The making of Imran Khan


IMRAN KHAN — The Cricketer, The Celebrity, The Politician: Christopher Sandford; HarperCollins Publishers, A-53, Sector 57, NoidA-201301. Rs. 499.

Imran Khan is among the most captivating men cricket has known. Remote, forceful, mysterious; born to lead but in essence an introvert; and a man who relentlessly courted greatness, Imran demands a richly researched treatment if one is to appreciate his proclivities, his humour. Christopher Sandford meets this challenge in this nuanced biography. Having written on Roman Polanski, Mick Jagger, Kurt Cobain, Paul McCartney, and Godfrey Evans, among others, he understands the complexities that tincture icons; more to the point, he understands how to evoke them.

“By the time Imran was old enough to take an interest in his surroundings, the struggle for the character and soul of Pakistan was well under way,” writes Sandford. The sights, sounds, and smells of Lahore during Imran’s childhood are reconstructed — neither a happy nor an unhappy childhood, as Imran describes it, but a secure, serious one. Sandford writes evocatively, exploring his lineage (“he clearly inherited qualities from both sides of the clan, the spiritual instinct and sporting prowess of the Burkhis and the dour application of the Niazis”) and elaborating on the capers of his childhood. “As a six- or seven-year-old, Imran had regularly run for more than three kilometres from one end of Zaman Park to the other, a contraption [kite] painted like the Pakistani national flag fluttering above him …[he] enjoyed his food, particularly the heavily spiced curries … and was known to attend extended performances of Qawwalis.”

As a fast bowler

Sandford traces the onset of Imran’s patriotism, the creation of his celebrity, and the maturation of his leadership. But it is the study of his evolution as a fast bowler that provides the book its je ne sais quoi. “Imran was not only an accomplished bowler, but a visually thrilling one,” he writes. “From a low, crouching start he accelerated with a sprinter’s poise and balance in his approach to the wicket, which culminated in a last-second propulsive leap and a virile, full-stretch whip of the body.” Each of these aspects is examined. This makes for instructive reading, for Imran transformed himself from a bowler of moderate speed to one of searing pace.

The temperament came naturally to him, who rebelled against bowling “line-and-length stuff.” The propulsive leap was suggested by a young New Zealand batsman at Birmingham’s indoor nets, and the run-up was streamlined after watching Dennis Lillee and Michael Holding from close quarters during the World Series. As Imran reveals, he was always after penetrative pace; what’s remarkable, though, is how he put them together, experimenting so successfully that only Jeff Thomson, among his contemporaries, was significantly faster.


The book is full of interesting episodes. A young Imran refuses to make Sadiq Mohammad a cup of tea, and calmly watches the senior player’s bemusement at not being obeyed. Two decades later, when Mushtaq Ahmed attempts to lift Imran’s bags, the captain says ‘thank you’ and insists on carrying his bags himself. He asks Abdul Qadir to cultivate a “pointed French-style beard” because it both unsettles the batsmen and works with the women. During a night out, Garth le Roux, his Sussex team-mate, asks him to come, meet some women, and Imran, with a glass of milk in hand (he is a teetotaller), says if girls want to meet him, “they can bloody well come over here.”

Sandford also looks at Imran’s batting and his sense of humour. Beautifully orthodox and capable of “full-bodied” stroke-play, he was nevertheless curiously diffident about his abilities. It was not until his innate competitiveness was triggered (and he was forced by injury to play as a pure batsman for a while) that he displayed his batting ability, averaging 50 in the last ten years of his Test career. As for his humour, the accounts are conflicting.

The book has much to commend itself. The blurb describes Imran as being “equally at home in London nightspots like Annabel’s and Tramp and campaigning among the slums of Lahore,” and Sandford develops this theme masterfully, his intent to inquire into, not judge, this apparent incongruity.

The writer also succeeds in capturing the magnitude of his achievements as Pakistan’s captain. There are a few quibbles — surely Imran’s defining international performances deserve a greater play, as does India’s perception of him — but they do not detract from what is a rewarding work.

Recommended for you