Imran Khan and a matter of principle

by | Blog

Imran Khan, the ousted prime minister of Pakistan, is not someone whose tenure in office I know much about. Equally, my knowledge of the country extends little beyond awareness that its history has been of much turmoil and foreign intervention, and that many of its politicians have not died quietly in their beds.

But I have worked with Imran and the impression I gained of the former captain of its 1992 World Cup-winning cricket team is worth telling – and not just for people in Pakistan.

This came about when he edited Cricket Life International (CLI), a monthly magazine which challenged the staid, conservative coverage of the game in the late 1980s. This was the time of apartheid in South Africa and its government not only had a friend in No 10 Downing Street called Margaret Thatcher but in much of the media and political network that supported her.

In those pre-internet days lovers of cricket who opposed apartheid struggled to find much sympathetic coverage in print. The BBC TV and Test Match Special radio team were little better, long being denied the presence of liberal and humanitarian commentator John Arlott for whom opposition to apartheid was an article of faith.

Into this inhospitable world in 1989 stepped the glamorous figure of Imran Khan, a celebrity off the field as well as on it. With him came a big following. These were not just cricket fans: I’d never had so many women asking to meet me in the office.

But unlike a few celeb editors and journalists I’d known, Imran was realistically down to earth. Though he’d written columns – his early campaign for neutral Test umpires had upset lots of traditional types – he recognised that a new magazine needed others with skills he didn’t possess. That’s how I, along with Bridgette Lawrence, Bernard Halloran, Ken Murphy, Bob Holmes, Ron Buchanan and a few others became part of the team he led from a small Piccadilly basement.

Imran pulled in contributions from cricket mates including Michael Holding, Ian Chappell and Clive Lloyd, and wrote pieces himself. But as editor he also made space for aspects of the game rarely covered elsewhere.

That included, for example, features on the way seed money from anti-racist London politicians had been intelligently invested in training inner-city teenagers to become first-class cricketers. Mark Alleyne, who went on to play for England and captain Gloucestershire, was just one who benefitted from a scheme publicised by Imran in CLI.

He gave me time, resources and encouragement to dig into the links between the English game and apartheid South Africa. This included uncovering details of the covert plan for England players to break the sporting boycott by making another rebel tour to South Africa.

Drawing on Imran’s experience of playing for Worcestershire and Sussex my inquiries also revealed the strong influence of South African sponsorship and support for the English county game. They also confirmed its mutual support with Thatcher’s Conservative political nexus.

Today, when Nelson Mandela is venerated and black athletes represent South Africa, this may seem small beer. But at the time when the leader of the African National Congress was still in jail, Imran’s pioneering efforts were courageous and far-sighted, rocking the placid running of the game and its coverage even in the more liberal newspapers.

One result of my research was the discovery that money from an earlier tour of apartheid South Africa had helped fund the Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA), a controversy among its members largely unreported to the game’s followers or the wider public increasingly opposed to apartheid and its racist influence elsewhere.

This seemed to me a perfect story for The Observer where I also freelanced. I’d earned a little kudos there by skydiving for them earlier that year. But it was not enough, I discovered, for them to share my findings from Imran’s magazine.

But while they turned down the contents of my CLI pieces, they did make a small, oblique concession to what was happening beneath the surface of the game.

I’d interviewed Mike Edwards, the former Surrey batsman who had helped set up the PCA. He’d resigned as chair after the members voted to accept money from an earlier rebel tour.

“We needed to distance ourselves from South Africa,“ he had told me. “I believe that playing there has nothing to do with freedom, because there is no freedom in South Africa. The issue is all about political freedom, not the freedom to play cricket.”

None of these powerful Edwards statements nor the story behind them made the pages of The Observer.

What did?

In its Quotes of the Week column appeared only these other words Edwards had given me: “The Cricketers’ Association is probably the only group of employees more right-wing than its employers.”

This afforded wry amusement the following week in the CLI office, all by then well aware of the timidity of much of the British press when called upon to step outside the comforting bubble of sport into the real political world in which it exists.

Imran Khan’s bold role in not only proclaiming his principled stand against racism in hostile times but in devoting real resources to uncovering its workings and revealing them to others deserves to be remembered and celebrated.

Not only journalists could do with more editors today displaying his encouraging support and commitment. Isn’t it the least all of us deserve?

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