On March 19, India beat Pakistan in Kolkata to keep alive its unblemished record against its neighbour (11-0) in World Cup matches. Pakistan bowling legend Imran Khan, who was at the stadium, was disappointed. In his last match at Kolkata, in 1989, Pakistan had beaten India by 77 runs. Before the match, he said he hoped history would repeat itself. But, it didn't. Regardless, the following day, in an interview with THE WEEK, a relaxed Khan spoke candidly about Pakistan cricket, its problems and the way ahead. Excerpts:
Are you happy with the way Pakistan is playing?
No, I am not. They don’t do justice to their talent. They are a very talented generation, but I think the quality of domestic cricket does not do justice to the talent. The competition is very poor; it doesn’t polish that talent.
But Pakistan cricket has faced so many challenges. The team cannot play international cricket at home…
Yes, that is true. But the South Africans didn’t play for 20 years [they were banned for the apartheid policy] and still came back and competed. It is because they had a very good domestic system. Pakistan has more talent than South Africa but its domestic system is in poor form.
Has the recent success of the Pakistan Super League re-energised cricket back home?
PSL cannot replace first-class cricket. Real cricket is county cricket, [like] the Currie Cup [South Africa] and the Sheffield Shield [Australia]. Twenty20 cricket is helpful in certain areas like fielding, running between the wickets and hitting. It doesn't, however, hone the complete skills of a player.
Do you think the whole situation preceding Pakistan’s arrival in India could have been handled better?
Well, there was huge disappointment back home. And, there was anger at the Himachal Pradesh chief minister's [Virbhadra Singh] statements before the Pakistan team came [he denied permission to hold the India-Pakistan match in Dharamshala, in view of the Pathankot terror attack]. It violates all norms of hospitality. A team was coming to play in your state, to fulfil its international obligations, and here was a chief minister making hostile, almost provocative statements, blaming a team for a terrorist attack. Everyone in Pakistan is against terror.
Can India and Pakistan ever separate cricket from politics?
You cannot keep cricket out of politics, you cannot. But this had nothing to do with politics between India and Pakistan. This was just someone trying to cash in on hate. You can get votes out of hate, you can get money out of hate...
How important is it for India and Pakistan to play each other?
It is important. And, it brings in money, which can be spent on grooming young cricketers. It also gets a massive crowd interested in the game.
Are you a purist? What are your views on Twenty20?
If you have an overemphasis on Twenty20 cricket, technique will suffer and the skill level will go down. There has to be a balance between all formats.
India and Pakistan have resumed talks. What are your expectations?
I think this is a good beginning. I think India, being the bigger country, should extend its hand to further this relationship. There is a big move in Pakistan to progress towards a new relationship. People [of Pakistan] want change. You cannot keep living in this Cold War-like situation. This is a great time to move forward.