Newsmaker: Imran Khan

The Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician hit the headlines this week for allegedly divorcing his wife via text message. Such allegations don’t seem to have harmed his career, though.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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For a former cricketing legend who once took 10 wickets and scored 100 runs in a single Test match, Imran Khan’s brief marriage to the former BBC weather presenter Reham Khan could be described as a disappointingly short innings.

Worse, according to the British press, the 63-year-old’s behaviour in the final over of the marriage just wasn’t cricket.

This week, The Daily Mail and other tabloids reported that he called stumps on the 10-month marriage by divorcing his 42-year-old wife by text message.

True or not, for the millions of Pakistanis at home and abroad who worship the dashing Khan, it will take rather more than an alleged lapse in manners to shake their faith in the man who has transcended his origins as a privileged pretty-boy playboy to become the hope and conscience of Pakistani politics.

Born in Lahore on November 25, 1952, five years after Pakistan was created, Khan enjoyed a happy and comfortably affluent childhood as the only son among the five children of Ikramullah Khan Niazi, a civil engineer, and his wife, Shaukat Khanum.

He would make the most of the opportunities handed him. First stop was the highly selective and prestigious Aitchison College in Lahore, established in 1886 by a British lieutenant governor of the Punjab, followed by a spell at one of the oldest independent schools in England, the Royal Grammar School Worcester.

From a cricketing family – though he would quickly outshine various relatives who played the game – Khan excelled at the sport at school.

He wasn’t, however, particularly happy in England. “I found it almost impossible to make friends with the British,” he later wrote.

Enrolling at Keble College, ­Oxford, in 1972, Khan began studying geography, but soon switched to philosophy, politics and economics.

Cricket, though, was his real passion. He captained the university team, but was less prominent in the academic batting order, graduating with a second in politics and a third in economics.

His prowess with bat and ball, he later insisted, had not come easily. "I always knew I would excel in cricket," he told The ­Oxford Student in 1991. "I wanted to be an outstanding player, that was my ambition. But having set myself these goals, I had to work really hard to achieve them."

It paid off. Having made his debut appearance in first-class cricket for Lahore in 1968, at the age of 16, he began his Test career, playing for Pakistan against England in the summer of 1971.

It was the beginning of a 21-year love affair for Pakistani cricket fans, during which Khan established himself as one of the great all-rounders of all time. Between 1971 and 1992, he scored 3,807 runs and took 362 wickets for his country in Tests, putting him on a par with the likes of Garry ­Sobers and Ian Botham.

Khan also excelled at one-day internationals, leading Pakistan to victory in the World Cup in 1992, and played county cricket in England, first for Worcestershire and, from 1983, for Sussex.

The cricket world showered him with accolades – he was named the leading all-rounder in English cricket in 1976 and 1980, Wisden cricketer of the year in 1983 and Indian Cricket's player of the year in 1990.

Honours came thick and fast, and so did adulation and women for a man hailed as “one of the world’s most eligible ­bachelors”.

A headline in Australia in 1989 when Khan arrived to sign copies of his autobiography, All Round View, summed up his image at the time: "Imran Khan bowls maidens over at bookstore."

If the tabloids were to be believed, English women went into mourning in 1995 when Khan announced his engagement to the socialite daughter of Sir James Goldsmith, an ­Anglo-French billionaire.

Khan and Jemima Goldsmith, then 21 to his 42, had met in a private club – Annabel’s, the trendy Berkeley Square haunt of the rich and famous, named after Jemima’s mother, Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart.

A decade after his mother’s death from cancer, Khan had, finally, defied her orders not to return home with a foreign bride.

In the interim, his name had been linked with a string of glamorous women, including the actresses Stephanie Beacham and Goldie Hawn, Lady Liza ­Campbell, the painter Emma Sergeant and the MTV presenter Kristiane Backer.

"Part warrior-hero, part romantic lead, Imran Khan's progress through the cricketing record books and London society's diary was assured," gushed The ­Daily Mail in a colourful eulogy for his bachelor status.

In an interview, Khan insisted “the playboy image was very much exaggerated, [but] I never said I was a saint ­either.”

Saint or not, Khan had a spiritual effect on Backer, a ­German then living in the United Kingdom. In 1995, the year Khan proposed to Goldsmith, Backer turned her back on pop music and converted to Islam, after being introduced to the faith by Khan during a visit to Pakistan.

Goldsmith would take the same path, fulfilling her husband’s earlier promise that “I shall marry a Muslim girl. Race, class or country is immaterial.”

They divorced in 2004 after nine years of marriage. With two children – Suleiman, born in 1996, and Qasim, in 1999 – they reportedly remain on good terms.

In January this year, Khan, then 62, married 42-year-old Reham, a divorced mother of three, in a ceremony at his Islamabad home. Just 10 months later, it was over, with Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper quoting an unnamed source as suggesting the two were “just not getting along”.

“She wanted to get involved with politics, and that is not what Khan wanted at all. She just did not want to sit at home,” the source said.

Khan has admitted he had no interest in politics during the 1970s and much of the 80s. "I had been so single-mindedly and obsessively involved in international cricket that I had no time to think about much else," he wrote in his book Pakistan: A Personal History.

Yet politics seeped into his cricket. He began to notice that amid “the steady erosion of the country’s political and social fabric” under President Zia, who declared martial law in 1977 and ruled until his death in 1988, “the Pakistani people drew solace from its success in cricket”.

For teams such as Pakistan, ­India and the West Indies, “a battle to right colonial wrongs and assert our equality was played out on the cricket field every time we took on England”.

Focused on his career, it nevertheless “pained me to watch the steady decline of my ­country”. Spending summers playing cricket in England, he saw in the UK that “the institutions were stronger than the individual”, while in Pakistan “powerful individuals abused the state structure for their own ends”.

The seeds of a political awakening were being sowed, and after his retirement from cricket in 1992, they would flower, alongside a reaffirmation of his commitment to Islamic values.

Philanthropy came first. In the 1990s, inspired by his mother’s death from cancer in 1985, he founded Pakistan’s first cancer hospital, which treats the majority of its patients free of charge. Education has also been one of his key objectives, and in 2008, he opened Namal College in ­Mianwali.

In 1996, he founded his own political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (also know as Pakistan Movement for Justice, or PTI) and jumped into the maelstrom that is Pakistani politics. He was, he said, determined “to take on the political elite that has for more than six decades stymied this great country”.

From its leader’s single seat in the National Assembly in 2002, by 2013, the PTI had improved its support to secure more than 7.5 million votes – 16.9 per cent of the total – making it an influential opposition party, with 35 of the 272 seats in the assembly.

"After over a decade of trying to gain a foothold in Pakistani ­politics," reported The Nation, Khan had "finally elbowed his way into the big league, casting himself as a populist anti-­corruption crusader."

It isn’t just feudalism that Khan has in his sights. In November 2012, two days after an American drone strike killed five people in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that his party governs, he led a protest against the attacks on Pakistani soil. He’s contemptuous of the ­Pakistani government’s role as a self-serving “puppet” of the ­United States, embroiling its country in America’s “insane and immoral war”. Instead of violence, he urges dialogue and a “truth and reconciliation” process with all militant groups.

Khan is as committed now to saving his country through politics as he once was through cricket. Politics, he once told a ­British newspaper, was a duty for ­Pakistanis. “I think people like us who have been given so much by our country have a responsibility … to fight for a change.”

In the murky world of the region’s geopolitics, such talk demands courage far greater than that required to face even the fury of the world’s fastest bowlers.

Yet thanks to his faith, “I have no fear of death,” Khan said in 2008. “When I came into politics, I always thought there was a possibility I would be killed,” he said, but spirituality “does two things for you. One, you are forced to become more selfless; two, you trust to providence.”

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