One of the most common comments one still hears from the cricketers who played in Imran Khan’s captaincy during the 1992 cricket World Cup is that despite the fact that more than half way through the tournament, the Pakistan team looked beat and was on its way out of any practical contention, Khan insisted that they would win the cup.
In a stunning display of positive reversal, the team did rise from the bottom of the pile and go on to win the cup. Many attributed Khan’s optimism as a mixture of unwavering self-belief and a dose of naivety. Something he seems to have carried over into his political career as well.
But I believe the naivety aspect that many have pin-pointed in Khan’s thinking is largely self-imposed.
It seems, he does this to keep in check his cynical side because he thinks leaders who lead during desperate times cannot afford to pace their manoeuvres according to events that can make people find refuge in cynicism.
But is he really that naïve? Well, apart from embracing naïveté as a deterrent to cynicism, he would rather see this as a well thought-out tactic.
Let’s get back to cricket for an example. In 1982 when he replaced Javed Miandad as captain, he picked Abdul Qadir in the squad that was to travel to England for a Test series.
Qadir, a leg-break bowler, had been discarded by the selectors after he failed to impress in the Tests that he was played in between 1977 and 1980.
And also, by 1982 leg-break bowling was already on its way out in the international Test arena.
Khan bumped into Qadir at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore where the Pakistan team was practicing. Qadir was there on his own, bowling in a T-shirt and a shalwar!
Khan made up his mind that the English batsmen who hadn’t played quality leg-break bowling for years would struggle against Qadir.
The selectors thought Imran was being, yes, naïve. They refused to pick Qadir. Khan insisted and finally managed to bring Qadir into the fold.
Khan’s ‘naivety’ was vindicated when Qadir bamboozled the English batsmen.
The point being that it wasn’t naivety, as such, but a gut feeling turned into a theory (the English would struggle against leg-spin).
The naivety bit was simply Khan’s way of banking on his gut and theory without letting cynical stats derail his belief.
Another reason to believe that it was largely Khan’s mind at work here was when he not only told the British press that Qadir was a ‘wizard with the ball’, but went on to ask Qadir to keep a striking goatee to look the part!
So it was a gut feeling, turned into a theory and then implemented with a dose of mind play, fanfare and posturing.
Khan had disarmed the opposition players with his self-imposed (and cleverly self-manipulated) naivety of inducting a discarded cricketer, leaving them unprepared for a jumpy, volatile leg-break bowler with a telling wizard’s goatee coming at them in ways that they (now believed) they were not used to tackling. They’d been successfully psyched.
Over and over again Khan, as captain, would use this combination of outrageous ploys.
In the late 1980s, during an ODI tournament in Australia, he made even his own teammates raise their eyebrows when he told the Australian press that — the otherwise mediocre all-rounder, Mansoor Illahi — ‘was the hardest hitting batsmen in the world’!
Of course, Khan knew he wasn’t. But the ploy worked when opposing teams went into a defensive mode every time Illahi came into bat, giving Pakistani batsmen enough space to gather runs in twos and singles.
The same year the Indian team and press thought Khan was being naïve when during a tournament in Sharjah, he went on record suggesting that the Kashmir issue between Pakistan and India should be settled on the cricket pitch! Pakistan won that tournament.
It seems that apart from the fact that Khan has found a still largely enigmatic middle-ground between faith and fun, he has held on to his old cricketing combination of ploys even in politics.
Gut feeling turned into a theory, then kept away from the cynicism of cold facts and imposed with great fanfare and pomp to great effect.
After all, it was a Qadir that he pulled in Lahore two years ago and shook the PML-N out of its compliancy in the Punjab.
The Sharif brothers and their merry men laughed when Khan confidently announced that he was about to host the largest political rally ever in Lahore.
He actually did pull it off. Yes, there is little doubt that this was done with more than a little help from former ISI chief, Shuja Pasha, but between then and now, Khan seems to have broken away from the establishment’s orbit.
He wasn’t the first. Z.A. Bhutto was part of the Ayub Khan dictatorship when he pulled out to form his own party. Not only did he break away from the orbit, the orbit eventually sucked him back in the most unfortunate manner by killing him!
PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif was the establishment’s blue-eyed boy for over a decade before he too broke away and became his own man.
MQM was alleged to be a party formed on the behest of Ziaul Haq’s intelligence agencies, but by 1988 it had quickly spun away from the influence of its supposed moulders.
And here we are today, with a ‘naïve’ Imran Khan, now threatening to topple the applecart mounted with all types of apples placed there by the country’s two largest parties, the PML-N and PPP.
Experts still suggest that Khan’s PTI would play the role of nothing more than a spoiler in the upcoming general election.
But once again Khan is banking on his beloved combination.
Recently after disarming his opponents with ‘naïve talk’ about sweeping the election and doing away with economic issues and the law and order problem within 90, 120 or how many ridiculously few days, he stole the limelight by denouncing sectarian attacks by banned Sunni outfits and mob attacks on Christians in the Punjab.
The timing was perfect. Whereas the PPP-led coalition regime is being massacred for completely failing to address sectarianism and extremism in Pakistan, PML-N’s government in the Punjab has come into focus for cutting deals with banned extremist organisations.
Suddenly it is the naïve ‘Mr. Taliban Khan’ who has become the hope of not only a majority of young new voters-to-be, but perhaps also a large number of Shia Pakistanis and the Christian community in the Punjab.
Yes, ‘naivety’ remains Khan’s cleverest ploy. And what is now more disconcerting for his opponents is that this ploy actually works, and maybe it is them being naïve about being so ‘realistic’?