When he was young and dreaming of a career in cricket, long before he dreamed of being prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan was told to trim his ambitions. He wanted not just to play the sport professionally; he wanted to be a fast bowler, a niche talent in what Americans call pitching that consists of mastering the essential skill and craftiness of spinning, curving, and plotting the bounce of the ball, and then combining all this with the most intimidating possible speed.
Khan says he was told by coaches and peers that he simply had the wrong physique to be a fast bowler. But rather than accept the verdict, he set out to change his own shape. It took years of effort to develop the powerful shoulders and limber throwing arm needed to terrorize a stationary batsman, and to perfect the bounding, windmilling approach followed by a precision launch of the ball at up to ninety miles per hour. In the end, Khan rose to the pinnacle of cricket in Pakistan, where the sport comes a close second to religion in the passion it inspires. As a two-time captain of the country’s team in the 1980s and 1990s, he carried Pakistan to its greatest glory since the country’s independence in 1947: the capture of the Cricket World Cup in 1992. He also had the crowning good sense to retire from the game after that peak.
On August 18, following a national election in July in which his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI, or Justice Party), won the largest number of seats, Khan was inaugurated as Pakistan’s prime minister. It might be said, however, that as a politician Khan has battled a handicap similar to the one he overcame in cricket: he is in many ways the “wrong shape” to lead a strategically important but poor, religiously conservative, and chronically troubled nation of 201 million that has slowly drifted toward the bottom rankings of human development indexes.
It is not simply that Khan’s long sporting career may have been poor training for statecraft. He is improbably posh for the rough and tumble of politics: he was educated in the vast green oasis of Aitchison College, Lahore’s most elite academy, as well as at an English boarding school and at Oxford (where he befriended another future prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and did, in fact, do a politician’s prep as a student of PPE—philosophy, politics, and economics). Khan looks less like a fresh-scrubbed politician or a tough potentate than like a rumpled, aging rock star, which is not surprising since he gained tabloid notoriety in the 1980s and 1990s as an international playboy. Among numerous well-publicized romances was his first marriage, to Jemima Goldsmith, who was two decades younger and the daughter of a very rich (and part-Jewish) English financier of just the sort to raise harrumphs among the conspiracy-minded, a type well represented in the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.