By Richard Edwards
It’s unclear how long it will be before Imran Khan is extended an invite to meet under-fire Prime Minister, Theresa May, but if she wants to get on the right side of the new Pakistan supremo, she could do worse than take him for a day out at Pagham.
Best known for its annual pram race, it was here that Imran Khan took his first baby-steps for Sussex as a recent graduate from Oxford University. The opposition was Ireland. The ground was tiny and the start was distinctly unpromising.
“We lost,” laughs former Sussex skipper, John Barclay. “It was 1977 and I remember that first match very vividly. Pagham is the most tiny ground and he came steaming in at the Irish batsmen and bowled with great ferocity.
“But they won, I can’t remember exactly how, but that was the first match he was allowed to play because the registration rules back then were a little bit different.”
Sussex was slightly alternative too, with Barclay leading a team boasting the kind of opening attack that most sides in world cricket would have given their right (or left) arm to have.
Khan and Garth Le Roux were as formidable an opening duo as any in the history of county cricket. Le Roux recently admitted that he and Khan used to avoid each other in the nets.
It’s a rare example of the new Pakistan PM dodging a challenge – a quality that he’ll need in spades during the opening days of his tenure in the country’s top office.
“You can never know what people will end up doing – you would never put money on a teammate one day becoming the Prime Minister of Pakistan, would you?” says Barclay.
“I had played against Imran during his time at Oxford and I got him out – a very, very distinguished wicket. I got him caught at deep mid-wicket. But they all count don’t they. He did very well at Oxford and he was already playing for Pakistan by the time he came to Sussex.
“He was and he is quite a quiet person. He’s not one for making a big song or dance or a noise. He never had a drink. Ever. He had a reputation for being a man of the clubbing circuit in London – but I have never seen him on the dancefloor.
“One thing I would say, is that he was always interested in Pakistan culture, even in his early twenties. He was interested in wildlife and would go on to write a fascinating history of the Indus river. But did he read erudite books? I don’t know, actually. Probably not.
“Imran went to Oxford but he didn’t get a First. He wasn’t brainy, brainy, brainy. Now he really has his work cut out. But it’s a fantastic achievement.”
Khan had, of course, already played for Worcestershire by the time he arrived at Hove but his time at New Road, in cricket-terms at least, is a mere foot-note in a career that blossomed at Hove and then moved in remarkable ways since 1992, when the poster boy of Pakistan cricket played his final international match.
Perhaps given his choice of Sussex as a county, it should come as no surprise that Khan has gone from Sussex’s top order to Pakistan’s top office. After all, this is a county with considerable history when it comes to politics.
“There have been several,” says Barclay. “Ted Dexter stood for parliament against James Callaghan in 1964 and lost mightily. Robin Marler also stood for the referendum party as well, in the 90s. So there have been a few.”
Throw in the Nawab of Pataudi, the Maharajah of Nawanagar and CB Fry – who attempted to enter parliament three times and was, somewhat incongruously, once offered the throne of Albania – and it’s clear that there’s probably no county quite like Sussex when it comes to breeding the politicians of the future.
“You need to be a special kind of person to get to the top,” says Barclay. “Whether that’s in sport or politics, or whatever. This really started when he started raising money for the hospital around 1993.
“And I think his zeal and his motivation came from that. Initially in the political world, I think he was treated, not as a joke, no-one would ever say that, but as something of a political lightweight.”
Despite the enormous challenge now facing him in his home country, the real reason that Khan has assumed office is his ability to appeal to the broadest electorate possible as a result of his boundless energy and his infectious enthusiasm.
Again, these were qualities that were very much in evidence at Hove.
“He was always smiling, and there was never a problem with his attitude,” says Barclay. “It’s hard to overstate just how good an all-rounder he was. I would probably put him in a top ten in history – I’m not too sure who the others are – but if you were making a top ten he would almost certainly be in there. He was one of the best I ever played with, but in my little era there were some very good overseas stars playing in county cricket because there was nowhere else for them to play. It’s very different now.”
He’s not wrong. Imran would routinely come up against the likes of Sylvester Clarke, Wayne Daniel, Colin Croft, Richard Hadlee and Malcolm Marshall on the county circuit, meaning the top fast bowler title was not easily earned.
His batting, though, probably put him above them all.
“I think the most dramatic match was against Derbyshire in 1981, when we were challenging for the Championship,” says Marshall. “The match was dawdling towards a draw on the third afternoon and he suddenly said that he wanted to bowl. He bowled the last five Derbyshire batsmen out for virtually nought. Then he said that he was longing to bat.
“We promoted him to number three and he scored a dynamic hundred. We scored the runs in the last over and he won us the game.
“Then I drove him to our next match at Nottingham, braving the holiday traffic in Eastbourne. We got there at two in the morning, had a few hours sleep and then got on with our next match.”
So did Imran keep Barclay awake with his witty repertoire?
“He fell asleep,” says Barclay. “He had deserved that nap.”