About a year before that game he had returned to Pakistan after four years in England. It was a moment in his life, he felt, when decisiveness was needed. He was a cricketer but not much of one, least of all the fast bowler he believed was inside him. Cricket in England, though instructional, was utilitarian. Don’t bowl fast. Don’t bat like this. Don’t aim high. Just don’t. Not for the last time in his life, Pakistan cleared his mind. To hell with what anyone else thought: he was going to bowl fast.
It didn’t happen straightaway – there were things beyond even his will. English side effects lingered a while. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks before Sydney that it happened. Pakistan were in Melbourne and for the first half of the Test there, Imran was bowling English: not very fast, too straight, too meek, too bland. Twenty-four years old and now pissed off, he resolved to not give a shit in the second innings. The straitjacket had to come off. He would just bowl fast. Really fast. So he did. Breakthrough.
He would win the World Cup in 1992 but by then the trophy was a vessel, because he was less a cricketer and more… well, what was he not?
He took five wickets there, 12 more at Sydney, where he was frightening – fast enough that over the next few years, in golden years for very fast bowling, he would be among the fastest. Sydney was Pakistan’s most seminal win since The Oval in 1954. It changed Imran’s career, which meant it changed his life. It changed Pakistan cricket, a large tract of which still operates under the shadow he cast. And so if it changed all that, maybe it can now be seen as the match that changed Pakistan.
The first story I remember writing, in seventh grade, was “The Last Match.” It was 1987 and I was in Jeddah. Days earlier, Imran had played his last game, at his home ground in Lahore, where he led Pakistan to a shock defeat to Australia in the semi-final of the World Cup.
The forecast had Pakistan winning the tournament and Imran heading off into the sunset, his legend sealed. Instead, they lost. Imran was outstanding – he took three wickets, scored a fifty, but it wasn’t enough. Tactically, as captain, his one miscalculation – in leaving Saleem Jaffer to bowl the last over rather than himself or Wasim Akram – was crucial. But, okay. In Jeddah we saw highlights from the game a day later, which, as I think about it now, is more impressive than it sounds. Saudi Arabia had just two channels. Both were state-owned, and the country had zero ties to the game, other than through its large subcontinental expat population. Each time Imran ran in to bowl – and no lies, this simple ritual was everything; how men wished they could run and how women wished he would run to them – I remember hearing female fans in the stands chanting “Imran se darte ho” (You’re afraid of Imran).
Imran, then 35, retired. Between the loss and his exit, I’m not sure what affected me more but in “The Last Match” – a fictional recreation – Imran was bowled for zero and Pakistan lost. This was my first Imran – an expression. Of what I’m not sure; not identity, because there wasn’t any confusion, even if, a month from my 11th birthday, I would never have thought about it. For Gulf expat kids there is no confusion: you are forever the country your passport says you are, and so I was Pakistani, living in a country that wasn’t Pakistan, surrounded by kids from around the world. That simple. Perhaps it was the expression of some creative ache. A physical one? Other than one Saudi footballer (the great Majed Abdullah), Imran was the first sports star I wanted to be.
My family had never bought into the adulation of Imran. Cricket was not my father’s poison (sport generally wasn’t). My mother was from Karachi – which is important. As a natural impulse of nationalism, of course, they appreciated a Pakistani such as he, well regarded around the world and a high-achiever. But we are Muhajirs – who moved from India at partition and made Pakistan, mostly Karachi, home – so there was always the Karachi angle into Imran. This is an important angle, from which I would later come proudly, in the way you discover a band before others: in the universe of anti-Imran, Karachi was the first-born.
It was churlish. Karachi defined itself as not Punjab. The city was the country’s economic heart but Punjab its beating one. Karachi’s citizens were overlooked. So Imran’s sin was always that he was too Punjabi, and I don’t remember ever buying the “Pathan warrior” schtick. Karachiites cribbed that as captain he favoured Lahoris over Karachi players. He didn’t.
There was no mistaking his sense of entitlement though – textbook Punjabi – and it rankled. He would sit out a series if he thought it too hot to play, or if the opposition weak. And who would be left to pick up the pieces but Karachi’s very own Javed Miandad (shorter and darker we noticed, by the way). Imran would waltz back into the side at his convenience.
Imran was this feudal, lording over the game like it was his land. There’s a great story for this, of a team selection meeting at the 1992 World Cup, conducted in the inverse of a shooting squad executing a single unfortunate. Rising from the massage table, towel-clad, Imran pointed out from the 15 or 16 assembled in front of him the four or five to be put to sporting death, leaving 11 fortunates to survive and play. A tale yes, but really an imprint.
Years later Karachi would ban Imran after a bitterly childish political dispute between him and MQM, the city’s ruling party. The bar was temporary, though: the party got its own back permanently by naming a flyover leading towards the National Stadium after Qasim Umar. Backstory: the National Stadium was home to some of Imran’s greatest feats, and Umar a dashing Karachi batsman who didn’t have a career that warrants flyovers in his name. Except that in the mid-’80s Umar accused Imran of being a drug trafficker. Naturally Imran dropped Umar’s career dead, but among anti-Imranistas it was martyrdom. This was the equation.
His reawakening felt like an inevitable response to the path Zia-ul-Haq had set the country on. Born-again Muslims were everywhere; shopkeepers and cricketers, policemen and pop stars. Imran was missing only a beard
Imran would return to cricket, asked to do so by General Zia-ul-Haq. Possibly Imran was more influenced by an encounter with a spiritual figure – one Baba Chala – during a shooting trip soon after the World Cup. This man from a tiny village near the Indian border didn’t know who Imran was but told him that whatever he did, he was not done with it. This was the formative Sufi Imran – an alluring Imran – and maybe even the one he identifies with most: a simple man guided by a freewheeling, softer Islam.
He would win the World Cup in 1992 but by then the trophy was a vessel, because he was less a cricketer and more… well, what was he not? I was 15, happily Pakistani, but for the first time in my life, wanting to be in Pakistan. My senses – twinning Imran with another great contemporaneous Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali – were now tethered by sport and music, not separately but as one. Imran championed Nusrat, hosting A-list Lahori soirees in old havelis, with Nusrat performing, and he organised fundraising events around Nusrat. Actually Imran was a disciple. He played Nusrat’s qawwalis for motivation in the dressing room through the World Cup.
So here was this Renaissance man, winning a World Cup, building a cancer hospital in memory of his mother, and in servitude to the underprivileged, leaning towards Sufism. And because I was 15, the English Imran, the ladies’ Imran, was a life goal. Hell, he could run the country before breakfast, and was he even real?
There were some, of course, who chose to focus on his World Cup victory speech at this time. It was stilted and awkward and sans gratitude to his team. It was about how much it meant to him and his hospital. Oh, the self-obsession, the entitlement!
I didn’t think it was such a big deal. This was the Imran of the expat Pakistani dream (as it happens, Anglophone tabloids and society rags dreamt the same Imran).
In the summer of 2009, seven years into cricket journalism, I interviewed Imran for the first time. He was now shedding old Imrans, under which a new one was emerging – the saviour of Pakistan. How many more Imrans could lie underneath this?
We met at his house in Bani Gala, a secluded residential Islamabad area for high rollers. I don’t remember much about it except it was low and sprawling and the waiting room was sparse. It wasn’t of local architecture. I’m not minded to disagree with accounts that it is tastefully beautiful. I do remember the beauty without, sequestered upon a rise, with a view of the Margalla Hills and Rawal Lake. And thinking what sanctuary, what relief from the daily labours of saving a country it could be, except that much of the saving was being planned from within so it probably wasn’t.
He was in a white shalwar kameez, his standard attire since 1996, when he formed his political party. We didn’t stay long, as he was due to address a key constituency: university students. A TV journalist I knew and who was close to Imran had arranged our interview. TV journalists were another important constituency. Private news channels were half as old as they are now and had not worn thin. They were crusaders for democracy, expanding the population’s political bandwidth. Imran was the 24/7 channels’ 24/7 guy, dropping sound bites, hectoring, lecturing and bickering on talk shows. He was campaigning with a collar mic to a camera.
I hitched a ride. Imran was still two years away from his political Sydney. That would come in October 2011, at the Minar-e-Pakistan park in Lahore, where, after a period of real and relentless campaigning, a crowd anywhere between 70,000 and 100,000 gathered. Breakthrough. Just as Sydney left him unrecognisable, so too would this rally leave in our laps a different Imran.
“Athletic” would always be a valid description. Those around him understood this when leaking cellphone videos of Imran, at this age, running topless or pushing through some insane abdominal routine
That day in 2009, he was still the Imran who entered politics, which, so poorly had he and his party done since, still looked like the day he decided to not become a politician. Because he wasn’t. He had won one seat in three elections, and had none of the nous, cynicism, ruthlessness or disingenuousness – and whatever other essential traits make a politician – to complement his drive.
He had ideologies, which was so Cold War. He had clung to these from his first day, repeating them that day as if for the first time, incredulous, still, that nobody else got it. He had joined politics because he had “seen our country sinking”. What drove him was the pride of his generation, the first Pakistanis born in the new country.
He wanted a just society, a welfare state that granted its citizens “economic and education justice”. Instead, the country was Elitistan. “It’s only for a small coterie of people who have hogged all the resources. It marginalises the majority and such a country is doomed. We have to revert back to what it was originally made for, a welfare state, a democratic, Islamic welfare state, with Islamic concepts of social justice.”
Had Sufi Imran been a mere gateway for this more reconstructed, pious Imran? His mother’s death in the mid-’80s and his retirement had left him reassessing – and rediscovering – his life, and sure, major life events often draw these responses. Plus, this kind of reawakening felt like an inevitable response to the path Zia-ul-Haq had set the country on. Born-again Muslims were everywhere; shopkeepers and cricketers, policemen and pop stars, politicians and tycoons. Imran was missing only a beard.
Still, momentarily putting aside the content, it was possible to step back and admire the fact he was still talking about exactly the same ideas as in his very first press conference as a political leader. It was also possible to admire his refusal to become prime minister when offered it by Pervez Musharraf (who denies he ever offered it). And it was also possible to admire another feature, which the journalist Madiha Tahir would articulate in a 2012 profile of Imran for the Caravan magazine, an assessment prompted by a US diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks: “the man says in private exactly what he says in public”.
Imran with his second wife, Reham Khan, whom he married and divorced in 2015 © PTI/AFP
Strong-minded, principled, straight-talking – admirable, indeed. Not, however, especially useful in the business he was now in. Not useless, but those virtues wrought little tangible effect on real politics.
I asked him if he wasn’t disheartened by his lack of political success and he used the question as a springboard into what was then his most divisive viewpoint, and one that his critics would define him by. By 2009, the Pakistani Taliban had seized control of nearly the entire Swat Valley in the north-west, a feat several years in the making. Except that, because there was so much else going on in the country, it had escaped general notice that Swat was being lost. When it became clear, and that it was so close to Islamabad, the army moved in to take back control. In that fighting, hundreds of thousands of civilians were forcibly displaced to makeshift camps.
Imran had recently visited one of the camps, and more than disheartened, he had been depressed like never before.
“Getting money from a foreign country to bomb your own people? I cannot come to terms with this, and I cannot come to terms with an elite that actually backs this insane cruelty just to get US dollars, to put your people through such torture, if you look at the way these people are living.
“And then to say that anyone who opposes these military actions is pro-Taliban, it depresses me that we would fall to such depths of slavery.”
Now this was a perverse and troublesome reading of the problem. It wasn’t great that an army was fighting a war on its own land. No war is ever a good thing. It was worse that the mess was self-created. But this wasn’t about an army suppressing its own people, least of all for somebody else. It was trying to liberate them from an illegal and barbaric occupying force. Imran advocated talking, which, yes, is a noble stance, but the time for that had long gone. Nobody was going to talk the Taliban out of that valley. Or out of their plans – clearly stated several times – to take over the country.
His voice had found personality. Suddenly it could bite and taunt and mock. It stretched words and meaning. Sentences became daggers. He used his face to express disgust or disbelief
Later in the day he would apply a similarly obtuse understanding to the 2007 siege of Lal Masjid in Islamabad, which, on a much smaller scale, was the same thing – a belated military response to a gradual ceding of state writ to armed extremists, this time operating from inside a mosque. Imran criticised the state’s actions, ignoring the grave and illegal provocation that prompted it.
This wasn’t just political contrarianism – and there was somecurrency in his broader critiques of the US-Pakistan equation and its long continuing fallout. But this came across as a fundamental disconnect, a blind spot when it came to the blindingly obvious. He had done it before, in blocking changes to a particularly regressive set of laws applying to women, and would do it repeatedly in his absolutist attacks on the incredibly complex and unofficial US-Pakistan policy of droning militants. The “Taliban Khan” barbs began around this time, coarse like his views but unsurprising.
We reached the university and a moderator began with three personal memories that together amount to a quintessential national experience of Imran. None of them was to do with the Imran sitting next to him. The first was of going to a game in Quetta in 1978, star-struck at the prospect of seeing Imran live. The second was on a flight from England to Denmark, when a Danish gent asked him where he was from and upon hearing Pakistan inquired simply, “Imran Khan?” The third was a David Frost interview with Princess Diana. The Princess was asked to name three things she loves:
2. Getting away from Prince Charles
3. Imran’s run-up
(It’s okay to mentally place a series of question marks challenging the veracity of this one.)
All this while, Imran sat awkwardly. When he started speaking to the 300-odd students he was almost that cricketer again who was a poor communicator: he led by deed and danda (stick), not oratory. He had improved enough to talk in public but it was still at you, not to you. His voice could rise and create emphasis, it could convey a smile and anger, but the thing about Imran Khan’s public voice then was, even as it was deep, somehow its effect was shallow.
The word I want to use is “inauthentic” but not for it to mean he is lying, or even that he doesn’t believe in what he is saying. It’s because – and this is just a hunch – he’s trying to be somebody else.
In 2015, I met Majid Khan, Imran’s older cousin. Guys growing up need another guy they want to be, and for Imran, Majid was that guy. Majid was the star of Imran’s childhood cricket. Majid played first for Pakistan; Majid captained Pakistan; and by the time Imran was becoming a fixture in the side, Majid was an established superstar.
An injured Imran is taken to hospital after he fell off a makeshift elevator during an election rally in Lahore in 2013 © AFP/Getty Images
He was a natural, the kind whose numbers say zilch, but who exists through hidden and treasured anecdotes, bigger and brighter in every rare retelling – a hooked six; a legendary practice session in which he didn’t move his feet while batting, to prove a counterintuitive point; the battle for his trademark floppy white hat; reading books about Chinese communism while waiting to bat.
That kind of charisma doesn’t die. And so with Majid talking to me, the voice, not as deep but more resounding for the care taken over each word and the clear ascendancy within it of wisdom and patience, it struck me that Majid might be how Imran wants to see himself. The hands gestured with more grace and measure than Imran’s. The conviction of his beliefs, the firmness in argument, the disdain for fools, the gravitas – Majid was like an HD Imran. You could argue it was a genes thing, but I’d say it was aspiration of one for the elder.
And when Imran became captain, one of his first acts was to drop Majid and end his career. It was a call that could have gone either way. The pair didn’t speak for years but reconciled early this millennium. It’s said even now that Majid is one of the few who Imran will stop and listen to.
It being a talk about the young and politics, Imran tacked to apathy. “If you are human, you are political,” he urged. He quoted Aristotle on injustice, before, perhaps wary of coming across as too removed, finding his way back to a more resonant agenda. An analogy about a thousand deer and one cheetah was a slap to the cheetah sitting atop all of us: then president Asif Ali Zardari, husband of the late Benazir Bhutto, and for Imran’s purposes, the Don-God of All Corruption.
He reminded students that Muslims had made the first welfare state, and even that Muslims had introduced the concept of pensions. “We Muslims did this.” And now we Muslims, he couldn’t believe, were reduced to begging for money from the US; to allowing the US to bomb our own people; to bombing our own people at the behest of the US; Muslims, who had once overthrown empires.
A Swedish Nobel Laureate, he said, had written a book on Pakistan in the 1960s, marvelling at the success story. He talks about the book even today, even though there is no such book. Gunnar Myrdal wrote a chapter on Pakistan in Asian Drama: An Inquiry Into the Poverty of Nations, and one thing the chapter is not is the celebration of a success story. Still, Imran’s big answer was for Pakistan to go back further, to the earliest Islamic welfare state.
In a David Frost interview, Princess Diana was asked to name three things she loves: 1) Yoghurt, 2) Getting away from Prince Charles, 3) Imran’s run-up
The students were engaged and responsive but good school assemblies can be that. Had they just come across their new leader? Had he spoken words that would curl around like the beginnings of a dream in their head? Would they recite these words like a prayer? Were they words to change a country? Not that day perhaps.
This was Imran stuck in a long winter, a prominent political figure, not yet a politician.
On May 7, 2013, I saw Imran vulnerable for the first time in my life. I was 36 and he was 60, on TV, in a hospital bed, immobile and helpless. Staff had to wet his lips. He looked old.
He was there because he had fallen 15 feet off a makeshift elevator lifting him onto the stage at a rally in Lahore. It looked bad, and when party workers carried his limp body through a crowd to an ambulance, for all the world the scene could have come from the aftermath of a bombing. He came out relatively unscathed but it’s reasonable to think it could’ve been much worse.
It was a deeply unsettling moment. Whatever idea I had ever had of Imran was bound in some small but unbreakable way to his physical being, even sometimes tempered by it. Through all the Imrans, the one unchanged Imran was the one whose body was his temple. Time worked at him, his hair thinned and wrinkles appeared, but neither time nor gravity could say it had won. However else he could be and could look, “athletic” would always be a valid description. Those around him understood this when leaking cellphone videos of Imran, at this age, running topless in his gardens or pushing through some insane abdominal routine.
The topless Imran is legitimately another Imran, by the way, straight-backed and lean, not six-packed but fat-free, the arms and shoulders shaped to reveal muscles, not bulked up to flaunt them. This is not a gym rat’s body. It is, instead, a side effect. He didn’t care to have a good body – he happened to get it because he cared enough to be the best at what he did. Now it lay prone in one of those hospital gowns that, no matter how you wear them, hack at one’s dignity. I don’t think I had ever even seen him lying down.
It was also disturbing because, after a long time, it brought back the Imrans I had warmed to. Those Imrans were now buried deep beneath yet another new, ever more polarising Imran, the one who emerged this side of that transformative Minar-e-Pakistan rally in October 2011.
Imran was now a serious political force, a populist, and finally, a politician.
You could actually see the change in him at rallies. As late as December 2010, in Kot Addu in southern Punjab, Imran was addressing a crowd much as he had those students in Islamabad. A little louder, a touch more animated, but basically the same guy, as if still speaking to a TV audience. It was civil. Yet less than a year later this rally would look as if it had taken place in a different century, a different country, under a different leader.
At the Minar-e-Pakistan and thereafter, Imran was a piece of theatre. His voice had found personality. Suddenly it could bite and taunt and mock. It stretched words and meaning. Sentences became daggers. He used his face to express disgust or disbelief. His party hired a DJ – DJ Butt – who turned rallies into great big, rowdy parties. Imran would dance along (the verb is used charitably). He interplayed with this music, pausing, resuming, maintaining and raising tempo.
Nobody really knows how it happened, though you could take as few as five words from DJ Butt himself a long way. “Imran Khan is a quick learner.” A preternaturally good one, as it happens. If he was a great cricketer, it was because he was a great learner, able to take in lessons, apply and shape them, build from them. He did it in England as a teen, in learning reverse from Sarfraz Nawaz, in learning from the world’s best players on Kerry Packer’s circuit.
His messages, of anti-corruption, of a new country, were the same but they were now packaged in big, easy sells: They would end corruption in 90 days! A tsunami of change was coming! #NayaPakistan (a new Pakistan)! Change isn’t coming, change is here! At first, in the 2013 elections, it didn’t happen, but spurned, Imran smartly turned this to his advantage. He staged mass protest rallies against results he claimed had been rigged, bringing the country to a standstill – he basically continued campaigning without an election.
People said it was a revolution. From afar, I thought it an almighty tantrum, like he’d been forced to play in those series that he sometimes sat out of. Revolutions were not this much of a nuisance. Revolutions were noble and sexy. If there was a cause other than to assuage the personal slight he felt at not winning elections, I didn’t see it. I didn’t see it but millions inside and out of Pakistan did.
Guys growing up need another guy they want to be, and for Imran, Majid Khan was that guy
In 2013, Imran had also begun to welcome a number of established politicians into the party. Shortly before the 2018 elections, when he recruited many more, he called them “electables”, politicians welcomed not because they shared an ideology or principles but because they came with guaranteed vote banks in their constituencies.
These electables are a fixture of Pakistani politics, switching between major parties as and when the wind blows. In 2009, as the man who arrived clean into this mud pit, I had asked Imran what he thought of such politicians. Not much. They were “products of the status quo”, and their only purpose “protecting self-interests”.
“I can count on my two hands people who are ideologues, or who believe in ideology, who are in politics for some reason. The majority I have come across are on sale, they can switch loyalties.”
He didn’t need to say explicitly that he would not welcome them, but now that entire order – the self-interest, the sellability, the shifting loyalties – was his order. Now he acknowledges he needed them to win. He doesn’t see this as a defeat of his ideology, though we can conclude that he now understands the world doesn’t play out inside his head, it happens outside of it. How we see it depends: do you need to be inside and of the system to change it? The consolation is, perhaps, that the question matters enough to him.
I’ll concede that more than a new Imran this could be us forgetting an older Imran. Remember his admission of ball-tampering? For a captain seen as he was – as a man who brought order and integrity to his sides, and a staunch arbiter of fair play – admissions of cheating sat a little less than square. In his head it was fine. Everyone was doing it, and the surfaces they played on in Pakistan were so lifeless they compelled bowlers to do this.
Pragmatism, as this is, I can still live with. But it has gone beyond that – his cultivating of the religious right is the worst kind of cynicism. In 2009 his views were problematic but they were dulled by his own political haplessness. Now he is so far right as to be in the company of cranks, and his messages are reaching more people. In 2014, he ended a rally by tearing into the nepotism of Nawaz Sharif’s government. He promised his supporters he would pick a cabinet on merit, like he did his cricket sides. He gave them an example, of a bright young Pakistani economist at Princeton, cited somewhere as one of the 25 most influential economists of the future. Pakistanis like Atif Mian, Imran said, were the kind of people he wanted.
Not long after, Imran discovered that Mian was an Ahmadi. This was a problem. Ahmadis are a sect of Islam that has, since 1974, been the target of institutionalised discrimination, hate and murder in Pakistan. Constitutionally they are not even allowed to call themselves Muslims. The widely held belief in Pakistan is that Ahmadis waver from a central plank of Islam – the belief that Muhammad was the last Prophet. Ahmadis say they believe Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who founded their movement in the late 19th century in British India, is the second coming of a promised messiah, not a new prophet. The nuances have long been obliterated because inciting hatred of Ahmadis and imagining this tiny minority to be an existential threat to Islam has become an article of faith in Pakistan.
Imran backtracked publicly in an interview, explaining that he only mentioned Mian’s name because he had read it in a magazine and that he had “no idea he [Mian] had some campaign against Khatam-e-Nabuwwat [the finality of the Prophet]”. Anybody who did not believe in the finality was not, Imran said, a Muslim. The interviewer asked him whether Imran’s party would overturn the 1974 ruling and declare Ahmadis Muslims. Imran said no. His aim was to build an Islamic welfare state like the very first one in Madina. In such a state everyone – of whatever religion – was equal in the eyes of the law and God. To end, he repeated: “But to say that someone who does not believe the Prophet to be the last Prophet is Muslim, that cannot happen.”
If you said this wasn’t clear-cut incitement, I’d argue hard it was dog-whistling. Mian tweeted: “Stop trying to play God @ImranKhanPTI”.
It continued through this year’s election campaign, where Imran and the party loudly and repeatedly defended Pakistan’s blasphemy law. In a land of poor laws and poorly drafted ones, this one has borne a heavy cost, having been misused repeatedly to target minorities such as the Ahmadis. Fine, talk of changing it can get you killed, but to vehemently and publicly support it? And then, as Imran’s candidates did, fan the flames of a recent controversy by, as part of election reforms, claiming Nawaz Sharif wanted to remove the Khatam-e-Nabuwwat clause from the election oath? It led to an assassination attempt on a minister from Sharif’s party. In one of his final rallies before the election Imran declared that Sharif was doing it at the behest of international forces – so much like a rabid BTL comment come to life.
There were some, of course, who chose to focus on his World Cup victory speech at this time. Oh, the self-obsession, the entitlement! I didn’t think it was such a big deal. This was the Imran of the expat Pakistani dream.
Mian’s tweet was a response yes, but equally, you could see it as a prescription.
Forty years from when he was born publicly, I can’t say I know who or what the real Imran is. If anyone claims to, I’m all ears. No Pakistani can have been the subject of as wide a body of literature as Imran; autobiographies, biographies, personal histories, travel books, interviews, kiss-and-tells and tell-alls. Few have been on TV or in the newspapers as much, and I still can’t say whether one, real Imran exists somewhere down there. Some days I think that at 65 the real Imran is still unborn.
Days before the election, one of his ex-wives, Reham Khan, released a memoir in which Imran is a recurrent enough theme for the book to be added to this canon. In it we discover the long-gone English Imran is still alive – except, there is three times as much debauchery. Girls, guys, sex, drugs and kaali daal (black lentils: Ctrl + F in the pdf if you have it and can bear to); Reham makes headline claims about Imran’s private life, most notably that he is addicted to cocaine and often dances the night away after a line or ten, and sure, it sounds crazy to think Imran could ever dance recreationally, but can you say with confidence that he doesn’t? I can’t deny with any confidence the anecdote from a team-mate that Imran once smoked a joint in the toilets of the National Stadium before going out and wrecking India. Maybe I don’t want to. The point of Imran is that none of it is believable and all of it is believable. Maybe the revelations were not meant to hurt his election chances as much as his ego, by depicting him as one of the liberals of Elitistan he so despises.
Maybe, from ten months of marriage, Reham thinks she knows him.
His supporters think they know him. See how he energises them, as he once did Aaqib Javed and Mushtaq Ahmed at the 1992 World Cup with the now legendary “cornered tigers” speech. Pakistan were down, nearly out. Ahead of a must-win game he addressed players. For 20 minutes, in various permutations, he told them the same thing: they were the best. He ended summoning the image of the tiger on his T-shirt. Fight like cornered tigers, he told them, because nothing is more dangerous. Aaqib said his life changed in those minutes. Until a few years ago, it stood as the most effective speech Imran had given an audience, not because of what he said but because he was Imran summoning Imran, the Greatest Cricketer Pakistan Had Seen, in a moment of great need.
For years Karachi thought she knew Imran. Politically he was dead in the city, especially after that 2007 ban. In 2013 his party won one seat in the city.
Now Karachi thinks she knows him still: this year he won 14.
From the fringes of politics, Imran fought his way to the centre of power, but at what cost to his supposed ideals and ultimately to Pakistan? © Getty Images
And if all reportage of their backing is true – and purely from under the weight of Pakistani history, why not? – the army think they know him. At least enough, they think, to be able to use him. Maybe he will leave foreign policy and defence to them. Maybe he will serve their ploy of ultimately weakening all political forces. They will definitely have seen those speeches he made years ago accusing intelligence agencies of meddling in politics by backing some politicians over others, which is what his opponents claim is happening with him now. I know only that the Pakistani army is not renowned for making a lot of great judgement calls.
None of them think wrong.
Over 24 hours after polling closed Imran appeared on TV to make his unofficial victory speech. He was in a room in his Bani Gala house, wearing a white shalwar kameez. The bags under his eyes spoke of the toll of the last few years.
Behind him was a picture of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the man who lawyered Pakistan out of India. But it wasn’t the photo of Jinnah you might expect, the official portrait found in all government offices – an old man staring sternly down at the country. Some days I swear the disapproval in his eyes is impossible to avoid. This picture behind Imran was of a much younger Jinnah, sitting by a desk and appearing unapologetically Western.
In a photograph of the room taken just before his speech, there was a framed Quranic verse on the fireplace. When he began his speech it was no longer there and neither was the Imran any of us had known until then.
Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo