Imran Khan talks: Those great West Indian pacers
On the day the film, Fire in Babylon releases in India, former Pakistan skipper Imran Khan tells MiD DAY how the Caribbean quick bowlers crushed body and spirit with their searing pace putting the best out of business, and what it took to take them on
At least 17 other Imran Khans have played cricket at a competitive level. But all of them put together could not achieve as much as Pakistan's Imran Khan Niazi.
As handsome as a Hollywood hero, there was nothing celluloid-esque about his cricketing heroics. Through bat, ball and leadership, he achieved everything there was to achieve in the sporting sphere. His last act leading Pakistan to World Cup victory in 1992 was probably his best, but he is remembered for other things too.
The cricketer-turned-politician (60 on November 25) spoke to MiD DAY in the build-up to today's India release of Fire in Babylon — a film on West Indies cricket in the 1970s and 1980s. He is most qualified to talk on the Caribbean quicks because he faced the best of them. He also stressed how those fast bowlers affected careers and put some of the best out of business.
What did you make of the film Fire in Babylon?
From a cricketing point of view, it is probably one of the most significant parts of cricket history. The West Indies were one of the greatest teams to set foot on a cricket field. Never was there such quality and quantity of fast bowling on a cricket field from one team. To win overseas was not that easy as it is now. In fact, there were mismatches… look at the way they demolished their opponents. And it was not just fast bowling.
They had some of the best batsmen I have seen in my time… Viv Richards — debatably, the greatest batsman ever. Gordon Greenidge was outstanding too. The West Indies had outstanding batting and fast bowling. They had no spinners, but they didn't need spinners. Even on spinning pitches they could bowl teams out twice. My only criticism of the film is that it could have had five or 10 minutes more of cricket. They could have just shown more quality cricket for the cricket connoisseurs. The actual cricket was not enough.
Would showing some of West Indies' opponents lend more value to the film?
Yes. I think they could have taken Sunil Gavaskar's views because he faced them a lot. Now, here is one of the best opening batsmen — one of the best technicians ever. They should have got him. It would have been interesting to hear from him — because he watches much cricket now — how he would compare what he faced to what batsmen face now.
You faced them all - Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft, Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall. Who was the complete fast bowler?
On his day, no one could beat Michael Holding. He was out and out the most devastating fast bowler ever. When he was on song, I can say he was the best fast bowler ever seen. Number two… Malcolm Marshall. He was a complete fast bowler too.
They had variety. Garner could attract steep bounce. Then there was his yorker. He perfected the yorker. Andy Roberts could run through a team, Sylvester Clarke too. And then came Curtly Ambrose… he was one of the best ever. For a while, Ian Bishop was as fast as anyone, although he didn't last long. There were fast bowlers who couldn't get into the team regularly like Clarke and Wayne Daniel. Clarke destroyed the South Africans single handedly on the rebel tour in the early 1980s and there were some great batsmen playing in that series like Graeme Pollock and so on.
Are you sad that cricket does not have many express bowlers today?
Yes. There are some, but you cannot compare them to the quality which I remember like Dennis Lillee and Holding. You don't see many match-winning bowlers. Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan were match-winning bowlers, but they were spinners. There were Glenn McGrath, Ambrose, Wasim Akram, and Waqar Younis, who ran through teams.
If you were to play a little fantasy game, how do you think the current lot of batsmen would fare against those bowlers?
Very hard to say! Some players rise to the occasion, some develop a technique (to combat pace) and some just fade away. I'll give you an example. We played World Series Cricket in 1977 and that was when you saw so many fast bowlers all playing in one place. Also, for the first time, players were starting to get hit often with so many fast bowlers around. There were a lot of injuries in World Series Cricket and because of that, helmets came in. Helmets came in because of the fast bowlers. Some great names just faded away in those two years. Lawrence Rowe made his debut with a 200 and 100 (vs NZ) and he scored a triple century in a Test match against England, but Rowe was finished in WSC against that quality fast bowling while you saw Viv Richards rise above everyone else. In that atmosphere, some players rose and some faded away, so I don't know how they (current lot) would have coped. It was not a question of technique then, it was a question of courage and the ability to adapt.
It would have been a harder life to lead though...
Most definitely! You wouldn't be seeing the (batting) averages that you see now. Let me give you an example. Viv Richards was by far the best batsman I had seen in my life, but Zaheer Abbas was the best timer of the ball I had seen. Zaheer's confidence was shattered by the West Indian fast bowlers with the constant barrage of short-pitched bowling. I think Zaheer would have done even better than he did. I don't think anyone came close to Zaheer Abbas when it came to timing the ball except Sachin Tendulkar. It is very difficult to say how the current batsmen would have performed against relentless pace.
Even Majid Khan got hit… by Andy Roberts…
Yes, he had a depressed fracture of his cheek bone and I am afraid Majid took a long time to recover from it. Then, there was David Hookes who had a broken jaw (off Roberts in WSC) Hookes was never the same batsman after that. At the time he got hit he was the rising star of Australian batting, but he faded away. Doug Walters, considered a great player, disappeared after WSC.
Your (ex) brother-in-law had a role in Fire in Babylon (executive producer Ben Goldsmith, brother of Jemima)
Well, he is a cricket nut and he got excited about it. Again, the film just didn't have enough cricket shots of quality. They could have also tracked down the speed of the ball. It was impossible to gauge the speed of the ball when they were bowling. It would have been an interesting exercise to undertake.
You made news in India recently with your views on Sachin Tendulkar. Surely, you are sticking by what you said…
I was putting myself in Sachin's place. He’s a great player. My biggest fear was being at the mercy of the selectors and that is why I retired early. I retired at 34 before Gen Zia asked me to come back. People remember you for your last performance.
How do you see the resumption of cricketing ties between India and Pakistan improving relations?
Look, I think it is positive, but it is not enough. Just because you resume cricket, it doesn't mean that the politicians don't have to do their bit. It has to go hand in hand. If current politicians are breeding hatred and you start playing cricket, it actually makes things more difficult. The cricket ground becomes more acrimonious. When India came to Pakistan in 2004 (resumption of bilateral ties after five years), the politicians were also making the right sounds. Cricket became a joy to watch in a very competitive yet positive atmosphere. The Indian team was applauded in Pakistan and I remember the Indian crowd applauding Pakistan after winning the Madras Test (in 1999). If there are positive vibes among politicians, then cricket enhances the relationship.
>> Fire in Babylon, directed by Stevan Riley, will be released to Indian audiences today. According to its website, the film, is “the breathtaking story of how the West Indies triumphed over its colonial masters.”