Kaptaan Khan's prime ministerial innings on the scale of no-confidence to world champs

PM Imran, possibly on his way out, appeared to have skippered his cricket team and the country differently.
Published March 27, 2022

Ever since Imran Khan gained political prominence, Pakistan’s political discourse has become littered with cricketing metaphors. Even after years and years of use to the point of near abuse, all the feats of the “Kaptaan” are “clean bowled or sixers”, his gaffes are “hit wicket” and his references to powers that be are “umpire ki ungli”.

This is despite his time in politics now exceeding his cricketing career by a good five years. The 26 years he’s spent politicking since 1996 still continue to live under the shadows of what he achieved as a cricketer in a 21-year career between 1971 and 1992.

With cricket playing such a massive part in getting him to where he is, it’s only fair then that the “death overs” of Khan’s political "innings” get a familiar comparison.

Below, we’ve identified some crucial factors whose presence in 1992 helped the skipper lift the World Cup trophy and absence in 2022 brings his government to the verge of a “mid-innings collapse”.

The team

An oft-heard assessment regarding Prime Minister Imran Khan has been that while he is personally honest, the same cannot be said about the team under and around him. The dissidents and detractors make it clear that the prime minister’s personal traits, even if impressive for argument’s sake, are not shared by his array of ministers and SAPMs. The message being that Khan failed to put together the star-studded team he promised he was an expert at devising.

Twenty years ago, that wasn’t the case.

While Imran Khan of 1992 was a star on paper, his actual contribution to the teams’ cause as a player was pretty basic. In eight matches, he took just seven wickets and scored 185 runs — hardly impressive figures.

What he did, however, do was to turn his struggling bunch into world beaters and let them take the bigger role. Of course, when it mattered the most — especially in the semi-final and final — he made key contributions. But for a vast majority of the tournament, Khan was outshone by his own team.

Javed Miandad was the second-highest scorer of the tournament while Wasim Akram the highest wicket taker. A shrewd confidant such as Miandad and a superstar in the making a la Akram were glaringly amiss when Khan assumed the top office in the land.

On the political side, Shah Mahmood Qureshi plays Khan’s number two but he who enunciates every syllable of every word could hardly be a replacement for someone who slurred and mumbled. Miandad was a street smart jugadoo straight out of Karachi and Qureshi a prim proper type from the mansions of Multan. One could argue that had Khan had Miandad’s political substitute by his side today, perhaps the meltdown of Prime Minister’s XI could have been identified earlier and prevented.

Wasim Akram ‘+’

A constantly consistent theme in Khan’s cabinet has been of there being nothing constant. The merry-go-round of ministers switching roles and putting on different hats was unprecedented in Pakistani politics. For instance, Fawad Chaudhry, who would have been happy to become Chief Minister Punjab, was instead appointed information minister, lost that ministry to become sci-tech minister before coming back to take over the info ministry again.

Among this ministerial musical chair, only a select few kept their original roles for a long time. One such rarity was Sardar Usman Buzdar — or shall we say, Wasim Akram Plus. The nickname was given to him by none other than the prime minister himself, who has tried talking up his surprise selection endlessly through the years but in vain.

Initially, like the rest of the country, the actual Wasim Akram, too, did not object to him having to share his moniker, carrying his hard-earned legacy with a political unknown. The thought at the time being that if the skipper hand-picked Buzdar for this most important job, there must be something special about him.

After almost four years in the job, the much-awaited moment of magic, that prophesied sequence of Buzdar disturbing the bails of his opponents with banana swing never came. His Allan Lambs and Chris Lewises in Punjab Assembly not only survived but thrived. The Wasim Akram Plus, named after Akram who bailed out Imran Khan time and again in 1992, proved to be more of a Saleem Jaffar of 1987.

Perhaps, if only Khan had let someone else make the pick for the top job in Punjab. After all, the original Akram, too, was not Khan’s choice. He was Miandad’s find. Interestingly, the one whom Khan had actually picked in 1987 lost him the World Cup semi-final. Coincidentally, that lost semi-final was also held in Lahore.

Cornered tigers

On March 11 of 1992, with his team much closer to World Cup exit than the semi-final, a surprisingly calm and confident Imran Khan showed up for the toss without the light green jersey but in a t-shirt with tiger imprinted in front.

After winning the toss, when asked to explain the tiger on his tee, Khan famously said: “This is what I’ve been telling Allen [Border – the Australian captain] that I want my team to play today like a cornered tiger, you know when it’s at its most dangerous.”

Who knew that that harmless little simile at the time would end up becoming a staple in Khan’s political ethos years later. He practiced and preached a severely confrontational style of politics, especially when in a tight situation or pushed against the wall. A cornered Khan would just pounce no matter how “neutral an animal” he faced.

His spit-fire political persona saw him surround himself with a bevy of ministers and advisers who were always up for a fight. Whenever a verbal barb needed to be delivered, any one of Fawad Chaudhry, Fayazul Hasan Chauhan and Shahbaz Gill could do the job. Even the mild-natured Asad Umar and Shah Mahmood Qureshi picked up a tinge of tanginess along the way.

Almost four years on, the critics accuse Khan’s political crop of Cornered Tigers to be more concerned with exchanging jibes than focusing on their main jobs: governance and delivery. Some of the dissidents even cited unbearable toxicity infused by Khan and Company in local politics as their reason for alienation.

So when Khan’s Class of 1992 impersonated just the right amount of Cornered Tigers and in the right manner, Khan’s Class of 2018 overdid it at times. Perhaps, every now and then, had the opposition also been shown a puppy face rather than the fierce image of a big cat ready to go for the jugular, things might have been a tad different.

Lucking out and out of luck

One butterfly effect theory goes that had it not rained in Adelaide on March 1, 1992, Pakistan would not have had Khan as its prime minister on August 18, 2018.

England, after skittling out Pakistan for a mere 74 runs, were 24 for 1 and cruising towards what would have been a dominant win. That’s when the Lady Luck smiled at Khan as the heavens opened up and it rained with such ferocity that no further play was possible. Pakistan got to pick up a point from a position of certain defeat. That single point would eventually prove to be the difference and help them progress to the semis.

The Pakistan of 92 would have to be the luckiest world champions in all of sports, not just cricket. How else would you explain a side that won just one of its first five games going on to win the entire tournament?

Khan, the prime minister, caught no such lucky breaks. His time in power coincided with a pandemic that slowed down economies all over to a crawl, including his own. The commodities' supercycle saw inflation soar through the roof and the Russia-Ukraine war sent oil prices spiralling out of control.

In 2019, oil and gas giants were invited to dig out any treasures buried deep inside Mother Earth. Sadly, nothing was found as Khan’s hopes were dashed. The Reko Dig mine bonanza isn’t expected to begin for a good five to six years while it’s probably too late now for Khan to extract any political mileage out of it.

So while Khan’s Pakistan of 1992 enjoyed the Luck of the Irish, it seemed as if a clowder of jet black cats had crossed his paths before he was sworn in as the prime minister in 2018.

The electables

The 90s was by far the nastiest era in Pakistan cricket as the coexistence of big stars in small dressing rooms often saw implosions.

But all of this happened post-Imran Khan and more towards the mid-90s. Until he was there and in charge, there was no question of there being another leader or anyone’s loyalties being on anyone else’s side but him.

He ran a tight ship in 1992 and was helped by the fact that most of his top performers were young pups that genuinely looked up to him. Those pups had plenty of bust-ups and developed massive egos later but circa 92 they were all mere disciples to the great Khan. Miandad, of course, could have been a problem in 92 as well but with him, Khan had already had his battles in the 80s and came out on top. Miandad once spoke of Khan surviving a player revolt before the World Cup semi-final but his claim, one of many erratic ones post-retirement, was never corroborated.

Fast forward to 2018, and Khan’s party had a number of faces that had little familiarity with his party’s manifesto and Khan’s style of politics. Many of them were literally hauled in on a private jet by you-know-who and jumped on the chance of joining a rising power that was forming the new government.

Once Khan’s decline began, these electables raised the biggest stinkers. But it wasn’t just them. Khan’s U-turn-rich prime ministerial politics was in stark contrast to what he had preached to his flock all those years. As he inched away from his idealistic ethos and towards the traditional style of politics of convenience, and also got bogged down in accommodating outsiders, he ended up alienating loyalists that had stood by him through thick and thin.

Once the exodus began, both the electables and the loyalists were on their way out.

The umpire’s helping ... 'finger'

In 1992, Khan did have his stroke of luck with the rain business but he certainly did not need favours from any umpires. In fact, he is credited for being the one who introduced the concept of neutral umpiring in cricket. If anything, Khan was actually the victim of a horrible umpiring call in the 1987 World Cup semi-final in Lahore.

On the other hand, in his political career, his critics allege that his ascension to the top office would not have been possible without a massive push from the ‘third umpire’.

That umpire corralled the independents under Khan’s wings, subdued his opponents and as wild theories go, even helped crash the RTS to facilitate him into winning the election.

And it seems that the Khan-umpire combo worked like clockwork until it didn’t.

As PML-Q’s Parvez Elahi not-so-eloquently put it, Khan's political 'nappies' never came off. His dirty work was outsourced and his proverbial drinks were always carried by 'the others', which never allowed him to learn the art of winning political battles purely on his own and without the aid of umpires.

The final word

It almost seems like the bottom of the ninth, with Khan holding the bat and awaiting the curviest of curveballs in the hope of hitting a desperate home run. The 'trump card' of last Sunday was thrown out by the Supreme Court.

The consensus has him coming up empty but what if he doesn't? What if he connects? What if Khan's cricketing history repeats itself but in a political context? After all, on the March 8, 1992, following his team's loss to South Africa, the prevailing sentiment was the same as it is today and all had seemed lost. However, they beat Australia in the next game and never lost again in the tournament. So will the death overs of Khan's political career mirror his finest cricketing hour? We'll find that out soon.