When he retired from cricket, Imran Khan also retired from the international jet set and returned to Pakistan. There, he found a new commitment to Allah. He also found politics - or has politics found him? TIM McGIRK reports
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It was in the children's ward of Imran Khan's new cancer hospital, the only one in Pakistan, that the woman stopped him. She was tiny beside the six-foot-two cricketer, a poor village woman in a dirty orange shawl who was nearing the end of a terrible odyssey: her son was dying of cancer.

All of the family's savings had gone on quack medicines, phials filled with nothing but bright, coloured water, and on bribes so that a doctor would tend to her son among the many patients collapsed in the corridors of the Lahore state hospital, dying for want of treatment. By the time the mother and son had reached Imran Khan's free hospital, the money was gone, the disease raged unconquerable, and the boy had only days or even hours left of life.

"Please, sahib. Quickly. Come! My son is dying," said the mother, who looked wrung out of tears. Two nurses gently restrained her from falling at Imran Khan's feet in supplication.

"We have doctors, good doctors..." began Imran, helplessly.

"No, my son is past that. Maybe it is only you who can save him now, Imran-sahib."

Imran winced as if a West Indian pace bowler had slammed a ball into his ribs. "There isn't anything I can do. I'd be happy to look in on your son, but I can't cure him," he said, clasping the disconsolate woman's hands. Then, taking long, scissored strides, Imran moved on alone through the ward, as if trying to shake off the woman's impossible expectations of him. Dr Nosherwan Burki, the hospital director, said, "This happens quite a lot. People have come to expect almost, well, miracles from Imran."

In Pakistan, many people look upon Imran Khan as a miracle-worker, as the one honest man capable of saving the country before it shatters to pieces. Its biggest city, Karachi, is a war zone in which more than 300 people were killed this year as rival ethnic gangs battled for supremacy; tribal chieftains from the Khyber Pass have corrupted the main political parties with their colossal heroin profits; and a dangerous inequality exists between the few very rich families who rule and the vast majority of 120 million Pakistanis who are poor, illiterate and have little to sustain them other than Islam which, day by day, burns in the country with greater intolerance and revolutionary fervour. As religious terrorism grows, some worried diplomats in Islamabad say that Pakistan may be careening down the same road as fundamentalist Iran and Algeria.

Imran Khan may have been a remarkable all-rounder on the cricket field, but that hardly qualifies him to be the nation's rescuer. Yet he is unquestionably the most popular person in Pakistan today, trusted far more than either the prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, or the opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif.

This predicament baffles Imran more than anyone. "Right now, Pakistanis are looking for a saviour. Just because I've built a hospital and led Pakistan to a World Cup win, they think I'm the one. I've delivered," he says as we drive the 12 miles from his hospital into Lahore. It is drizzling, and labourers in the muddy fields stop to salute Imran's Toyota landcruiser. "It shows how desperate people are with the current political leaders that they'd even think of me." While raising funds for his Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital -named after his mother, who died of cancer in 1985 ("she could have been saved if we'd diagnosed it earlier") - Imran is mobbed by hysterical crowds shouting, "Imran Khan! Prime Minister!"

Imran gave up playing cricket after leading his Pakistan side to a World Cup victory in 1992, but he is still lean and sinewy from a daily regime of sprints, long distance running, and lifting weights for 45 minutes. Zakir Khan, a friend and former team-mate, says, "If Imran thinks he's fit, he can take on anything." Yet, at 42, Imran's handsome, warrior face is curiously unlined, as though destiny is still waiting to etch itself furiously on to his Pathan features. His biggest test of character may be still to come.

While many sportsmen, after retiring, slide ungracefully into a limbo of television game show appearances and opening shopping centres, Imran has shed his past image of a Casanova socialite, a Playboy of the Eastern World who bowled over as many beautiful women - models, artists and aristocrats - as he did wickets. Now, his reputation as a favourite pin-up of British women embarrasses him painfully. Since leaving cricket, he has become more pronouncedly Islamic in his views. In Pakistan, he prefers baggy salwar khameez trousers to his wardrobe full of designer clothes. The biggest change, however, is that Imran has been slung - against his will, he insists - into the deadly arena of Pakistani politics. He is leading a mini-jihad against the ruling political class, whom he accuses of pushing Pakistan to the brink of anarchy. It is a far more dangerous game than cricket.

Although Imran insists he doesn't want power, neither Bhutto nor Sharif believe him. "They're assuming that my objectives are as shallow as theirs - that I want to sit in a limousine with a flag on the bonnet, collect my commissions, and stash it all away in a Swiss bank account. They're sure I'm hatching some kind of plot," he laughs.

"If my objective were power, I'd jump into it now. But I don't want votes. I'm in a much stronger position to fight for social reform if I stay out of politics."

Bhutto, in particular, is worried that Imran is being manipulated by some of the more extremist currents in Pakistani politics to topple her. A militant Islamic youth organisation known as Pasban, "the Defenders", along with Lieutenant General Hamid Gul - the former head of military intelligence - both have been trying to recruit Imran into a "pressure group" to challenge Bhutto and Sharif. At his home in Rawalpindi (the address, coincidentally, is a colony for retired generals on Imran Khan Avenue), Pakistan's former spymaster, a smooth and gracious man with a reputation for having masterminded the downfall of the Soviet empire in Afghanistan, praises the cricketer. "I've told Imran, `you mustn't leave politics to those 200 families who think they have a divine right to rule this country. They've made a hash of it.' Imran is charismatic, and he's given us pride -a taste of success."

In the past, Imran said he found Lt Gen Gul "an inspirational figure", but he resents being caricatured as a puppet dangling from the spymaster's strings. "The assumption is that I'm a dumb sportsman who's being manipulated. They're wrong. Nobody orders me around," he says firmly.

One close friend with political connections says that within the past few months, the sports hero has realised that Islamic militants and Lt Gen Gul were trying to entrap him. "Imran knows they're trying to use him, and he's discreetly pulling away," the friend says.

Even so, Bhutto's advisers see dark forces behind the ex-spy chief's attempts to groom Imran as a statesman. Pakistan has six different intelligence agencies, and although Lt Gen Gul denies that he still maintains links with them, her advisers are sure he does. They paint a grim scenario in which the "agencies" whip up sectarian terrorism and ethnic clashes, as seems to be happening in Karachi, to such a degree that the military is forced to step in, kick out Bhutto and appoint a caretaker government. Making Imran Khan prime minister would give the army-selected cabinet its acceptable face. Some see the army sweeping Bhutto out within the next nine months.

Bhutto has reason to fear the generals: in 1977, they ousted and executed her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and they were responsible for sabotaging her first term as prime minister after she was elected in 1988. Until now, she has tried to placate the generals by buying them expensive submarines and pressing ahead with Pakistan's nuclear programme, despite protests from Britain and the US. But Bhutto's only safeguard against another military coup is that Western governments like her; a putsch, unless it had popular support -as it would with Imran as a fixture - would mean a cut-off in international aid.

Not surprisingly, Bhutto has responded with furious vindictiveness against the cricketer. The state-run television refuses to air old footage of Imran's cricketing glories. It also banned any fund-raising advertisements for his hospital during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims traditionally give money to charity. Authorities also planted rumours that Imran was suspected of embezzling hospital funds and that his taxes were being investigated. With this campaign against him, Imran found charity donations to his hospital halved this year. His cancer hospital, which cost more than £12 million to build, survives on donations. "By destroying my hospital, they're trying to get at me," Imran says angrily. "Benazir acts like a Moghul emperor. I have to go and lick her boots before she'll leave my hospital alone."

Through the Punjab state government, controlled by Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, a "sports adviser" named Sarfraz Nawaz was put on the payroll. A former Test cricketer whose hatred of Imran was well-known in sports circles, Sarfraz's main job seems to be dusting off old sex scandals involving his former captain. "Imran Khan is the secret agent of some foreign intelligence agencies," he claims. "Since they have proofs and indecent photographs of his exploits, they are manipulating him to their advantage in order to spread unrest in Pakistan," he told one Karachi magazine. Sarfraz also insinuated that the Muslim zakat charity was being wasted to pay "for several English women...employed by Imran Khan to supposedly act as nurses".

Imran, who recently confessed that, like many other players, he had sometimes roughed up the ball so it would be harder for the batsmen to hit, says, "I thought that the campaign against me in the British press about ball- tampering was bad, but it was nothing compared to this onslaught. When someone is attacking me, my natural reaction - as a Pathan - is to fight back."

Pakistan's English-language press is hostile to Imran, portraying him as a brainwashed, born-again Muslim fundamentalist who is anti-West, despises pop music and wants women locked up in purdah. In his car, I asked to see his cassettes. He fanned them out like a hand of cards. "Cecile Dion, ghazals, a lot of stuff. My friends tape them for me." He smiles. "Pop music, too." As for keeping women in the harem, Imran says he was misunderstood by feminists. "Look, I have one sister who's a surgeon, and another's a World Bank economist. It's fine if women want to work. All I'm saying is that mothers and housewives shouldn't be devalued." He also denies that he said he would have an arranged marriage with a woman from his own Pathan tribe. "I'll marry a Muslim girl. Race, class or country is immaterial. But I think a marriage can only work if the two of us are going in the same direction."

The resentment Imran has encountered from Pakistan's intelligentsia is perhaps because the Western-educated lite consider him a class traitor. His family is sufficiently well-off to be included in the list of top 200 families. The family are Pathans, from the fiercely independent warrior clans of the northwest. Imran was brought up in a rich neighbourhood of Lahore, where he learned cricket at Zaman Park, named after a great-uncle. Like other aristocratic sons, Imran was educated at Aitcheson College in Lahore, which, he has written, "produces replicas of English public school boys rather than Pakistanis". Later, he studied at the Royal College School, Worcester, before going up to Keble College, Oxford. "Cricket was my PhD," he says. "I considered my own culture back-ward and Islam an outdated religion." It is hard to imagine someone as handsome and gifted as Imran Khan suffering from an inferiority complex, but he claims that, as a "brown sahib" aping British values, he did.

During his 21-year cricketing career, Imran was to be found nearly as often in the gossip columns as on the sports pages. A friend who has known Imran since schooldays in Lahore says, "Everyone knows it's the women who chase him. At a party, Imran rarely starts a conversation. Some people think this is rudeness or arrogance, but it's because he's shy." In Lahore society, Imran's private life is subjected to endless speculation. Since leaving Britain, he reportedly had an affair with a famous courtesan who, after Imran split with her, went on to become the mistress of two leading politicians from rival parties. "These days, he has hardly any girlfriends," his friend assured me.

Even during his wild, jet-setting years playing for Sussex, Imran says he never drank alcohol. He denies that he has undergone any radical, Islamic conversion. Rather, a few unusual encounters along the way helped to strengthen his faith. "I met a bank clerk once. He was very poor, and not one of these bearded mullah types at all. He asked me if I had read a certain verse in the Koran. When I replied that I hadn't, suddenly, he said, `Oh, your mother used to read the verse. It's like a ring of protection around you.' He was right. I remembered that verse was important to my mother. Yet he'd never met me -or my mother - before."

Cricket also brought Imran closer to Allah. "When the difference between winning or losing a match depends on a fraction of an inch, or a dropped ball, I began to see that nothing happens by chance. When you're captain, you can tell when there's a force going your way or not," says Imran. He sees my scepticism, and leans over his desk.

"Listen, at the start of the World Cup, the odds against Pakistan were 50 to one. But somehow I knew we'd win." He thinks it wasn't just because his leadership melded together the team. "Three times rain was forecast. Three times it held off. After our poor start, for us to reach the semi- finals we needed an impossible combination of things to happen - for New Zealand to beat the West Indies, and it all came together. I always believed it would, even when we were losing so badly."

Imran attributes this victory to Allah rewarding his sacrifice for the cancer hospital. And indeed, many players were miffed at Imran after the World Cup win for babbling on about the hospital and forgetting to give his team-mates thanks or glory.

Yet it is a testimony to Imran's drive that he has been able to build and run the cancer hos-pital. Most of the funds did not come from wealthy Pakistanis, who fly to London or America for medical treatment, but from the poor. In Lahore, he was once showered with rupee coins as he walked through a yarn market. The average donation was £7, and one out of every 100 Pakistanis gave out of trust and, perhaps, even more, out of gratitude for having restored the nation's pride; he is the local boy who conquered the world and decided home was best. As well as running the hospital, he is launching a literacy programme; only 30 per cent of Pakistanis can read and write.

Close friends say that even if Imran resists, he will probably end up being pushed into politics by a groundswell of public support. But Pakistan is a rough place. Sectarian and ethnic rivalries are tearing it apart. A clairvoyant once warned Imran that he'd be assassinated if he ran for office. He brushes aside such ominous predictions. "For a believer, the moment when you die is chosen by God. You can't achieve anything if you worry about failure or death." He laughs, "Besides, too many of my cricketing friends have this fear of getting old. They're all talking about having plastic surgery."

Imran may genuinely want to stay outside politics. But if the generals - backed by the kind of Pakistanis who salute Imran as he rumbles by in his Toyota - were to demand that he sort out the country's mess, my impression is that he would accept the job as temporary prime minister. He is modest about his past exploits only because he is a perfectionist. He is, without doubt, ambitious. But maybe he is also naive enough to think that because he has mastered cricket's complex lessons and metaphors, he can apply them to running a country.