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Immy's crowd

Imran Khan: hero's hero Getty Images

My first day of international cricket in Pakistan is one I will never forget. It was the afternoon session in Karachi, Pakistan were batting and I was fielding at mid-on. Suddenly from behind me I heard someone muttering something about 'Kashmir' and 'you Indians'. I looked back to see a person in a grey Pathani suit walk past me and head towards the pitch. He had just nonchalantly walked in with a Test match going on. When he reached the pitch, he started shouting anti-India slogans - basically, telling us we shouldn't have come on tour. As the fielding team, we didn't know what to do, so most of us just stayed in our places hoping that the people who were supposed to take care of such matters would do their job.

The umpires tried to intervene, but the man went straight for the then Indian captain, Kris Srikkanth. The next thing we saw, to our utter shock and disbelief, was Srikkanth and the man exchanging blows. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Srikkanth was now holding him by his shirt, and there was pulling and tugging from both sides. It was a streetfight, except that it was happening during a Test match, and one of the persons involved was the India Test captain.

Within seconds, a few other players joined the fight. The man was surrounded by the Indian players. I don't clearly recall who all were there but Kiran More, always the team man, definitely got involved. I found it a little funny, watching More, with his pads on, trying to kick the intruder through all the legs and bodies that had surrounded him. It was also slightly amusing that the only fallout of this was Srikkanth going off the field for a couple of overs to change his shirt after he had lost all the buttons in the scuffle. The Test match continued as if nothing had happened. If this had happened today, the series would have been called off.

We now know that such an incident is no laughing matter, but this was 1989 and those were different days. Pakistan was a different country. They were also a different cricket team, unlike any other team the world had seen. We got a sample of that even before the first Test started.

Both the teams were practising in the evening session when we suddenly saw the legendary leg-spinner Abdul Qadir sprinting after a man. At first we wondered if that man was with the team, but he was a random spectator, one of the hundreds who had assembled at the National Stadium to watch us train. They had wandered onto the field as our practice went on. And there was Qadir, running after him as if his life depended on it. The rest of the crowd started to watch it and enjoy it. This man was younger and fitter than Qadir, and just as Qadir would get close to him, he would suddenly change direction. The chase went on for about five minutes. Both the teams stopped doing whatever they were doing, and began to watch this spectacle: a great leg-spinner running after a fan during a practice session before a Test match.

Eventually the chase came to an end when the security joined in. Maybe Qadir was allowed to have a couple of swipes at the man before they let him go. The show was over, and we went back to our practice sessions. There was nothing in the papers the next morning either. We were later told by a Pakistan player - in a hush-hush manner - that the man had pinched Qadir's bottom during the practice session.

Pakistanis were known to be emotional cricketers. At times, they resembled a dysfunctional family, constantly quarrelling but coming together when it mattered. Undoubtedly, they had exceptional talent, but they needed a patriarch to bring them all together. That patriarch was my biggest take-away from that tour. When I came back from that tour, I was dying to tell my friends about the man who had now matched, perhaps surpassed, Sunil Gavaskar as my cricket idol.

I could find no fault with Imran Khan Niazi. He had me even before hello. Those were the days when the Pakistan team was notorious for fielding thirteen men against the opposition - Shakoor Rana and Khizer Hayat or any of their two local umpires providing them great support. Call them patriotic if you wish, all their success at home had an asterisk attached to it. But Imran said, 'No more.' And in that big series against arch rivals India, he single-handedly ensured we had neutral umpires, John Hampshire and John Holder, both from England.

It became clear that Imran had the will - and the necessary influence - to make such far-reaching changes to improve the perception of his team. He wanted the world to see his team beat India without help from the umpires. He was willing to risk losing in this endeavour, but as we found out over the next four Tests, it was not easy to beat a side led by such a fierce competitor.

Imran was thirty-seven years old at the time. He had lost all his pace by then, but we never felt we could target him in the field or when he was bowling or when he batted. It was absolutely incredible watching him throughout that series. I don't recall a single moment on the field on that trip when Imran's attention drifted away from what was happening in the centre. We could be piling on the runs, it could be a long hot day in the field, but there was not one moment where you could see him looking in the direction of the stands or seeming bored. His eyes were always focused on what was happening on the field.

Things obviously didn't go as per plan for Pakistan as we managed to draw all the four Tests of that series. Barring the last Test in Sialkot, we got flat pitches everywhere. They started off being green but went back to their natural state as the match went on. There were a lot of overs to be bowled on long, hard days. Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were the new pace sensations, but Imran knew they needed to be used sparingly as strike weapons; they had to be preserved as out-and-out quicks should be. Waqar had some fitness issues, so he played only two Tests. Imran, though, kept running in ball after ball on those flat pitches with the old ball, and sent down 185.3 overs in that series. On either side, only Wasim bowled more than Imran.

It was not just the number of overs he bowled, it was his intensity that stood out. Imran was a metronome as a bowler. Primarily, he was a major in-swing bowler so his aim used to be to start wide outside off and end up on the off stump. He did that for almost every ball for the 25-30 overs he bowled every day. On the odd occasion that the ball finished on the middle stump and I was able to flick it for runs on the leg side, he would get absolutely livid with himself. I would then get to hear him utter the choicest of abuses in Punjabi and English. Even if it was just one run to square leg, the fact that he had allowed the batsman to play on the leg side was a big failure in his opinion. He was merciless on himself, and he expected the same from others.

In Lahore, when I was taking a single to bring up my double-century, I could hear Imran berating the bowler for allowing me to get an easy one on the leg side. I don't remember whether he applauded when I reached the landmark. Later in the series when Shoaib Mohammad was about to reach his landmark we had Srikkanth and More bowling.

I remember there was a match where we got confused if it was a one-day international or an exhibition game. With no agreement forthcoming, one team started out playing thinking it was a serious match, and the other team played it like an exhibition match. With Imran in one of the teams, you didn't need to guess which side took the game seriously. So we had Srikkanth clowning around with the ball, doing impressions of Qadir's action, and Imran watching it all with a deadpan expression. After bowling a long hop at Imran, Srikkanth smiled, but Imran just stared back with a straight face.

In the Faisalabad Test, Sachin Tendulkar got a light feather of a touch on the ball as he looked to work it off his hip. It was such a faint edge that no one appealed. Except Imran Khan, who was at mid-on. The umpire shook his head, but Imran was convinced there was some bat in that one. He kept asking his players how come they didn't hear it. 'Awaaz to zaroor aayi yaar [there was definitely a sound],' he kept saying before he reluctantly dragged his feet back to mid-on.

At the end of the over, Tendulkar and I got together and he said, 'What a guy. What sharp ears.' He knew he had edged it. The wicketkeeper didn't hear it, the umpire didn't hear it, but the man at mid-on did. No one was as focused on the game as Imran was.

The cricket field was a place where Imran would let himself go. Captaining a team known for rustic behaviour, he would become the biggest rascal of them all. His cursing was a big part of his cricket. We knew he studied at Oxford and spoke charmingly, but it was a sight to behold when he let it rip at himself or his team-mates in the language of the common Pakistani man. Wasim and Waqar imitate Imran brilliantly. Whenever Wasim does it, a generous dose of swear words is a big part of the script. Imran truly felt at home on a cricket field, and expressed himself without a filter.

That he could connect with everyone in his team was a reason why he led Pakistan so successfully. They were a difficult side to lead. A side whose superstar batsman Javed Miandad enjoyed so much influence that he could ask for and get a flat pitch in Lahore for his hundredth Test despite his captain's wish to play on surfaces that help his young sensational quicks.

Because of the flat pitches, a typical Test for Imran would mean bowling 35-40 overs in an innings as we scored 400 or upwards. In the ten-minute break between innings, Imran - a lower-middle- order batsman - would come out all padded up to have a knock. He would repeat it in every break - lunch, tea - while his team batted. He would always have his full gear on as he came out for the knock.

On occasion if my eye wandered towards the dressing rooms when Pakistan were batting, I could see Imran fooling around with either the bat or the ball as he sat in the balcony. We had one such player in our dressing room too, but he was sixteen years old and on his first international tour. Imran, meanwhile was thirty-seven, and had been an international cricketer for eighteen years by then.

Imran's methods as captain made so much sense. It may have looked crude at times but it was effective especially given Pakistan's temperament. He could sense when a batsman was losing concentration; he would send out messages through substitutes. He could see an event before it happened and avert disasters.

There was no one in the Indian team to do such things. To be fair, Sandeep Patil did that to us, but only at the Ranji level. As a commentator, I once suggested M.S. Dhoni to become more hands on, to get into the head of someone like Umesh Yadav, to use a combination of Yadav's skill and fitness and Dhoni's brain. For this is what I had seen Imran do from mid-on with Wasim and Waqar.

There are great stories of how Imran used to mentor the young fast bowlers. *Once, Waqar was driven past mid-on by a batsman, past Imran. Imran didn't exactly fancy chasing the ball, which pulled up inches outside the boundary. Imran came all the way back with the ball in his hand and asked Waqar, 'Vicky, what did you do there?'

Waqar replied, 'Skipper, I tried to bowl an inswinger to him.' Imran threw up his arms in the air, and cried out to Waqar, 'Yaar, ask me before you do any such thing.'

A young bowler once stood at the top of his run and didn't run in right away. After a few seconds passed, Imran shouted at him from mid-on, 'Why aren't you bowling?' The reply was: 'You didn't tell me what to bowl.'

Both Tendulkar and I were so inspired by Imran's and then the South African way of bowling - machine-like outside the off stump and waiting for the batsmen to make mistakes - that we copied those styles when we played for Mumbai. We had an incredible time doing that. We destroyed all our opposition this way. All Mumbai bowlers bowled every ball as per our directives. They were the better for it. It was only when Ajit Agarkar came along in my last year as Mumbai captain that I felt I didn't need to tell him anything.

As with the great West Indies players, Imran wanted to play the game the right way. In 1992, we played Pakistan in a series of three matches in England to raise funds for Imran's hospital. The first was played at Crystal Palace in London. Even though they were exhibition matches, the fervour among fans did not diminish. If anything, they got a freer hand than at international matches. There were pitch invasions and missiles. The 42-over contest was reduced to 40, and eventually 25. Pakistan needed 69 runs in 7.5 overs when their fans made another invasion, forcing the organizers to abandon the game. At the post-match presentations, Imran grabbed the microphone and announced that India had won this game and said the Pakistan fans' behaviour was shameful.

In my first personal encounter with Imran, I was afraid I had infuriated my hero similarly. This was from a Sharjah tour before we went to Pakistan in 1989. We were at the ground for an India-Pakistan match. I was taking a knock before the match when I hit a ball that went in the direction of some Pakistani journalists standing just outside the boundary. It nearly cleaned out one of them as they all ducked for cover. One of them shouted at me, 'Play these shots in the match, not here.'

I was a young hothead then, and saw this remark as one coming from someone who was part of the dominant camp in Sharjah. Pakistan were a superb side respected all over the world, and when it came to Sharjah they were the kings. Teams just turned up in Sharjah to take their beating from Pakistan. The Indian team went there twice a year, so I guess we bore the brunt more than the others. That's why I thought that the offended journalist was being arrogant.

That made me angry, and I told him he should be in the press box and not in the ground. The journalist was in no mood to step back, and we had a spat. Raman Lamba had to intervene and drag me away. The matter didn't end there, though. At the Sharjah Cricket Stadium you have to walk through a common lounge area to get to your respective dressing rooms. As I walked back through there, one of my team-mates asked me what had happened, and I said, 'Nothing, just some Pakistani rascal trying to act smart.'

Then I felt a tap on my shoulder, and that unmistakable loud booming voice told me, 'Don't be so anti-Pakistani.'

Months later, when I was in awe of Imran during that Pakistan tour, I was always reminded of how I had begun on the wrong foot with my hero. I wondered if Imran held that against me still. I wondered if that was the reason he swore at his bowler for letting me take the 200th run easily in Lahore. I wondered if I could ever be on friendly terms with Imran.

The 1989 tour came and went. Imran didn't speak a word to me on the field through the four Tests. Once the series was over, though, Imran was lavish in his praise for me on every public platform. I realized now that to Imran the Sharjah incident might have been so trivial he possibly didn't even remember it. As with all great ambassadors of the game, it was good cricket that mattered to him. To get such admiration from my idol was the biggest prize for my performance in Pakistan.

Our next interaction came after I had a lukewarm tour of New Zealand. The moment he saw me he asked me, 'Why did you play Richard Hadlee off the back foot?' He told me I played Wasim and Waqar well because I was looking to move forward all the time. While it was sound technical advice, I was just floored that my hero liked my batting enough to follow that tour and be disappointed with my failures. This was a Pakistani following the progress of an Indian and wanting him to do well.

I was not the only one. This was the time Maninder Singh had developed the yips and had lost his run-up, his action, his zip. A prodigious talent with a beautiful action, Maninder was a shadow of himself now. After speaking to me, Imran headed straight to Maninder and asked him, 'Manni, what have you done to your bowling? Why did you change your action? There is no run-up now, nothing.'

Maninder tried to reason with him by saying he had lost his accuracy and had to shorten his run-up to regain the control, but Imran was having none of it. 'If I lose my accuracy I can't shorten my run-up,' Imran said. 'I will lose all my pace. This is not done. Go back to the original run-up and keep bowling at one stump, a thousand balls a day, and you will find your accuracy.'

Imran was not born to be a great. He had to work hard and put himself through tremendous grind to achieve greatness. Plus, he was a generous man to boot. These are the people who have a lot of cricket wisdom to share and pass on rather than the ridiculously talented cricketers.

Ramiz Raja once told me that if Imran had been my captain he would have never dropped me and would have ensured that I succeeded at all cost. He was that kind of a leader. If he believed in someone, he backed that player fully. Inzamam-ul-Haq was a beneficiary of Imran's trust. Even before Imran took him to the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, Imran had announced to the world that they had found the next great batsman. When Inzamam failed at No. 3 in the 1992 World Cup, the thirty-nine-year-old Imran pushed himself up to No. 3 but never dropped Inzamam, who eventually won them the semi-final against New Zealand.

Imran and the other seniors around him had incredible self-belief. They thought their team was second to none, no matter where they played or against whom they played. There weren't too many around in India to do what Imran did for Inzamam.

Imran also knew his players inside out. Ramiz told me how he would settle differences within the team. There was this one time when Saleem Yousuf and Javed Miandad got into a bit of a fight on the field. They were both strong characters, and neither man was willing to take a step back. During the lunch break, an upset Miandad went up to Imran and said that either Yousuf was going to stay on the tour or he was; that the team was too small for both Yousuf and him.

Imran listened to him and said, 'Yaar, Javed tu bhi na... [Javed, you are impossible]' Imran then laughed and left. That was it. That was the end of the fight. It was incredible. With any other captain, who knows how much this issue would have escalated. Imran, though, knew Javed well enough to handle him the way he did, and he also had the stature and the intelligence to trivialize this threat.

Ramiz has often told me he never ever heard one negative thought expressed in the Pakistan dressing room during Imran's tenure as captain. He still wonders where Imran got the confidence from to say they were going to win the World Cup the moment they landed in Australia in 1992. Even when Pakistan played West Indies, they would go in with positivity. Not one defensive word was said. He spread this positivity all around.

It will forever be my regret that we had no Imran-like senior in our dressing room. Youngsters like Kiran More and Manoj Prabhakar would have gained a lot under Imran; they were the kind of players Imran backed. Ijaz Ahmed once batted conservatively at the end of an ODI innings, and came back with a score of 30-odd not out. Imran told him he would be sent back home if he put his personal interests ahead of the team ever again. In India, meanwhile, More found himself batting higher in the order against formidable attacks because more accomplished senior players chose to take the easy way out by dropping themselves down the order.

Similarly, Prabhakar ended up opening with the bat in 23 of his 39 Tests. These two were also a little Pakistani when it came to temperament. Contrary to the narrative of a bitter rivalry between the India and Pakistan teams, we got along pretty well. The rivalry was more among the fans, who were in each other's faces, and the media. In Pakistan in 1989 for over two months, there was not a single instance of any fight or a face-off between the players - except that Prabhakar and More always tried getting under the skin of Miandad, who was not one to take it lying down. The unforgettable More-Miandad incident that we saw in the 1992 World Cup was at least three years in the making.

****

It's not as if Pakistan were the most cohesive unit of all time, but at least it was more fun than malice. Their turning on each other in full public view - and they did so endearingly - made them a fun side to watch. It was loud when you went out to bat against Pakistan, but the noise would be their elders sledging each other. They would quarrel with each other on the field. They were constantly at each other when Imran wasn't near.

There were no glares or shrugs of shoulders at misfields, only the choicest abuse, especially from Imran. I would be memorizing the great one-liners to repeat them to my friends once I got back - I'd imagine how thrilled they would be when I told them of how Imran behaved on the field.

Miandad would constantly be in Imran's ear with this advice or the other. Imran would at best tolerate him. I never saw Imran listen to advice from Miandad - a great in his own right - seriously. I never saw Miandad let up either. Then when it would get too much, you would hear Imran's booming voice: 'Yaar Javed tu rehne de. Ek baar kuch bolta hai phir doosri baar kuch aur bolta hai [You let it be, Javed. You give one advice one moment, and something completely different the next moment].' Miandad would go back to the slip cordon muttering under his breath that things would be better if done his way.

Somebody once asked Imran if Miandad's advice ever worked for him and Pakistan at an important stage in any match. Imran's reply was that if somebody gave you a thousand suggestions a day, one or two were bound to work.

At times, it would get comical, but Pakistan knew how to win matches. That's where India and Pakistan were different at that time. We just carried with us a lot of self-doubt and negativity when we left our shores. While we would easily lose to England in England, Pakistan would go there and hammer them. In 1992, two years after our tour of England, Pakistan came and not only thrashed England but also beat all counties outright in the side games only because there was a financial jackpot to be won if any team did that.

Even when we went to Sharjah, known for its flat pitches, it seemed we were there just to accept our punishment. Indeed, Sharjah was where the India-Pakistan rivalry would grow in intensity, perhaps thanks to the Pakistani fans in Sharjah. From the moment we landed at the airport, they would be in our faces. At the hotel, at the restaurants, at the shopping centres, and in the ground where the stands were so close to the playing area it seemed they could stretch their arms and touch us. Chants of 'Jivey, jivey, Pakistan [Long live Pakistan]' haunted us everywhere.

Other than that, especially now that I look back, playing Pakistan was not as tough as people think. All the drama and the tension, the history between the two nations, the emotion that came with the matches, were external. As players, we weren't nearly as intense or edgy about facing off against each other as the fans were. In fact, we played against each other so many times that it eased our equation a bit.

Playing Pakistan was a far easier challenge than playing England, South Africa or Australia in their backyards. For starters, you played them mostly in Asia, many times in Sharjah - the flattest pitches you could get. I don't rate batting performances in Sharjah very highly. I once got the Man of the Series award there. It's not something I wear as a badge of honour.

There used to be a graveyard near the Sharjah Stadium. Every time we travelled to the ground, I used to wonder if the signage pointing towards the graveyard should actually point towards the ground; it was after all a graveyard for bowlers. 'Sharjah Stadium, where great bowlers' spirits come to die.' I once lofted Curtly Ambrose straight over his head in Sharjah. His next ball to me was a slower ball on my pads. It was like a tiger had been reduced to eating grass. That's what Sharjah did to bowlers, barring, of course, the Pakistani bowlers.

Off the field, though, there used to be a lot of glamour in Sharjah. Film stars, pop stars and other famous and infamous faces would often be seen in the luxurious boxes. We were - at least I was - blissfully unaware of what might have gone on under the surface. All I knew back then was that India versus Pakistan was a big draw, which is why we were invited to Sharjah and to other exhibition matches over and over again.

The exhibition matches were played in a light-hearted vein but would witness spurts of intense competition, often on an individual level. Take the instance of Javed Miandad and Dilip Vengsarkar - both quite similar as people, which is why they were friendly off the field. However, in one such exhibition match on the 1989 tour, Waqar bowled a lovely outswinging yorker that pitched on the base of Vengsarkar's off stump and sent it cartwheeling. I was at the non-striker's end, and I saw Vengsarkar was a little shaken up by the rookie's excellent bowling.

I got out shortly after, and I was having tea with Vengsarkar when Miandad walked straight towards him. And without any pleasantries, Miandad told Vengsarkar, 'You have had a long career. There was only one thing missing: "b Waqar Younis". You have now achieved that too.'

Vengsarkar tried to ignore this taunt, but when needled further he told Miandad that he had just walked in to bat and didn't see the ball properly. Miandad would have nothing of it, and kept on insisting that the kid was a terrific bowler. 'He has done this to quite a few very good batsmen, so don't feel so bad,' Miandad said.

After Miandad left, Vengsarkar conceded that Waqar was indeed a damn good bowler.

Waqar was not the only young talent that emerged from those exhibition matches on that tour. The story of Tendulkar hitting Qadir out of the park is also quite well known, but I saw the best of Tendulkar in those matches when he played Wasim Akram. Perhaps Tendulkar played more freely on such occasions, considering these were not ODIs. Tendulkar versus Wasim with both at their prime is perhaps the best rivalry that never was. Those matches were not on TV, but from my ringside view I saw Tendulkar dominate Wasim. I remember how Mudassar Nazar observed during one such exhibition match - the best slog-overs bowler in the world was hit all over the park by Tendulkar quite effortlessly. Tendulkar will never boast openly, but he used to often wonder why other batsmen found Wasim so tough to play. I used to think, 'Because you are not like other batsmen, Sachin.'

Because Tendulkar had captured the imagination of the cricket world, and because I had had a good series, we would be recognized anywhere we went. I had seen a lot of Pakistan players wear a certain kind of sandal - especially Imran - and I had to buy them. So at the end of the tour, both of us went to a market in Peshawar. We reached a narrow street lined up on both sides with just sandal shops. As we looked in a few stores, word spread that we were there. The street soon filled up with hundreds of people, all gaping at us. I have mixed feelings about that experience. It was nice to see the effect we were having on people, and it was our first real experience of what it was like to be famous, but at the time I'd felt a little vulnerable because I had seen the hostility from Pakistan fans in Sharjah. Here, though, they just looked at us, two India cricketers, in awe. Nobody hassled us. I got my sandals, I liked them a lot, and I didn't have to pay for them.

This is an edited excerpt from Imperfect by Sanjay Manjrekar, published with permission from HarperCollins India

07:50:42 GMT, January 8, 2018: *The original said this incident was from Pakistan's tour of England in 1990, which is incorrect