Imran’s new challenge: Captaining a new, complicated team

A new innings begins for former cricket captain and now PM designate Imran Khan, but this time on an uncertain wicket!

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PTI Chairman Imran Khan with former cricketers

Imran Khan had brought glory to Pakistan before. The rather young nation at 45 years did not have too many accolades circa 1992. It had lost its eastern wing of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) 20 years before and was on the verge of being declared a terrorist state.

A charismatic Imran Khan was pushing 40 then, well over his due date. But the Pakistani cricket fans didn’t think so. As evinced from the chant in Pakistan, which went, “Who can save Pakistan? It’s Imran Khan, It’s Imran Khan”. There was this belief, the hope and then came the euphoria as captain charismatic, who wore his passion on his sleeve, now lifted aloft Pakistan’s maiden cricket World Cup.

The new world champions had much to celebrate, as Imran Khan and his team were national heroes. Ironically, Nawaz Sharif who was the Prime Minister then and was also his biggest cheerleader, as he serenaded the victors in Islamabad. The irony didn’t end there. It only snowballed further. Nawaz Sharif can be seen to be facetiously courting Imran Khan to join politics, saying he would be a great asset to his team (party).

However, if there is one thing cricket connoisseurs and historians know is that the pendulum can swing many times during the ‘course of play’. Fast forward to 2018, and Imran Khan, a master of ‘seam bowling’, has sent his opponents back to the ‘pavilion’. Akin to the fearsome speedster that he was on the cricket pitch, even in the political arena, he ‘bounced out’ his opponents with many such ‘reverse swinging strikes’; each one had more ‘pace, guile and ferocity’.

Nawaz Sharif, and his daughter Maryam Nawaz of the PML-N have been ‘caught behind’ amid corruption allegations and declared ‘not fit’ to contest. Shehbaz Sharif, has had a robust ‘domestic innings’ as the former Chief Minister of Punjab, but has struggled to project himself on the national stage as a strong contender. The fledgling Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), hasn’t put up a ‘sturdy defense’ outside of his ‘home turf’ of Sindh.

So, now the same chant has resonated through the streets of Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar — “Who can save Pakistan? It’s Imran Khan, It’s Imran Khan”?

The 65- year older has successfully presented himself as the only viable alternative to the kleptocratic dynastic scion politics of the PML-N and the PPP. And many Pakistanis see Khan as an individual who has walked the walk (given his cricketing exploits) and the only messiah who can bring domestic change amidst the economic morass.

While captain charismatic had a relatively clean cricket career, he isn’t without controversy in this political ‘match’. The mil-establishment, a sobriquet for the wider military establishment, seems to have ‘prepared a pitch’ and ‘created conditions’ to favour the Pakistani strongman. Various reports of the military intervention did the rounds, as human rights activists, journalists, other politicians spoke of coercion and voter intimidation during the elections.

Pakistani cricket is no stranger to ‘match fixing’ (rigging the game). In the 1990s, shortly after Imran Khan’s retirement, several cricketers from the sub-continent were accused of accepting bribes from bookies to feign a weak performance and hence doctor the result. It would be cruelly ironic to see Khan, someone who epitomised sportsmanship, to have won a game thanks to the involvement of the ‘bookies’ (mil-establishment).

The military has ruled Pakistan for most of its 70-year existence. And when the military hasn’t been at the helm, they have operated as the shadow government, arm-twisting civilian governments with regards to foreign policy and defense, and even toppling civilian governments when they don’t oblige.

Originally published at www.orfonline.org.

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