I write this on the Independence Day of Pakistan, August 14, in a momentous week of its history. Pakistan is set to be ruled by Imran Khan, a cricketer who is familiar with India and who India is fairly familiar with. But there are no surprises in the fact that Imran may throw up a surprise.
It was Caribbean writer CLR James who once said, "What do they know about cricket, who only cricket know?" The fact is that cricket, both in its outlook and in its origins in colonial rule as a game of gentlemen elite is the closest chess got to an outdoor sport. It is a proxy for cultural and by extension, political power. It is also a metaphor for how uncertainties can stalk us.
Then there is the fact that Imran Khan was a politician long before he entered politics. India's current Minister of State for External Affairs, MJ Akbar, who used to be the founding-editor of Sunday magazine, once interviewed Imran Khan and the subject was "everything but cricket." Imran Khan was then already a political science major from Oxford University and once said that India and Pakistan should settle their Kashmir dispute by playing a cricket match. Winner gets Kashmir. Simple as that.
I stumbled last week on a journalistic masterpiece last week by Pakistani cricket writer and historian Osman Samiuddin, appropriately titled 'The Imran Khans I've Known'. It moves like a Quentin Tarantino movie script to unearth the little gestures that reveal the man's character and leaves you with an impression that the only things you can predict about Imran, apart from his desire to win and be in command, is that he is unpredictable. Imran enthused his team to win but was ruthless at times as a one-man firing squad as a team selector; he appeared modern and listened to Sufi music but later hung out with the Taliban types; and he changed his mind on who he liked once it did not suit his aims.
Years earlier, Samiuddin had this to say about Imran Khan: "So fierce is the single-mindedness that it has often become divisive, as with the 1992 World Cup-winning speech remembered so bitterly in Pakistan. So obsessed had he become with building the cancer hospital in memory of his mother, he didn't think to thank his own team or anyone else, speaking only of the project. That is the downside; the upside is that the cause drove him, and thus his team, to win the damn thing in the first place"
As he sat down to make his first remarks as a would-be prime minister, Imran Khan swapped a stern old portrait of Pakistan's founder Jinnah with one that the writer calls "unapologetically Western."
So what does all that mean for India? My two cents: Watch it.
A man who can change his mind on those he admires, admit to ball-tampering (remember?) and carefully swap background portraits when he makes a public speech will watch his field placing and his pitch conditions. And he knows that every over has six deliveries. His eyes are on the wickets that would take him closer to victory. Whose wicket would that be? He has just taken Nawaz Sharif's wicket to win power. You never know whether the next target is the Army/ISI or India itself. Because, unlike in sport, in politics, a team player's cricket can sometimes become a loner's golf.
In the current context of Pakistan desperately needing money to fix its troubled economy, the Westernised Jinnah portrait may even mean that Imran Khan may swap his cricket bat for a baseball thingie. A US-friendly home run ( to contain the Army) may do more for him but then, he has climbed on the Army's shoulders to get where he is. Immy has been known more for attitude than gratitude in his long career. However, there is also a streak of idealism bordering on arrogance that makes him a mystical bad boy.
We have been told Imran has just received a special Jinnah cap from a seasoned manufacturer in Multan whose works have adorned the heads of many a Pakistani leader. What lies under it will be a mystery. It may be a tiny bottle of ball-tampering political vaseline or a Sufi charm to make friends with former enemies.
A sports aerodynamics expert who has studied the science of swing bowling has this to say: "So, how do you tell what type of swing a particular bowler is producing? Make note of the seam orientation and swing direction. If they are coincident, it is conventional swing; if opposed, it is the reverse swing and if the seam is pointing straight down the pitch, you have just witnessed contrast swing."
How do you, in political terms, guess how Pakistan's new prime minister will bowl? We might as well turn Ravi Shastri's cliche into a question to find out how Imran will hold the ball.
Who is the winner in the end? Cricket? Pakistan? Or very simply, Imran Khan?
(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)