My most vivid memory of Imran Khan goes back to the 1982-83 series in Pakistan. As the Indian team got across the border for a six-test series, Doordarshan started to beam grainy black and white coverage of the India versus Pakistan games. It is then that I, for the first time, saw the tall, handsome Pathan with Grecian good-looks come charging down the wicket. And decimate India’s best batsmen: Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Vishwanath, Dilip Vengsarkar, Sandeep Patil, Mohinder Amarnath, Kris Srikkanth … I especially remember the second Test at Karachi. Imran was like a snow blizzard. Blinding with his pace. In his very first spell, he scalped India’s two top batsmen, Vengsarkar and Amarnath, and finished with 3 for 19 in just 12.1 overs.
Imran was hated in India. He was after all single handedly annihilating the entire Indian cricket team. Yet he was loved in India. When the Pakistanis came visiting in 1983-84, Imran was mobbed wherever he went. Hordes of girls would surround him, chase him, smother him. They wanted to hug him, kiss him … marry him. No cricketer, especially of a visiting side, had quite ever elicited the kind of mass hysteria that Imran generated. So popular was Imran that Cinthol soap featured him in its advertising campaign. India has always had an overhang of anti-Pakistan sentiment but the magnetism of the young, debonair Imran road-rollered over any such negatives. The Imran Khan campaign was a big hit. It pitted Imran against one of India’s best looking gents, Vinod Khanna, who too was then at his peak, and the face of Cinthol. But whenever comparisons were made, the votes were always stacked in favor of Imran.
Not very many people recall that Imran featured in yet another campaign for a very popular brand in India. The then No.1 soft drink, Thums Up, featured India’s then captain Sunil Gavaskar with Imran Khan in a campaign in the early 1980s. Imran had the unique capability and appeal where he could both be the foe and also be the friend. He had the personality no one else in his generation of cricketers had.
As I said before, featuring a Pakistani in an Indian advertising campaign would at any time be unthinkable, and nothing short of suicide. Imran Khan was however in a different league. He was the enemy everyone loved, at least when he was off the field. He had presence. He had the persona. He had impact. He had an aura. And despite the possibility of a backlash, Indian brands still took the risk to make him their brand ambassador. And the risk was well-worth the taking as the Cinthol campaign remain etched in consumer minds for years and years. Such was the enduring magic of Imran Khan.
I had the good fortune to meet Imran in 2001. I was in Pakistan as part of a CEO delegation. We were originally scheduled to only visit Karachi and Lahore. Then we were granted special permission to visit Islamabad. I was Group CEO of Zee Telefilms those days. Two of my young deputies were accompanying me on the trip. Partha Sinha (now MD of ad agency McCann Erickson) was my marketing head at Zee; Abhijit Saxena was my head of international operations. As soon as plans crystallized for Islamabad, both of them came up to me and suggested we meet the legendary Imran Khan. Imran was by now a full time politician. Arranging a meeting with him at such short notice seemed difficult. But we got lucky.
Imran met us at his party office. The offices of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) were almost deserted. Imran Khan’s was a lonely presence. His party obviously did not enjoy much popular support at that time. Yet, Imran was full of enthusiasm. He met Partha, Abhijit and me with a lot of warmth. Partha and Abhijit gushed over him. Partha especially engaged him in a lot of cricket chatter. Imran was fun. He was full of anecdotes. He told us a number of interesting stories of his interactions with Gavaskar, Amarnath and Kapil Dev. Also of his famed relationship with Javed Miandad. All good humored and full of laughter. He was at his narrative best telling us of his days at Oxford, and then his days playing county cricket in England. I still have a cricket ball that Imran signed and gifted me. It was an afternoon I will never forget. The man had charm. The man had charisma. The man had an inner beauty that belied all the playboy stories about him and his philandering ways.
Imran played a stellar role in Pakistan cricket, including winning their only World Cup in 1992. But what Imran really stood out for was the fact that he partnered so well with the likes of Sarfraz Nawaz and Sikander Bakht. Also for the leadership he provided to stalwarts like Zaheer Abbas and Javed Miandad. And not the least, identified and nurtured new talent like Waqar Younis. All of Imran’s leadership skills will now come in handy as Prime Minister of Pakistan.
The journey from cricketer-model to politician and now Prime Minister has obviously not been easy for Imran Khan. I cannot forget the lonely presence of Imran in that PTI office the day we met him in Pakistan’s capital city. He was full of life despite the odds that faced him then. I suppose he must be brimming with joy and happiness today as his penance of 22 years in politics has finally paid off. I hope he has a great innings leading his country, and achieves as much success as the phenomenal run he had as one of the foremost all-rounders in the world … after all the ‘all-rounder’s triple’ (3000 runs and 300 wickets) in 75 Tests was only the second fastest ever after Ian Botham’s and better than both Richard Hadlee and Kapil Dev.
Greater glory to Imran!
(Sandeep Goyal loves his cricket, and his cricketing heroes. The rise and rise of Imran Khan is an inspiration to him.)