The chief of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Imran Khan, has been rather busy lately, conducting press conferences and appearing on various TV channels, answering the scathing criticism he has come under for his delayed condemnation of the shameless shooting of young Malala Yusufzai by the Thehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP).
Much has already been written and spoken about this, including the concern that just like the Jamat-e-Islami (JI), Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) and to a certain extent, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Khan too tried to connect the horrid shooting of a 14-year-old school girl by remorseless Islamists to the issue of US drone strikes in Pakistan.
I’m not going to go into the details about this. Men like Geo’s leading anchor, Hamid Mir, and insightful political commentators like Najam Sethi and Dr. Farrukh Saleem have already poked gaping holes into what Khan had to say in his defense.
Instead, I’m going to take another, much lighter, route. And I’ll do so because I think I know why in spite of facing some cutting but constructive and largely accurate criticism that Khan received at the hands of political and intellectual sleuths like Sethi and Saleem, he is most likely to hold on to his narrative that puts all the blame on US drone strikes and the US presence in Afghanistan for the intense wave of Islamist violence that has been sweeping the country for the past many years.
I do not agree with him for reasons, again, already highlighted and brilliantly articulated by Sethi and Saleem.
And it’s a shame, really, that the more Khan tries to sound different from old, right-wing war horses such as the PML-N and JI, the more he sounds almost exactly like them, especially when it comes to things like Islamist terrorism and the role of the Pakistan’s armed forces and the Americans in what is not only Pakistan, Afghanistan or the United States’ war against Islamist violence, but the whole world’s.
Nevertheless, back to why I believe I know how Khan behaves the way he does. I haven’t met him in person ever, but I’ve seen him play for the Pakistan cricket team on numerous occasions at Karachi’s National Stadium ever since I was just a young school kid in the mid-1970s.
Being a huge cricket fan, Khan, along with the wily Javed Miandad and the flamboyant Wasim Raja, were my favorites. But Khan was right at the top.
In fact, for us college student activists in Karachi who were struggling against and facing the brutalities of the Ziaul Haq dictatorship, it was people like Benazir Bhutto and Imran Khan who were our idols.
So, it was only natural, at least for young men like me, to not only follow every move made by the late BB, but by Khan as well.
He was a unique cricketing personality. Inspired by the aggressively intelligent ways of former Australian cricket captain, Ian Chappell, Khan coupled his professionally honed cricketing skills with mental tactics that were unprecedented in the topsy-turvy world of Pakistan cricket.
This ability of his largely came forth when he was made the captain of the country’s cricket team in 1982. And what he developed then as a cricket captain has remained with him to this day.
So it is in this context I will try to explain why I believe I know he will be slow or unwilling to change his mind on his understanding of the issue of terrorism in Pakistan even in the face of some harsh but entirely intelligent and well-informed criticism he has faced from some of the finest political commentators at home and abroad.
Throughout his long tenure as Pakistan’s cricket captain, Khan was a man with a sharp cricketing mind. But at the same time he was also prone to overtly trust his ‘gut feeling’ as well. This fattened his cricketing disposition with a unique mixture of two opposites: The mind and the gut.
Such a mixture worked rather well for him, helping him to rise to become one of Pakistan’s finest and most respected cricket captains.
However, this meeting of mind and gut made him hold on to it so hard and so self-assuredly, that it also began to make him behave in a rather dictatorial and, at times, in an arrogant manner.
So much so that when decisions taken or judgments made by him with the above-mentioned disposition backfired or flopped, he continued overriding the criticism he faced for taking these decisions and kept insisting on repeating them.
And he is still doing this. So I would like to address him by putting in front of him something from his cricketing past that, to me, proves, why this attitude of his can work wonders, but when it flounders, it can spell a monumental disaster.
So here goes. In 1982 when he was made the captain of the Pakistan cricket team, his first assignment was to lead the team on a difficult tour of England, that had only a year before devastated a strong Australian side.
Practicing with the selected 16-member squad at Lahore’s Qaddafi Stadium, Khan bumped into an unassuming and poorly dressed man who was there to see the players doing their thing at the nets.
That man was Abdul Qadir. Qadir had played a couple of Tests as a leg-break bowler for Pakistan between 1977 and 1979 but had then been unceremoniously dropped and almost totally forgotten about.
As Khan himself writes in his 1994 book, ‘An All Round View’, he did not even recognise Qadir – until he saw him bowl a few deliveries in the nets that day.
Right away Khan approached him, asking him what he was up to.
‘Nothing,’ came the answer. Qadir had even struggled to find a place in the side he represented in Pakistan’s domestic cricket circuit.
Impressed by his bowling, Khan’s mind began to tick. In those days, leg-break bowling had fallen out of favor. When India’s great Chandrashekar retired from the game in 1979, it was as if leg-break bowling had become forgotten history.
Pakistan at the time banked on its quick bowlers led by Imran and the mercurial Sarfraz Nawaz, backed by men like Sikandar Bakht and Tahir Naqash. In the spin department, it had the left-arm orthodox spin of Iqbal Qasim and the off-spin of Tauseef Ahmed.
But Khan’s mind was made up. He wanted the unorthodox leg-spin of Qadir. His mind told him that the English players, bred on seaming wickets would struggle against Qadir’s spin. His gut feeling told him Qadir was up for the challenge.
But the team had already been selected. The selectors turned down Khan’s request to add Qadir. He insisted. The selectors refused again, saying Qadir was a spent force.
Khan put his foot down, even threatening to pull out of the tour. The gamble worked. Qadir was in.
A section of the press vehemently attacked Khan for bringing in a Punjabi spinner at the expense of the Karachi-born ones, Qasim and Tauseef.
This put even more pressure on Khan. Not only did he have to prove the selectors wrong, he had to make Qadir fire to answer his critics in the press.
His gut feeling had encouraged him. Now the mind stepped in. Khan explains the following with great relish in his 1994 book.
He decided to present Qadir as a ‘mystery spinner’ to the English players and press. Not only did he explain him as such to the British press, he convinced Qadir to keep a goatee (!) so he would look more menacing and appear as a ‘wizard.’
The stunt worked. Not only did Qadir actually bamboozle the English, he went onto to become one of the world’s finest leg-break bowlers, hailed as the man who ‘revived leg-break bowling in Test cricket.’
Qadir also inspired a young Australian who today is unanimously hailed as perhaps the greatest leg-break spinner the game has ever scene: Shane Warne.
During Australia’s 1994 tour of Pakistan, Warne made it a point to visit Qadir at his residence in Lahore.
Khan was convinced his gut and mind work well together. And on most occasions they did. But when they didn’t …
Across his captaincy, Khan was accused of becoming increasingly dictatorial and stubborn, so much so that it began to negatively affect his cricketing judgment.
During the grueling 1987 tour of the Pakistan team of India, the 5-Test series stood at a stalemate when the Indians suddenly produced a torrid turner for the last Test.
In his book ‘The Cutting Edge’, the team’s then vice-captain, Javed Miandad, explains how he advised Imran to drop Qadir and bring in Iqbal Qasim for the Test.
Imran refused. How could he not play Qadir on a spinning track! Miandad insisted that the track would be more suitable for an orthodox left-arm turner, and with Qasim also being a decent left-handed tail-end batsman, he could blunt the kind of spin bowling the Indians had.
Miandad writes how Khan kept stubbornly refusing his advice, but Miandad kept persisting. Khan finally relented, but warned that they would rue the decision.
Hardly. Not only did Qasim take the most wickets in the game, he played an important role as a batsman as well. Pakistan won the match by just 17 runs and the series. Their first in India after almost 36 years!
Imran did not mention this in his cricket biographies. He hated being proven wrong. Still does.
Like I said, Imran’s stubborn trust on the way his mind and gut work together had produced some amazing results for Pakistan cricket, but even though somehow this stubborn approach could have cost Pakistan a crucial game in India, it was him allowing his ego to heed the advice of Miandad that not only helped the team win the game but to also perhaps save Khan’s reputation.
He must keep this in mind as a politician as well. Because one day this stubborn dependence on the gut-driving-the-mind attitude finally did almost succeed in making the Khan’s otherwise glorious cricketing career come to a crashing end.
This is how it happened. Khan had a great liking for batsmen like Haroon Rasheed and especially, Mansoor Akhtar. In spite of the fact that by the early 1980s, Rashid’s skills had begun to look pale in comparison to what they were in the late 1970s, Khan kept preferring him over the dashing left-hander, Wasim Raja.
Raja was a loner. Khan wanted a team man. But Rashid kept failing him as Raja kept losing vital years of his career due to this. And by the time Khan finally decided to dump Rashid, Raja was past his prime. He retired in 1986.
But this was nothing compared to what happened in 1987, when it seemed Khan’s stubbornness to stick to his disposition and refuse to heed constructive advise cost him a sudden retirement and loss of face.
There is no doubt Mansoor Akhtar was a highly talented batsman. As a person who has played high grade college and club cricket in Karachi myself, I also had a chance to see him play. On his day he could devastate a bowling attack with the style and grace of the great Majid Khan.
But over and over again Akhtar demonstrated that he just didn’t have any temperament for big games. His career as a Test player that began in 1981 should have been over by 1983, but thanks to Imran who (at the expense of a number of some outstanding batting talents available), kept persisting with Mansoor.
Mansoor’s skills reminded Khan of the style and talents of his cousin, Majid Khan. A fair observation, indeed, but that’s about it.
For years Khan continued to keep him in his side, and for years Mansoor continued to disappoint.
And then came the 1987 World Cup; a tournament Pakistan were hot favorites to win. As they made it to the semi-finals with style, there in Lahore, they were up against a much weaker Australian side.
The team’s selection panel included Imran, Miandad, the manager and some other senior players. It was decided to field the strongest combination for the huge game. Khan’s IX included Mansoor.
Others suggested to try some other batsman because Mansoor usually caved-in during big games. Khan refused to change his mind. And Mansoor was played. Alas, Mansoor played and flopped again.
Pakistan lost the game. Imran, who had served so brilliantly for the country, began to be taken apart by the press. The shock of the loss was so devastating that he actually cried in the dressing room. Then, he announced his retirement.
It’s not only because of Mansoor that Pakistan lost. But he was the weakest link in Pakistan’s batting line-up. His unsurprising early dismissal put unwanted pressure on the line-up that crumbled, with only Khan and Miandad showing some spine.
During the Mansoor Akhtar debacle, Khan had made three mistakes: Blindly and egoistically trusting his gut-mind combination, refusing to believe that some situations require a clever show of pragmatism; rejected good advise just because it wasn’t compatible to what his gut and mind were telling him; and he had allowed personal liking of a player to influence his judgment.
Khan and Mansoor got along very well. They also enjoyed the same ‘highs’ as well. But to be fair to Khan, Mansoor certainly was a gifted player. However, he was just not cut-out for top-level cricket.
So then, this is how I see Khan behaving in his politics as well. Forget about the usual attacks he faces for being a Taliban sympathiser (‘Taliban Khan’), or a hypocrite who’d been a ‘liberal fascist’ during his pre-politics years, but now has the audacity to throw accusations on the moralistic dispositions of ‘war loving liberals of Pakistan,’ throwing at them a rhetorical combination of Abul Ala Maududi’s right-wing Political Islam and bleeding-heart Caucasian liberalism.
This piece was not constructed to deal with the above. This piece is a sincere advice by an old Khan fan to listen to informed and constructive criticism.
Because if his stubbornness and the gut-mind combination fails in politics, especially regarding his still wobbly stand on the issue of extremism, this time the loss won’t be about just a cricket game. It may well be about Khan as a politician, or more importantly, of Pakistan as a country.
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.