"Fight like cornered tigers": Imran Khan spurs on his 1992 world cup squad

15 February, 2015

In 1992, the Pakistan cricket team under the captainship of Imran Khan won the cricket world cup for the first time. Prior to a match against Australia in Perth, Khan gathered his then-dejected teammates in their dressing room and steeled himself for what may have been one of the most important addresses in his life. In this excerpt from Osman Samiuddin's The Unquiet Ones, the author reveals what came to pass in the Pakistan team's dressing room that day. Today, Pakistan goes up against a beleaguered Indian team whose performance in the past months closely resembles that of the Pakistan team in 1992.

By most standards he probably left it too late, but by Pakistan’s, Imran Khan managed to time it just right.

By the time his side arrived in Perth to take on Australia at the 1992 World Cup, they had won just one of their first five matches and were, in the words of one player, walking dead. Never one of life’s great communicators, Imran had become ever more distant during the tournament; a chronic shoulder injury kept his physical involvement intermittent and his cancer hospital project was the primary motivation of his off-field life.

He was leading in battered body—as fierce in some training sessions as he always was—but in spirit and soul, he was absent.

"I think there’s a big communication problem in the team at the moment," Wasim Akram revealed at the time (as captured in Wasimand Waqar: Imran’s Inheritors, authored by John Crace). "For instance, Imran was talking to me about how we still had a chance, and all the youngsters hung back, but after we had left, they were asking me what he had said … it’s as if the team is scared of Imran."

Nor was he a great orator, though he at least possessed the baritone for it. But now, in Perth, he gathered his men in the dressing room before the game, wearing a white T-shirt with a tiger—ready to pounce—imprinted on it. Something about the direness of the situation stirred him. "Maybe he thought that he could not be humiliated this badly, that he could not get this low in life, that God will not drop him so low," remembers Aaqib Javed, who, in a tournament where Pakistan veered so wildly, was a stabilizing centre of gravity in their bowling attack. "So after this, with so much crap around us, we can only win. There is nothing else left. I don’t know where he got this feeling from, I really don’t know, but he came into the dressing room. He came in wearing the T-shirt. Maybe, he just thought, let’s try one final time."

Likely he could not have summoned it at any other time, or as if on demand. This was a moment, a feeling that welled up inside him; it was not a talk that could be replicated, or repeated over and over, thus risking dilution. It had to come then, both when it seemed too late and also just right.

Imran spoke to each player and told them to look inside themselves, to understand that they were the best players in the world. "You," he asked one, "Is there a more talented player in the world than you?" Is there a better fielder than you, he asked another, a better batsman than you? Having roused each player, he ended twenty minutes later with the image on his T-shirt, one that resonated most to him and how he saw himself; a tiger, a Pathan tiger, hunting, warring, surviving.

Now he invoked an ethic, one that had seen him through his toughest professional years when a shin injury threatened to finish his career. Fight like cornered tigers, he told them, because nothing is more dangerous than a cornered tiger.

Stripped away, the actual contents of what he said were not so unique or important. This was standard motivational stuff. But what mattered most, Aaqib explains, was who was saying it. "The kind of stuff he said … the message was the same. If Imran Khan appears on TV and says, so and so player will be the greatest all-rounder in the world, that’s one thing. But if another guy, say Sarfraz Nawaz says the same thing, who do you think will be moved by it?"

Imran told them that he knew—not just thought—but that he knew and believed that Pakistan will win the World Cup. "I know we will win it." What he did was transmit his self-belief to the rest of the squad, a monumental feat which doesn’t just happen. This transplantation was the accumulation of a career, a life, of every single day of success, and unchallenged authority, of every time he returned to captaincy automatically, of every time he refused to play when it was too hot, or against too weak a side. It was the cumulative effect of a decade of Imran as captain, hero and icon, distilled in one talk.

The impact was greatest on the younger players, like Aaqib and Mushtaq Ahmed, who had grown up idolizing Imran and were now disciples to his beneficent Svengali. Others were less moved. Javed Miandad makes no mention of it in his autobiography. Another senior member said it was just the "usual geeing-up-talk shit, nothing specific. Can’t even remember what was said, because Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s qawwalis were blaring in the background all the time." A few can’t recall where or at what point the meeting happened. One member, Zahid Fazal has even said that there was no such meeting at all; Imran wore the tiger T-shirt regularly for one-day finals, Fazal said, and the only time he referred to it during the World Cup was to television anchors and once on the morning of the final.

The fact remains though that Pakistan’s upturn began from precisely the morning of that Australia game. "All I know is that after those fifteen minutes, when the match began, the way I went into that ground, I haven’t had that feeling ever before and I never had it again after," Aaqib says. "I could feel that nobody could face me or stop me. I had three slips for most of the game because I just knew. I knew each and every ball was going to go exactly where I wanted it."

"In those fifteen minutes ... life changed."

Excerpted from The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket by Osman Samiuddin. Reproduced with the permission of HarperCollins India.

Osman Samiuddin Osman Samiuddin is a sports writer with The National in Abu Dhabi and the author of The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket.