car. Of course, I didn’t have a licence. So I did the only thing possible under the circumstances. I bribed the policeman. He took the money and I drove away again scot-free. But later that day the chauffeur, who’d been sitting next to me in the car, reported the incident to my mother. She was livid.’”
Those who witnessed (or even heard of) the fury of this normally serene, well-bred lady would long marvel at the scene. By resorting to bribery, Khan had brought a terrible shame both on himself and his family. No punishment was too severe for this uniquely heinous offence. Khan’s spluttering attempt at a defence was cut short by his mother’s abrupt verdict on the matter. “You’re not other boys,” she reminded him, decisively. “You are a Pathan.”
How dramatic would such a life be! And yet, in the hands of Sandford, whose past biographies include works about cricketers Godfrey Evans and Tom Graveney, musicians Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Kurt Cobain and David Bowie, and film-maker Roman Polanski, this book fails to rise above the tedium and trivia, making it read like, well, Wisden’s Almanac without the essays. Not only does the cricket fail to stimulate, so does the titillating promise of sex.
Much has been made of the book’s most interesting nugget, involving Khan and the late Benazir Bhutto at Oxford in the 1970s. Did they or didn’t they? Sandford claims that Bhutto, then 21, became “infatuated” with the dashing Khan, and the pair had a “close” and “possibly sexual” relationship. Given the conservative nature of Pakistani society (and Bhutto’s subsequent arranged marriage), and given their proximity, you yearn for more. Add the fact that Khan and Bhutto never admired each other’s politics. How neat, and how Bollywood-like an explanation would it have been, if you could trace the origins of their political rivalry to a failed love affair at Oxford? But Sandford’s confidante can only tell him that Bhutto was “visibly impressed” by Khan, and may have been the first to call him the “Lion of Lahore”. All Sandford can say: “It also seems fair to say that the relationship was ‘sexual’, in the sense that it could only have existed between a man and a woman. The reason some supposed it went further was because, to quote one Oxford friend: ‘Imran slept with everyone.’” This is conjecture, not an insight or a disclosure.
What’s interesting is the description of Khan’s apparent contradictions, even as he turns to God. Citing Syra Vahidy, a friend of Khan’s, who with her husband invited Khan and his then German girlfriend to a shooting party in 1994 in rural Pakistan: Khan was wearing Pakistani attire, and throughout that trip, he kept talking about his new-found interest in religion. He talked about his rediscovery of his own faith and traditions. He kept telling his girlfriend of the proper Islamic protocol. Instead of cricket, he spoke of God. “Imran seemed almost to have reinvented himself as a man of God. Of course, he and his girlfriend still slept together at night.” Sandford quotes Vahidy as saying, and in that juxtaposition, offers all the contradictions about the man.
Imran Khan: The Cricketer, the Celebrity, the Politician: HarperCollins, 402 pages, Rs499.
Indeed, it is such observations, where people who have known Khan offer insights through anecdotes, that redeem the book. There are many other interviews, including with musicians and rock stars who were Khan’s friends on the party circuit, players and managers from the world of county cricket, and politicians who know him. But banality rules, as does anonymity—particularly when it comes to women talking about their relationships with Khan. But oddly enough, given that they are granted anonymity, their impressions are often pedestrian. Taken together, these insights reveal Khan as a selfish, misunderstood man who is, in the end, flawed. That would have made a great story, but it would have required a different book.
Salil Tripathi writes the fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.
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