Prime Minister Imran Khan. PM Khan. Wazir-e-Azam Imran Khan. Emphasis on the prefixes, not the moniker.

Khan is no more just a Kaptaan. He has graduated, and then some.

Chances are that the thought of PM Khan either elates or deflates you — polarising as his politics have been. Khan "the PM" usually does not leave you with mixed feelings: only unconditional love or undeserved hate.

But there's one aspect of Khan that isn't polarising at all.

All and sundry, even his rivals, in unison, out loud, will attest: he was a great cricketer.

PTI or PML-N, liberal or conservative, establishment or anti-establishment, even India or Pakistan — Khan's playing career draws unanimous praise and adulation.

He's a cricketing icon whose career hit just the right highs at just the right times. In hindsight, it seems, that even his lows were strategically timed just to accentuate the peaks of his achievements.

Classic career arc

Wunderkind (1971), meteoric rise, some stagnation, world's best (1982), potentially career ending injury (82-85).

He then returns after almost three years out. The reinvented Imran is less a fiery fast bowler and more a shrewd batsman.

Khan, healed up, becomes the hope of the nation again.

But in 1987, he fails to deliver against India. He doesn't just fail, he fails in his own backyard, with his and his team's failure witnessed in horror and despair by thousands in Lahore.

His decision, or rather miscalculation, to give Saleem Jafar the crucial 50th over eventually proves the difference. Jafar leaks 18 runs in the final over, and Pakistan lose by exactly that many runs.

Khan retires that year with a successful but unfulfilled career.

But this isn't the end of his cricketing story.

Pakistan don't lose the 1987 World Cup because they aren't talented or their rivals are unbeatable or even because Khan makes the wrong call. They lose because it just isn't 1992 — the stars haven't aligned yet.

A year after the great disappointment, Khan un-retires.

Fast forward a few years, he takes perhaps the most greenest of all Pakistan sides ever, with the weakest of batting line-ups, to a World Cup on a foreign land.

No captain whose side wins just one of its opening five games at a tournament should have any business wrapping his hands around the trophy and lifting it.

Read: Dear Mr PM-to-be, please let cricket be

Yet Khan and his cast of no-name minions somehow defy logic and maybe even the laws of probability to do just that.

To top it off, the captain even takes the championship-winning wicket.

The ghosts of 1987 have been exorcised.

What unreal redemption. It's a story straight out of a Hollywood sports flick, with the only thing missing being a cheesy 80s piano theme crescendoing in the background.

Khan lived it though.

Khan he be the sports GOAT?

Now that the case has been outlined, it's time to test it.

It's pretty clear that this Pakistani-born's story is the greatest among all cricketers', past and present. But does it also transcend cricket and compare favourably with the rest of the sporting world's heavyweights?

Does he have the CV to warrant a mention in sports' Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) debate? Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Roger Federer, Pele ... dare I add Imran Khan?

Some may get incensed and castigate me for comparing him with sporting royalty before even establishing if he is the best his own sport had to offer.

How could Khan be the greatest cricketer when Sir Don Bradman averaged a near century over a career; Sir Viv Richards breezed through two World Cups; Sachin Tendulkar made a billion runs; and Wasim Akram made the ball do things it shouldn't?

All equally valid points, but all equally irrelevant for the GOAT debate.

To enter the GOAT debate, one does not have to be the best at what he does. He simply has to be The Greatest.

This is similar to Ali being boxing's consensus greatest despite Floyd Mayweather Jr boasting an unblemished record. This is similar to Jordan being basketball's greatest despite Bill Russell owning more championship rings than he has fingers. This is similar to Federer being tennis's consensus greatest despite trailing both Ken Rosewall and Serena Williams in the slam count.

To enter the GOAT debate, it's not how much you win, it's how you win. Khan won it just that once, but he won like no one else.

But to rub shoulders with the likes of Ali, Federer, Pele and Jordan in the overall GOAT list, one needs something even more. An extra sheen or two of activism or philanthropy. At the very minimum, you have to have grown your sport or been a classy role model.

This is where Khan excels at and could gain more ground in years to come.

He already has a cancer hospital and a university to his philanthropic achievements, but surely his pièce de résistance would be if he manages to fix a seemingly unfixable nation. He does that and he's gold.

And while he isn't the first sports superstar to become a head of the state — with all due respect to George Weah and Liberia — being the PM of Pakistan is a much bigger deal in the global scheme of things.

The verdict

It's inevitable that some would find fault with my use of Khan's off-the-field activities to shine light on something based on his sporting prowess.

In that case, I ask: what is Ali without his part in the Civil Rights movement and stand against his country's white establishment? A career 56-5 record is great, but not the greatest.

Having said that, it is still premature to suggest that Khan is in the same league as Ali, for the latter's noble struggle bore fruit while the jury remains out on the former's 26 years of labour. His reign could well turn out to be disastrous and undo all that he has achieved.

His critics are certain that that will be the case.

But if — and that's a massive if — after consecutive terms, Khan, who some say has the toughest job in the world today, manages to rid Pakistan of its crippling, chronic diseases, the GOAT debate will have to be had again.

And the index then just might have a new entry at the top.



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