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Is Imran the best ever ?

Imran Khan
You can’t talk about Pakistan cricket without invoking his name. He is the number one, it, Mr Pakistan to cricketers all over the world. In his country’s short history they have turned out some very talented players, individually gifted, quiet, well-mannered, kind and generous people. But collectively, at best they’ve been like unruly children and at worst a rabble.

I always felt that if someone could come along and harness all that talent they would be capable of beating anyone in the world but so often they were riven by in-fighting, intrigue, interference by ex players, politicians and just about anyone with an axe to grind.It became a free for all.

‘Immy’ was the best ever at holding it all together and the exception to everything that had gone before, so professional, disciplined, totally committed and clear thinking. He had such desire, such a forceful personality, was so tough, that I admire him tremendously. Off the field he was cricket’s heart-throb and made girls’ as weak at the knees as the batsmen who faced him with a wonderful physique which was the result of hard training and on the field he was a charismatic captain who led by example. No one in cricket worked harder than he did and by his effort and all round talent he persuaded others who saw him train and practice that they couldn’t give anything less than their best because they knew he wouldn’t accept it. He had that indefineable quality of getting the best out of people, a great cricket brain and he knew what he expected of himself and others. That was good for Pakistan.

I love ‘em to bits and understand their psyche very well but if you leave their players to their own devices they’ll fall apart fighting each other instead of the opposition and until ‘Immy’ came along that happened all too often.

We always talk about Sir Richard Hadlee, Kapil Dev, Sir Ian Botham and  as the great bowling all rounders of the seventies and eighties but Imran tops the lot, just look at his record and remember he was bowling on those flat, barren pitches in Pakistan where a sheep couldn’t find a blade of grass.

He made his Test debut at Birmingham against England in 1971 when he was run out for 5, didn’t take a wicket in 28 overs and wasn’t picked again for three years. While up at Oxford University he made his reputation as a batsman with a hundred in each innings against Nottinghamshire in The Parks in 1974 and another that summer, 170 against Northamptonshire on the same ground. He played in all three Tests in England in 1974 but did nothing special with 92 runs and five wickets. In the first two Tests on the Australian tour of 1976-77 in Adelaide and Melbourne he totalled 86 in four innings and had six wickets for 354 runs before the party moved down to Sydney for the last game in the series. I was in Australia at the time playing for Waverley and because our ground was being dug up we were practising at the SCG at the same time as the tourists. I knew Mushtaq Mohammad, the skipper, and Asif Iqbal, the vice captain, from county cricket and they asked what I thought of their bowling. I told them that Sarfraz Nawaz, who played for Northamptonshire, was bowling an ‘English line’, too straight for Australia, and should bowl outside off stump. ‘Immy’, at that time, was nothing more than a lively medium pacer and I told ‘Mushy’ that he had the physique to bowl genuinely quick and he should use him to go flat out in short spells and be a real strike bowler. They tried it in Brisbane against Queensland and in the Test in Sydney Imran, bowling like lightning, had six for 102 and six for 63, in the second innings getting through 19.7 eight ball overs in a spell broken only by the tea interval. Sarfraz finished with six wickets in the match for 119 and Imran had 12 for 165 as Pakistan won for the first time ‘Down Under’. I was in both dressing rooms and the Aussies were amazed at his stamina and resilience. Rod Marsh said: “He just didn’t get tired. You’d hit him for four and he’d come back at you faster than ever”

I think I might have had a part in the transformation but I don’t know why I should be doing Imran any favours because he stopped me making a century against all first class opposition when he bowled me for 89 at The Parks in May 1974, the nearest I came to completing the clean sweep, the highest score I made against the Dark Blues in eight attempts!

He went to play in Kerry Packer’s World Series cricket for two years but came back with 123 against the West Indies in Lahore, 16 wickets at 19.5 in the three Tests in Australia in November 1981 and had match figures of 14 for 116 against Sri Lanka in Lahore in March 1982.

He first captained Pakistan on the tour of England in 1982 and although they lost the three match rubber 2-1 he was outstanding with 21 wickets at 18.57 and 212 runs at an average of 53.

Back home in 1982-83 he had 13 wickets in three defeats in the Tests against Australia then came India the same winter. This was World War Three to both countries and Pakistan won the six match series 3-0. Imran had three for 19 and eight for 60 in Karachi in the second game and in the next, at Faisalabad, six for 98, five for 82 and 117, incredible stuff. In the six Tests he took 35 wickets at 12.91 each and finished the winter with 48 victims. At the age of 30 he was a God.

Astonishingly, the selectors removed him as captain and appointed Zaheer Abbas in his place for the 1983-84 tour of Australia but the president of the Pakistan Board of Control sacked the selectors, reinstated him and allowed Imran to pick a new team. That’s how big he was. In the event he was suffering from a stress fracture of the left shin, wasn’t really fit and missed the first three Tests. In the fourth, in Melbourne, playing as a batsman, he made 83 and an unbeaten 72.

In the winter of 1984-85 he played for New South Wales and helped them win the Sheffield Shield taking 25 wickets in six games at 19.52 including nine for 100 in the one wicket win over Queensland in the final at Sydney.

When Sri Lanka went to Pakistan in 1985-86 he had nine for 95 at Sialkot in the second Test and, even on a big spinners’ pitch in Karachi, in the next he had five for 64 in the match to finish with 17 wickets at 15.8 each.

In the West Indies in October 1986 he took 18 wickets in the three match series at 11.11 each but wickets were hard to come by in India in 1987 where four of the five games were drawn, Pakistan winning in Ahmedebad, but there was compensation with 135 in the first Test in Madras.

He produced the series winning performance on the 1987 tour of England with 10 for 77 in the innings and 18 run victory at Leeds in the third Test and made sure England didn’t get back into it with eight for 190 in the fourth at Birmingham and a century, 118, at The Oval, both drawn.

In the Caribbean in 1987-88 he had 23 wickets in the three Test rubber at 18 each and there were a few who could play in that West Indies side like Desmond Haynes, Gordon Greenidge and Ritchie Richardson.

Wherever he played he led from the front and produced match winning performances not just from himself but from those around him. To average 37.69 mainly from number seven in the order and take 362 wickets at 22.81 says it all.

Extract taken from The Best X1 by Geoffrey Boycott, by kind permission of Penguin Books www.penguinbooks.com <http://www.penguinbooks.com/>   The book is also on sale at The Shop