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Out of 'Comfort Zone' - Imran Khan

Having fought tirelessly for twenty-two years in Pakistan politics, at 06.23 GMT, Imran Khan, charismatic and controversial in equal measure, took oath as the country’s new Prime Minister, in Islamabad. He is ironically its 22nd, since the creation of the country, in 1947. Nothing in life has come easy for Imran as he continues to defy his critics and finish off his opponents, through sheer will power and extraordinary level of ruthless determination. The warrior in him through his roots in South Wazirastan, simply refuses to admit defeat and takes the fight to the very last drop of blood in him. The weight of expectations as the PM of an under developed country, will not change the Imran we know so well but it will certainly challenge his patience and nerves, like never before. 

With his appointment, Pakistan, will be taking a ‘fresh guard’, so to speak. As  Chairman of Tehrik-i-Insaf (Movement of Justice),  which he founded in April 1996, he gave his all in the build-up to the recently concluded general elections. Despite the opposition parties’ usual bickering of pre and post elections rigging and the accusation of him enjoyed the backing of the establishment (Pakistan Army), the reality is that Imran Khan’s anti-corruption slogan, merit-based appointments and his strong views against VIP culture, had appealed to the masses for him to be seen as the only hope for the country. Pakistan is a country that owes IMF, World Bank and other loan sharks billions of dollars with allegedly reserves only to survive for another few months. This calls for tough and decisive leadership and Imran certainly is the one to relish the challenge. As an articulate mind, though inclined towards impulsive decisions and with a well-documented punishing fitness regime, Imran has simply no equal in Pakistan.

By successfully breaking the status quo enjoyed by Pakistan Peoples’ Party and Pakistan Muslim League (N), Imran’s vision of progressive Pakistan, has shaken up the ‘outdated’ political system. People of Pakistan have voted for a change, that was so badly needed for a country, so poorly managed for decades by inept politicians, having entered the arena, it seems with a sole purpose of looting and plundering the country’s resources, through fostering of mafias. The money laundering that took the foreign exchange out of the country increased the personal wealth of these politicians, at the expense of Pakistan, literally on its knees. A man of simple taste in both food and clothing, he has declared his intention to live in Military Secretary compound rather than the lavish Prime Minister House and refusing the standard protocol ‘enjoyed’ by the head of the state in Pakistan. All the guests, including overseas dignitaries, in today’s oath ceremony were served a cup of tea and biscuits, in sharp contrast to the past menu consisting of nine dishes and tons of food wastage. His drive of simplicity and economical housekeeping had to start from the top.

Imran’s real test begins now for he has raised the voters’ expectation of creating a ‘Naya Pakistan’ (a new Pakistan). Since October 2011, after a historic rally at Minar-i-Pakistan, Lahore, Imran continued to draw large crowd, a confirmation of his growing stature as a politician with both passion and substance. He was convinced to have been cheated out by rigging in the 2013 elections. In the election campaign, he had miraculously survived a life-threatening fall, to carry on with his fight for justice and fair play. He targeted both Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari and accused them for fixing the results in order to take their turns at the helm with one party playing the role of a friendly opposition.

After all his pleas of re-counting of four constituencies was declined by the ruling party PML (N), he decided to take it to the roads. Imran’s 126-day ‘Dharna’ (a long winded protest) in front of Parliament House in Islamabad with almost daily address to his party workers and supporters in the evening, once again showed his resilience and character. The pressure he built was maintained through the leaks of Panama Papers, which exposed Nawaz Sharif, three times Prime Minister of Pakistan, to have benefited from off shore company and not able to provide details of the money trail. It was the sole effort and never-say-die approach of Imran that saw the former PM to be disqualified for life from Pakistan politics and now behind bars in Adiyala Jail, Rawalpindi.

A ‘Victory Speech’ which he delivered in Urdu, 48 hours after emerging as the leader of the biggest political party in the country, he has simply elevated his status as a statesman. In some quarters, Imran is being regarded as the third most influential behind, its founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948) and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1928-79). In the second half of the 71-year history of Pakistan, Imran Khan, has been the most sought after public figure through his grand achievements as one the premier all-round cricketers of the world, building of country’s first cancer hospital through intensive fund-raising campaigns, both in and outside Pakistan and setting up of Namal College in Mianwali. His international stature, as a proud and confident Pakistani is set to create enough confidence in stock market and increase in overseas investments and remittances from overseas Pakistanis.

Imran Ahmed Khan Niazi, born in Lahore in 1952 in a family with sports in their blood, had the privilege of growing up in Zaman Park and studying at the Aitchison College. As the only son amongst five children of Ikramullah Khan Niazi and Shaukat Khanum, he enjoyed a happy middle-class upbringing. Picked for the 1971 tour of England, Imran was included for the opening Test at Edgbaston, only due to the absence of two senior pace bowlers. It was in the 1976-77 winter with Pakistan scheduled to play in no less than 11 Test matches that Imran, touch reluctantly, was paired to take the new ball with Sarfraz Nawaz. Till then his ambition was to be a batting all-rounder but the team’s requirement was of a fast bowler. After first five-wicket haul at Melbourne he followed it with 12 wickets at Sydney. His international career took off and he followed it up with 25 wickets, against a highly formidable West Indies batting line-up.

Imran continued to prosper as a penetrative fast bowler on the heart-breaking conditions of the sub-continent. In the summer of 1981 whilst playing for Sussex in the English County Championship, his slingy action was replaced with a more side-on approach and an addition of a leap at the delivery point. Not many fast bowlers in the history of the game could claim to change their action in the middle of their career and become even more lethal. It was certainly a game changer and could not have been achieved without the combination of intelligence and bloody mindedness. In the 1981-82 tour of Australia, Imran also showed evidence of his developing a fast and deadly in ducker that would become his main wicket-taking weapon, defeating top batsmen of the world, with missile-like speed and accuracy. It was in this period that Imran and Sarfraz Nawaz were beginning to achieve success with ‘reverse swing’, which would create controversy in the latter years.

In 1982 his appointment as a captain of a divided Pakistan team, it seemed initially, was not a wise move for as an all-rounder Imran was already under enough pressure to carry the side, with both ball and bat. It proved a master stroke for Imran not only raised his game and from day one seemed determined to have an overwhelming say in the selection of the team, so much so that he dropped Majid Khan, his cousin for the opening Test at Edgbaston and continued to back the players, he thought would develop into match winners. In his very first series as Test captain, he quickly realised that in case of top order falling, he will need to carry the burden of scoring runs with the tail. With a watertight batting technique, he was well equipped to stand up to quality bowling attacks. Despite losing in both ODIs and the three-Test series to England, Imran was hailed as the hero on his return to Pakistan, for he led from the front and had made every member of the side to fight till the last ball.

Throughout the 1980s four all-rounders – Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee, Ian Botham and Kapil Dev – carried their side’s fortunes and attained greatness through match-winning performances all around the world. Quite often the Test series were billed as head-to-head contest between the all-rounders. Imran was the fastest bowler and had more orthodox approach to batting amongst the four and after his success as a captain, was hailed as the best all-rounder amongst the four. As a strong leader of a Pakistan dressing room, more so in the 1982-89 period, he kept improving with age and inevitably produced his best, when most needed, against the best sides in the world.

A shin injury at the peak of his career denied him to bowl for Pakistan for just over two years, resulting in a dramatic decline of his side’s world ranking. A remarkable cricketer that he was, for a year he was good enough to play purely as a batsman but then had no option but to follow a regimental rehabilitation programme. Pakistan Government spared no resources in bearing the cost for he was the country’s most treasured sports asset. Finally that day arrived, remarkably within weeks of his mother’s death, when the country’s premier fast bowler was back to his full run-up and leading the attack, Within months of his return in November 1985, he was once again made captain as he was the best choice. In no time he was back to his best as a premier all-rounder of Pakistan but at 34 had left no one in doubt that 1987 would be his last year. He managed to lead the team to its maiden Test series wins in both India and England but to the huge disappointed of Pakistan cricket fans, lost to Australia in the semi-final of the Reliance World Cup at Lahore.

Less than six months following his retirement Imran was persuaded to return to lead Pakistan on its 1987-88 tour of the West Indies by President General Zia-ul-Haq. In a closely fought series, Imran once again showed as to how his mere presence can lift the moral of the national side to make them a formidable side. A strong hold on the team, team unity and fighting till the end were the three ingredients that further lifted status among the best captains in world cricket. Now faced with considerable decline in his pace as a new ball bowler, Imran was happy to concentrate on his batting. Good enough to bat at number six, it allowed Pakistan to play four other front-line bowlers. It was his batting at the number that saw Imran play some of his best innings in ODIs as Pakistan lifted the Nehru Cup in 1989 with its skipper being named as Man of the Series. By now he had also played a significant role in polishing the skills of three pacemen – Wasim Akram, Aaqib Javed and Waqar Younis, making Pakistan, one of the top sides in the world.

He was in his 40th year for the 1992 World Cup held jointly by Australia and New Zealand. As one of only two survivors besides, Javed Miandad, of the first ever World Cup in 1975, Imran’s dream of leading Pakistan to a World Cup win was almost vanishing, following a poor start. A win against Australia at Perth in a do-or-die game was followed by a sudden shift in momentum as Pakistan team responded to the captain’s call to play like a ‘cornered tiger’. Imran’s inspirational leadership was the key as Pakistan beat New Zealand at Auckland  in the semi-final and followed it up with a 22-run win against England in the final at Melbourne. In both the matches, Imran gave another example of leading from the front by promoting himself to No.3 and top scoring with 72 in the final. It proved his last international appearance and great era of Pakistan cricket.

After 1989, Imran has often shared the fact that he only continued to play for Pakistan, in order to stay in the limelight to collect funds for the building of a cancer hospital, in the memory of his late mother, Shaukat Khanum, who sadly passed away due to cancer treatment not being available in Pakistan. By winning the 1992 World Cup, Imran’s fund-raising campaign received a tremendous boost and by December 1994, the inauguration of the first cancer hospital, against heavy odds, was a dream come true for Imran. Since then he has built another hospitals in Peshawar with a plan for a third one in Karachi, under the world fame Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital and Research Centre. The Namal College, established in 2008 for under privileged youth of Mianwali too is another world-class institution and a proof of Imran’s ability to achieve his goals with vision and determination.

To millions of Pakistanis, men and women of all age groups, Imran now 65, remains the only leader amongst the tainted political leaders with credibility, integrity, patriotism and above all, a genuine desire to lift Pakistan out of poverty. Even his mistakes and u-turns have been taken in good spirit for his heart is in the right place. A people’s champion, in the true sense of the word, Imran is all set to play the most important innings of his life journey.

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