Once upon an ambassador

Updated March 05, 2015

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Before forming his own political party in 1996, Imran Khan had already joined a government.

This is one fact that has completely gotten lost in the loud cacophony of noises in the media that have been commenting on his every move for the last three years or so.

After retiring from cricket in 1992, Khan had decided to put all his efforts in completing a cancer hospital in Lahore for which he had been gathering funds and patronage from the late 1980s.

Although he had studied political science at Oxford, and (during his cricketing years) did exhibit some interest in his country’s politics, he had gone on record to suggest that he was not cut-out for a career in politics, and that his disposition as a man was such that it would leave him struggling to come to terms with the thorny dynamics of politics in Pakistan.

But this did not mean he never harboured any political ambitions, because after all why (in 1991) would he be asking a spiritual guru what the stars in the cosmos and the lines on his palms were suggesting about his fate as a possible politician?

Even before he put forth this inquiry to the spiritual guide (pir), he had suggested that the lingering issue of Kashmir between India and Pakistan be resolved on the cricket field!

He made this statement in 1989 when he was still the captain of the Pakistan cricket team.

Nevertheless, though he had come out of an early retirement in 1987 to eventually lead the team to win the 1992 World Cup, he had done so purely on the belief that he could attract a continuous flow of funds for his cancer hospital project only as long as he remained a popular cricketer and a successful captain in a cricket-crazy country.

He was right.

The funds first came pouring in when Pakistan won an international cricket tournament in India in 1989 (The Nehru Cup), and then, of course, after he led the team to lift its first ever cricket World Cup by beating England in the finals at the imposing Melbourne Cricket Stadium in Australia.

Khan lifts the cup, 1992.
Khan lifts the cup, 1992.

Contrary to popular belief, Khan did not contemplate retirement after the 1992 World Cup.

According to British author, Ivo Tennant (who wrote one of the most insightful books on Khan in 1996), Khan feared that the money for the hospital would dry out once the euphoria of the World Cup victory fades away.

The Pakistan team was scheduled to tour England for a 5-Test series in the summer of 1992 and Khan wanted to use that tour (as captain of the team) to raise the kind of funds that would finally see the hospital up and running.

Though extremely popular with the players that he led (in partnership with his trusted vice captain, Javed Miandad), he faced an unprecedented predicament in which he saw a few players airing their displeasure with the way he was asking them to donate the money they had started to receive as gifts from rich fans after the World Cup victory.

Ever since the late 1980s, the players had happily donated generously to Khan’s hospital project. But after the World Cup, when money came bucketing in, a group of players led by Javed Miandad made it clear that this time the players would be keeping much of the money for themselves.

Unlike Khan, Javed had risen to cricketing stardom from a lower middle-class family in Karachi, and so had most other players who had grown up playing cricket on the streets.

They had happily donated large portions of their winning bonuses to Khan’s hospital project, but many of them agreed with Miandad when – during a function hosted by Pakistanis in Singapore to honour the team for winning the Cup in Australia – Miandad publicly announced that the money they would be receiving in Singapore will remain in the pockets of the players who had struggled and worked hard to make it big.

The other player who was most vocal about this declaration was Salim Malik, a classy middle-order batsman who had made a stunning debut in Test cricket in 1982 but had never been in Khan’s good books.

However, Khan recognised his obvious talents and kept Malik in the team, despite his famous labeling of Malik as a ‘flat track bully’ – or someone who (as a batsman) could only perform well on flat pitches of the Indo-Pak subcontinent and in Sharjah (in the UAE).

The irony is that Malik had passionately agreed with Miandad on the post-Cup money issue, despite the fact that he had been a complete failure in the World Cup!

Khan and his players celebrate the World Cup victory: ‘But this time, we’re keeping the money, skipper …’
Khan and his players celebrate the World Cup victory: ‘But this time, we’re keeping the money, skipper …’

When Khan came to know about Miandad’s announcement and the fact that at least six to seven other players were supporting him, he changed his mind to be part of Pakistan’s squad that was to tour England in 1992.

Pakistan team’s manager, Intikhab Alam (under whom Khan had made his Test debut in the 1970s and whom he calls ‘skipper’ till this day), wanted Khan to extend his cricketing career till the completion of the England tour.

In April 1992, when Khan and Intikhab appeared on the state-owned PTV for an interview, Khan for the first time announced that he was retiring from the game. Intikhab implored him to stay on, but Khan insisted that his playing days were over and done with.

Talking to Tennant in 1995, Khan alluded that he was not surprised that some of the players had begun to perceive him to be someone who was obsessed with a personal project (the hospital) and was after their money.

He knew that since many of these players had risen from humble economic backgrounds, the windfall of money and gifts that had begun to come their way after the victory in Melbourne was something that was entirely unprecedented in their lives.

However, he did go on to exhibit his surprise and even some hurt when he discovered that one of the players backing Miandad’s call in this respect was Ramiz Raja, who, like Khan, came from a well-to-do urban middle-class family.

But Khan could not complain much because the players had willingly donated their money and services to help him raise funds for his hospital project before the World Cup victory, and Miandad had been in the forefront of using his popularity to help Khan organize various charity events.

After Miandad’s declaration in Singapore, Khan had a quiet falling out with him. Both had been the two most vital players in the Pakistan side in the late 1970s and across the 1980s, and were the main engines that propelled the Pakistan team to become one of the top cricketing sides in the world.

The two mainstays of Pakistan cricket in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The two mainstays of Pakistan cricket in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Nevertheless, the cold war between the two finally began to dissipate after Miandad retired in 1996, and especially when he began to openly back and support Khan’s political desires and ambitions in the 2000s.

When Khan retired, the hospital building had already begun to take shape, but he knew he still needed more funds to get it running on time. He worried that having now retired from cricket, he would not be in the limelight anymore and would struggle to maintain the interest of possible donors.

This is when some of his (non-cricketing) friends suggested that he enter politics.

In 1987, after he had led Pakistan to its first ever Test series win in India, he had been offered a position in the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) – a centre-right party that had been formed by Pakistan’s then ruler and dictator, General Ziaul Haq. Khan had politely declined the offer.

Christopher Stanford in his book on Imran (2009) describes Khan of the late 1970s and 1980s as a man who was a complete opposite of Zia.

Both Stanford and Tennant seem fascinated by Khan’s contrary personality. For example, in their respective books, they are at pains to figure out the nature of friendship between a ‘playboy’ celebrity and a conservative military dictator.

Khan told Tennant that he was never friends with Zia, even though it was on Zia's persuasion that Khan decided to come out of retirement in 1987. But Khan agrees that Zia was a big fan of his and would often call him during Pakistan’s away matches.

In his book, ‘Pakistan: A Personal History,’ Khan is honest enough to confess that in the 1980s, he was so busy playing cricket and spending much of his time in England, that he didn’t quite know what Zia was really up to as a ruler back in Pakistan.

Zia meets Imran at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore (1987), as manager Intikhab looks on. Later Khan insisted ‘Zia was fan, not a friend …’
Zia meets Imran at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore (1987), as manager Intikhab looks on. Later Khan insisted ‘Zia was fan, not a friend …’

Stanford, who kept a close eye on him in the 1980s, writes that Khan would know and visit all the famous nightclubs in the UK and Australia and loved to meet and court women, yet he would not drink alcohol.

Tennant quotes Emma Sargent (whom he believes is the only woman that Khan ‘was truly in love with’), describing Khan to be a ‘perfect fusion of East and West.’

Sargent and Khan were extremely close for almost six years in the 1980s, and she even visited Pakistan twice until both decided to amicably end the affair in 1986.

Emma Sargent.
Emma Sargent.

Then there were other women as well (all British and one Pakistani doctor in London), who all left, perhaps threatened by Khan’s penchant of attracting women wherever he went (and the fact that he quite enjoyed the attention).

A former Pakistan fast bowler told me (in 2013) that during tours, Khan would come to their room, complaining that ‘just too many women were gathering outside his room and if they were interested, they could take a few out to dinner with them …’

Tennant also quotes a long-time British friend of Khan’s who says, ‘though he loved to party and spend time at clubs and with women, he would not drink (alcohol) and yet not understand why alcohol had been banned in Pakistan …’

Also, he would encourage his players to go out and have fun and did not have a problem if many of them loved to drink.

In 1987, when he led Pakistan to its first Test series win against England in England, he was presented a magnum bottle of Champaign by former Pakistan captain, Mushtaq Mohammad.

He gladly accepted it, handed the bottle over to his players (who devoured it in the dressing room), then left to visit his favourite club in London with his then girlfriend!

England, 1987.
England, 1987.

After his retirement, the first government of Mian Nawaz Sharif (now heading his own faction of the PML), send out feelers that he (Nawaz) was interested in bagging him as a member of his ruling party.

By now, Khan was 41 and had begun to tone down his ‘playboy’ image and had found a spiritual mentor in Mian Bashir.

In April 1993, when President Ishaq Khan dismissed the Nawaz Sharif government (on charges of corruption), a retired bureaucrat, Balakh Sher Mazari was appointed as a ‘Caretaker Prime Minister’ for three months.

However, in May the same year, the Supreme Court reinstated Nawaz but he was asked to step down by the then Army Chief (along with the President) to make way for fresh elections.

A Pakistani citizen of the US and veteran banker, Moeen Qureshi, was invited to become the next Caretaker PM and head an interim technocratic government for three months.

Qureshi offered Khan a ministry in his government. Khan was tempted. He would be back in the news, but this time as a minister and politician. He could also use the offer as a platform to launch his political career and his own party. But he declined.

Then the new interim Ministry of Tourism offered him the post of ‘Ambassador of Tourism.’ The post carried the same power and prestige of a minister.

The tourism industry in Pakistan that had thrived in the 1960s and peaked in the 1970s had begun its steady decline in the 1980s. Khan wanted to change that.

He had begun to visit various natural sites in the north of Pakistan and believed that the tourism industry could easily be revived with a solid plan.

He accepted the post and became part of the Qureshi government. Operating from Karachi and Lahore, Khan got right down to work and laid out an expansive plan to revive tourism in Pakistan.

To attract European and American tourists (and not just professional mountain climbers and trackers) to the wildly beautiful areas of Northern Pakistan, he suggested the building of ten large luxury lodges of ‘indigenous mud and bricks’ as staging posts for safaris by jeep.

Then he wanted large areas (in the North) to be designated purely for camping purposes, with portable showers and good cooks. He told Tennant, ‘The Deosai Plain has bears and snow leopards and hardly anyone from Europe knows this …’

He also wanted to organise similar safaris in the vast Cholistan Desert in the south of the Punjab province, the Thar Desert in Sindh and in the wilds around Sibi in the hilly Balochistan province.

These places have an abundance of wildlife and many interesting festivals take place here, organised by the locals. Khan wanted to bring in Westerners to see all this, suggesting lodges, tour offices and guides, and restaurants that would offer local cuisine and have small bars (for tourists).

To Imran, this way, not only would Pakistan be able to revive its tourism industry and attract foreign capital, but hundreds of jobs and small business enterprises would be created for the locals in the designated areas.

He also wanted the site of the 5000-year-old Mohenjodaro (in Sindh) to once again become a vital attraction for foreign tourists, historians and archaeologists, and suggested that the government provide funds to restore old forts, tombs and Sufi shrines across the country.

Known for his love of the outdoors and animals, Khan authored a book on various pristine sites of Pakistan.
Known for his love of the outdoors and animals, Khan authored a book on various pristine sites of Pakistan.

He also got in touch with London’s famous travel firm, ‘Worldwide Journeys and Expeditions’ to help him attract Western tourists, but his plans, though excitedly heard by the Qureshi government, never amounted to much.

He quit the post after the Qureshi government was dissolved after three months and new elections held. In 1996, he finally formed his own political party.