The first time I met, faced would be a better word, actually, Imran Khan was on the field during India’s tour of Pakistan in 1978-79. It was the first time the two countries had met in a very long time to play a cricket series: it had been 17 years! The first thing I noticed about this six-foot Pathan was his aggression, passion, commitment, and his self-confidence. Not to mention his long locks and fearsome run-up. And fearsome he was, because I got hit by a vicious bouncer from him and had to be carried away on a stretcher!
It was a high-profile, sensitive series played in the shadow of the 1971 war. There was no question that it was going to be a hard-fought one, and hostilities towards us were high, as you can imagine, both from the players as well as the spectators. It was not less than a war on and off the field, at least in that series! He played it hard on the field, but I did appreciate his gesture of coming over to say “well played” and shake hands with me after I did well in the last Test.
Over the years, as we played each other more often, not just in India and Pakistan but in Sharjah, too, the relationship between the teams improved. By the time the 1982-83 series came along, both sides were more relaxed with each other. There was less sledging and aggression, and the interaction between the players more cordial, as was the reception we got from the supporters. The more we played, the better we got to know each other, both on and off the field. Hospitality also improved with more people willing to invite us out and interact with us.
I was spared much of the hostility, mostly because I was Punjabi. The fact that my father played all of his cricket in Pakistan helped, too. I was treated differently, like I was one of them. I was never sledged or abused, but some of my teammates did suffer! Knowing I came from the same background, most of the Pakistan players, as well as Imran, spoke to me in Punjabi.
What I liked about Imran, the cricketer, was the way he led from the front. As the captain, he would perform and work harder than anyone else, setting an example for the boys to follow his lead. Basically, he was a trendsetter for Pakistani cricket. He had a very good 1982-83 series, and his passion was there for all to see. As was mine. He and I were more or less on the same ‘war’ footing on the field. I wanted to give my best for my country, and so did he. There was no compromising on the field, we were very professional. Off it, though, we would chat and have friendly discussions.
It was actually rather rare that we would get an opportunity to meet other than during a series, because we could not visit each others’ countries frequently. We did meet at some functions, mostly during the tours. But I do remember meeting him in London in the early ’90s during a concert he had organised to raise funds for the cancer hospital he was building in memory of his mother Shaukat Khanum. That was another passion of his that he has succeeded in fulfilling.
His personality was so that Imran was pretty much loved and liked wherever he went, not least by the Indian public. Cricket lovers enjoyed watching him in action, and could not help but admire his passion: he played to win, and it was written all over his face. So there is no doubt he was a very popular man, especially with the ladies. I have been witness to this: whenever we were at a party, the suave Mr Khan would make a late entrance (purposely, of course) while things were in full swing. As soon as he appeared at the door, conversation and everything else would stop and the focus would shift to him.
Imran is one of those guys who likes to be the 'captain', likes being at the top, likes to control things. All his hard work in politics has paid off and he is now going to be the Prime Minister of Pakistan. This will be one of the most challenging tests of his career. It’s not as simple as dealing with 11 guys on the field; here there are different people and parties, different scenarios and policies. He was always a leader, wants to be the boss but I’m sure that he knows that he will have to make some compromises along the way to get the best result for his country and its people. I wish him all the best.
As I have said he is very passionate about his country and the people, and I’m sure that he will try and do a lot of good. I am hoping his becoming the PM will be a good thing for Pakistan, and also for relations with India. For me, I would love to see peace at the border. The challenge will be how well he tackles this issue. I always pray for my soldiers, that they can sleep peacefully and not have to be vigilant 24x7. The day this is sorted out will be the greatest day for our soldiers and for India and Pakistan.