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The other Imraan Khan

He was just 10 years old at the time of his chance encounter with namesake — Imran Khan, a Pakistani and world cricket legend. ‘I was asked to present him [Imran Khan] with something on stage when he visited my school because we shared the same name. I must have been 10 or 11 years at the time,” he told the Mail & Guardian last week.

South Africa’s new opening batsman chuckles somewhat shyly and says that he never imagined to be the next Imraan Khan to play Test cricket. The Nashua Dolphins star received a surprise call-up for the Proteas’ final Test against the rampant Aussies, which got under way at Newlands on Thursday.

Khan, who becomes the second South African of Indian descent after Hashim Amla to make the Test squad, has been in magnificent form in the domestic four-day competition. It is this fine run that prompted the selectors to look to him in the absence of an injured Graeme Smith to salvage some pride in a lost cause after Australia took an unassailable 2-0 lead in the three-match series.

The best Khan can do on his debut is to help avoid an embarrassing whitewash.

Our Khan was a skinny 15-year-old when I met him at an inter-high school Durban derby back in 1999. While I had barely made my school’s first XI, Khan was already being lauded as the next best thing after peanut butter, electric toasters and Hashim Amla — his elder and more accomplished teammate and captain.

I had heard his name mentioned a few times before our encounter. Every time my school, Westville Boys’ High School, and Durban High School (DHS) locked horns, I remember walking over to the opposite field during the lunch interval to watch the junior teams battle it out. I would invariably hear ‘that boy Imraan was flaying the attack once again” or ‘Imraan made another hundred.”

It seemed almost impossible that a young lad could score so many hundreds so frequently. Khan scored hundreds week in and week out. Then one fine morning he decided to turn his arm over — bowling quick off spinners — and suddenly he began to bowl opposition out as well.

Khan was schooled in his formative years at Orient Islamia, but it was his move to DHS in his teenage years that cultivated his primary talent into a tangible schoolboy cricketing genius. Both Amla and Khan attended South Africa’s premier cricketing institution, where the likes of Barry Richards, Richard Snell and Lance Klusener went to school. It was not long before DHS flaunted its non-white, blue-eyed boys and the future of South African cricket in cricketing circles.

So talented were these two boys, even the dreaded T-word — transformation — didn’t seem such a daunting prospect after all. But their trajectories differed after school.

Amla joined the Dolphins by the time he completed high school and thrived in the middle order. He was appointed captain and given a fairy-tale entry into Test cricket in 2004 when he was selected as the first South African of Indian origin to represent the Proteas in a Test match against (aptly or ironically) India in the bullring of Eden Gardens. 

Whereas Amla’s run in first-class cricket has been compelling, Khan’s journey has been anything but charming by comparison. As a youngster he demonstrated immense powers of concentration to bat regularly for long periods of time, but at first-class level it seemed as if he abandoned his formula.

The lofted drive was almost always taken at mid-off, the buoyant push to the testing out-swinger almost always fell to second slip, after a few tight spells bowlers would invariably entice him to hit the self-destruct button and waft at a marginally wide one. Khan’s career is marked by careless shot
selection, an inability to weather out a difficult session of play or to pick a timely assault.

Since making his first-class debut for the Dolphins in 2003-04 as an off-spinner who could bat, his career has been a little more than a line of jagged stop-starts, packed with unfulfilled promises and derelict potential.

While Khan has tasted relative success in the four-day competition — averaging in the mid-thirties for most of the past five seasons — his enthusiasm to dominate often resulted in him looking out of his depth as a reliable opener. Worse still, his once much-lauded off-spin — a plus point for any South African cricketer — became an abandoned project. But it all changed in 2008.

After being selected for the South African emerging players’ tour of Australia and scoring the most runs, Khan suddenly turned on the mettle.

The 2008-09 first-class season has seen the more patient cricketer in him blossom to become the top batsman, with more than 800 runs at an average of more than 60. Khan’s tally of five centuries for the season leaves him just one short of the South African record for most first-class centuries in a season, presently held by Barry Richards, Mike Procter and Peter Kirsten. It seems his penchant for breaking records is back.

He says it was just a case of a few technical adjustments to his game. ‘There is probably a lot more discipline in my game. I used to get a lot of starts and then throw it away, but I am trying really hard not to make those mistakes once I get in.”

Dolphins manager Jay Naidoo agrees. ‘I think he is older and understands his game better, which happens to all players as they mature. At SuperSport Series level he has done well previously, but he has a tendency of scoring seventies or eighties and then getting out. This season he has turned those numbers into three figures,” says Naidoo.

While his batting has always been attractive, the returns were rather less flattering for a man of his talent. In fact, after promising so much, he suddenly seemed doomed to wither away at first-class level.
With the Proteas in the middle of an opening batsman crisis, Khan knows this surge in batting form couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.

‘There was no other opportunity and it just so happens I’ve been scoring runs. Now is probably the right time,” he says.

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Azad Essa
Azad Essa works from New York | Johannesburg. Journalist @MiddleEastEye; Associate at Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard Uni; @AJEnglish alum Azad Essa has over 26489 followers on Twitter.

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