Monday, 3 September 2007

Greatest Test XI: Imran Khan

To continue our Greatest Test XI of the last century we pick our number six.

For a decade, Imran Khan dominated the Pakistani side to an extraordinary, almost unprecedented, extent. In his last 50 Tests, he averaged an astonishing 52 with the bat and 20 with the ball. Over this decade-long spell, he was perhaps the greatest cricketer in the world, and an inspirational skipper to boot.

The side he skippered are remembered, primarily, for a series of epic conflicts with one of the greatest sides of all time, the West Indies. In a trio of three-game series around the turn of the 1990s, Imran illustrated his supreme worth to Pakistan, and his incredible ability to excel himself when it mattered most; as Rob Smyth put it, “he lorded over these contests like a colossus”. His captaincy in these games was a crucial facet of Pakistan’s success; more important still was his breathtaking feats with the ball. In these nine matches, he took 45 wickets at under 15 against a fearsome batting line-up. The highlight was at Georgetown, when he recorded match figures of 11/121 en route to a spectacular victory.

Unusually for a quick bowler, Imran got better with age, peaking in his mid 30s. His reverse-swinging yorkers were devastating; Imran generated significant pace until late on in his career, and had both consistency and guile. When he made his Test debut, in 1971, he was palpably not Test class; yet developed into one of the most penetrating fast men of his era. And his bowling record is even more remarkable considering the generally docile Pakistani tracks; Imran needed tremendous nous and subtlety to thrive there.

He was a late developer, too, with the bat, but, with his sound technique, developed into the ultimate lower middle-order player, tremendously adaptable and able either to play long, dour knocks – batting five hours for 58* on the last day, to save the game against the West Indies – or taking the initiative; indeed, he averaged a phenomenal 62 at number 6. His value as a batsman was such that, during his peak years, he played even when unable to bowl at all. In this side, his presence means the side can have Sobers as a sixth bowler - so has a bowling attack ideal for virtually all conditions.

Yet, for all that, he is perhaps best remembered as a captain who galvanised Pakistan into a battle-hardened side able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the phenomenal West Indies side of the ‘80s (and won the 1992 World Cup), inspiring his side through the brilliance of his performances and the strength of his personality. And, as such, he will captain my Greatest Test XI.

The side so far: Sutcliffe, Hutton, Bradman, Hammond, Sobers, Imran (captain)

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