Cricket remains the world’s second most popular spectator sport, after soccer, and Imran Khan, a Pakistan-born superstar, bestrode the game in the 1970s and ’80s. Imran was not only fearsomely fast and accurate with the ball as a pitcher or “bowler,” he was a formidable batsman, too. To get a comparative flavor of his achievements as an all-round performer, you’d have to combine Mariano Rivera and the home-run firepower of an Albert Pujols, with a dash of Ichiro Suzuki’s elegant strokeplay, all in one player. Throw in movie-star good looks and a certain feline grace—Imran had a habit of walking across a room on his toes, as if warming up for a race—with a vibrant social life to match, and you can see why Imran Khan was the renaissance man of the sport for over 20 years.

His eventual retirement from professional cricket was an unusually protracted business. When he was 31, about the age a top international player typically begins to review his remaining career options, he suffered a serious leg injury that put him out of action for more than two years. It appeared even to seasoned sports reporters that his playing days were over. Against the odds, he returned to captain the Pakistan team in a further 38 “test,” or international, matches, which included some of his own best performances with both bat and ball. Yet there was always a degree of uncertainty about his plans, and there were several occasions in the 1980s and early ’90s when Pakistan’s officially designated captain failed to join his team on the field due to other commitments—primarily politics.

Sometimes only Imran himself knew whether he would deign to appear in a particular game. To call him the Frank Sinatra of the international sports world would be to confer a somewhat flattering sense of consistency on a player who seemed to rest, or retire, and then come back again on roughly an annual basis. Imran eventually played his final professional cricket game in March 1992. His climactic act on the field was to personally strike out the last opposition batsman and thus win the World Cup for Pakistan. No scriptwriter would dare contrive such a scene. After more than two decades of distinguished service, Imran went out amid scenes of delirious street celebration in a country that has long tended to judge its national self-worth in terms of the performance of its cricket team and the size of its nuclear arsenal in comparison to India’s.

Most international cricketers, if they’re lucky, go on to an afterlife of ghosted autobiographies, supermarket openings, pro-am golf tournaments, and occasional color commentary on television. Imran chose a different route: following the death of his mother from cancer at the age of 62, he dedicated himself to founding a hospital, well-equipped and privately funded, in her name. Over the next five years, he worked hard to see the project through in a country where large-scale capital works tend to attract the attention of interest groups, politicians seeking rewards for providing the necessary building permits, and contractors earning grossly inflated sums to work outside their strictly prescribed hours. He read every available regulation on Pakistan’s national healthcare system. He also visited dozens of clinics and surgeries around the country. Existing conditions were “a disaster,” Imran concluded. Years later, he would recall going to one state-run facility in Lahore, where “three or four small children suffering from cancer had to share a filthy bed.” There were no funds for modern equipment or even the most basic sanitary requirements, though, curiously enough, the government was able to maintain its own lavishly furnished hotel-cum-infirmary for members of the ruling party and senior military officers.

After seeing off every conceivable kind of official opposition, Imran announced the opening of the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital in Lahore in January 1995. He remarked that this was something of more consequence to him than winning the World Cup. Treatment would be completely free for those unable to pay, meaning that the ordinary Pakistani citizen of limited means now had access to the sort of critical healthcare previously reserved for what the Times of London called a “tiny minority composed of the country’s military and civilian rulers, or those who had used their influence for personal gain”—insofar as there was a distinction between the two groups.

Imran told me that he was reconciled to spending the rest of his life on a recurring fund-raising drive for the hospital—as well as to the fact that his country was full of “evil bastards” who for one reason or another opposed even the most humanitarian initiative if it happened to offend their own political agenda. In 1996, someone set off a bomb in the Shaukat Khanum hospital. Seven patients died and 34 more were wounded in the explosion, which the Pakistani government officially blamed on India’s intelligence services. Imran added calmly that he had narrowly avoided being on the premises, as “I was due to show a donor around the facilities that morning, but the guy was late.”

 

Here’s another thing Imran did that might not apply in the case of the average professional cricketer. In 1984, when he was in London recovering from his leg injury, Imran attached himself to a visiting tribal warlord from the Balochistan region of western Pakistan, named Sher Mohammad Marri. Marri and his personal guard of four parari (fighters) spent a month in England as part of a European fundraising tour. They were put up for several nights at Imran’s apartment in the fashionable South Kensington area. The neighbors’ view of the group enjoying a traditional Balochi feast of a roast sheep served in a makeshift barbecue on the back lawn was the locals’ major talking point, although the sight of Marri and his men calmly strolling up the Brompton Road in their native regalia also left a mark.

The visit made an impression of a different kind on Imran, who soon began reading Islamic texts and talking about a career in politics. A few years later, in the midst of a road tour of Pakistan to raise funds for his hospital, he underwent an  almost Damascene conversion when, in one dusty Punjab market square, “a very elderly and obviously impoverished man emptied the contents of his pockets to put everything he had into my collecting box. That one gesture made me realize how fundamentally good the common people were, as opposed to their rulers.” For some six weeks, Imran traveled the country’s smaller towns and villages, 29 in all, in a sort of Popemobile, alighting to give upwards of a hundred speeches. His basic message combined the key financial appeal with what the Sunday Times called “rousing, quasi-religious sermons attacking feminism, atheists, politicians, ‘evil’ Western values, and the ‘brown sahibs’ or those Pakistani elites who aped their former colonial masters.” Imran’s tone grew more populist as the trip progressed.

Not long afterwards, Imran formally launched his Tehreek-e-Insaf (“Movement for Justice”) party. Its essential platform was one of social equality allied with national self-reliance. Soon he was back touring Pakistan again, where he was received with a warmth rarely seen even in the subcontinent. There was a particular frenzy among students and young people, many of them female, whom the Tehreek-e-Insaf identified as being “totally alienated by the existing power structure.” One has only to think of the likes of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 to get something of the mood.

In the midst of this, Imran married the British society beauty Jemima Goldsmith, who was 22 years his junior and not previously known for her ascetic lifestyle. As Imran’s opponents pointed out, his bride was also the daughter of a London- and Paris-based Jewish billionaire. Alluding to the newlyweds’ cultural differences, the satirical weekly Private Eye ran a picture of Imran and Jemima’s father on its front cover: in the speech bubbles, Imran was saying, “May I have your daughter’s hand?” and his prospective father-in-law was replying, “Why? Has she stolen something?” Imran was soon back in the headlines again when two prominent English cricketers sued him for libel in the British High Court for having allegedly described them as cheats, among other unappreciative remarks. The jury found in Imran’s favor.

There appear to be several mysteries, then, about the sports icon, swinger, and philanthropist struggling for pre-eminence in Imran Khan: he seems to be several different people. It’s not even sure exactly when he was born. All the cricket reference books list the date as November 25, 1952. But Imran told me that this had been the result of a “typical Pakistani administrative foul-up” when he came to obtain his first passport, and that he actually arrived among us on October 5 of that year. More pertinently, perhaps, there’s the question of what sort of leader Imran might make of America’s most dysfunctional and strategically crucial ally—a distinct possibility as Pakistan approaches its national elections in February 2013 and he continues to attract crowds in the tens of thousands to his rallies.

This is a man who abhors the decadence of what he calls “Western frivolity” in general and “fat girls in miniskirts” in particular, while having led a notably vibrant social life in London for 20 years. As the Times reminds us, “some discrepancy exists” between “the latter-day Muslim fundamentalist and his earlier ’80s incarnation as a fun-loving international athlete.” One attribute even Imran’s political opponents agree on is his incorruptibility, by no means a universal trait among Pakistan’s ruling class. Another clue to his essential character came back in 1982 when, as captain of his country’s cricket team, he unceremoniously fired his predecessor Majid Khan, who also happened to be his first cousin. Ruthless, then, and not always a friend of what he once characterized as the “boozy and lying Western press”—although it’s perhaps possible to discount some of Imran’s specific protests at his tabloid image as a playboy during his cricket days. Anyone who chooses to appear in the Daily Mirror’s  center-page spread “stretched across his hotel bed wearing only a petulant expression and a pair of tiny, black satin shorts,” to quote the paper’s feature writer Noreen Taylor, is at least complicit in his own downfall.

 

Born into a comfortably set family in a gated part of Lahore, Imran attended the city’s Aitchison College, where he’s remembered as short on raw intellect but long on determination. The Khans’ home was a six-bedroom villa of English-stockbroker décor. According to one visitor, there was a “teak cabinet record player the size of a coffin, woven farashi rugs, and doilied armchairs.” A water buffalo grazed in the back garden. The family also farmed several hundred acres of sugar cane in Murree, in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Imran’s competitive streak came out in a variety of ways, including his participation in a series of cutthroat kite-flying competitions. (What brought drama to the proceedings was that on occasion the kite strings would be coated with ground glass, with the idea of disabling rivals’ kites by cutting their strings in the air.) As a teenager and young man, he seemed to be in perpetual motion, and in 1965, when Pakistan and India went to war in one of their periodic disputes over Kashmir, he had to be restrained from marching off with a knapsack in the general direction of the front. Summer and winter, he went for daily seven-mile runs, a Pakistani national flag often fluttering above him. To add to this already punishing regimen, he was known to carry a pillowcase filled with rocks on his back. In later years when about his remarkable stamina, he always mentioned the runs: “I would sprint, not just jog along,” he invariably pointed out. “It would often be like an obstacle course—over walls, hedges, fields, roads, and plowed land. …  I got tougher and tougher,” he added, a metaphor for his later career.

Imran was also a made, not born, cricketer, it’s widely agreed, who augmented his only fair amount of natural talent with ferocious reserves of determination and self-confidence. A case in point is his now-legendary bowling technique. At first, this was thought nothing special. Imran just ambled up to the point of delivery, then more or less stood there and lobbed the ball at the batsman. After many hours of practice, he eventually emerged with an altogether more fearsome routine that was part athletics, part ballet, and part tribal wardance. Imran would walk back some 20 yards from his mark, turn, then run in full steam towards the batter, elbows pumping, leaping high in the air at the moment of delivery. Thus he was able both to gain extra momentum and dramatically tower over his opponent, who would then have to deal with “this crazy, vaulting Pakistani bowling at you at 90 miles per hour,” as one distinguished former England player put it.

The result was at once superbly efficient and shamelessly flamboyant. No one in the history of cricket up had ever seen anything like it. Imran applied the same exacting standards to others as he did to himself. When in 1982 he took over the captaincy of the Pakistani national team, they were the joke of the international cricket circuit, in part because up to half the side would be bickering with the other half at any given time. Whenever approached for advice by a younger player, Imran eschewed technicalities and instead offered the four-word overview: “Be like a tiger.” Ten years later, when he retired, Pakistan were the sport’s world champions.

Imran’s entry into Pakistani politics was also a case of dogged perseverance. Following his retirement from cricket, he accepted an unpaid position as Pakistan’s first ever ambassador for tourism. This was an area hitherto under-explored in the country’s 50-year modern history. A vigorous publicity campaign aimed at the American mass market proved something of a stretch, Imran admits, as Pakistan is “not the vacation resort of choice for most Midwesterners.”

Although initially supportive of General Pervez Musharraf following the coup of October 1999, relations between the two soon cooled to the point of open enmity. Eventually charges were brought against Imran and his English wife accusing them of the serious offense of “exporting goods of paramount national archaeological interest”—specifically, a box of 200 glazed blue bathroom-floor tiles, intended as a gift for Imran’s in-laws in London. Although the case was later dismissed, it marked a downward turn in the Khans’ marriage: they divorced in 2004 and share custody of their two sons. Imran later called Musharraf a war criminal and a crook, and along with President George W. Bush, “the greatest threat to life on this planet.”

Even so, in August 2002—in one of those serpentine twists so common to Pakistani politics—Musharraf approached Imran with a surprising proposal. The offer was conveyed by the state president’s powerful principal secretary, Tariq Aziz. “The basic idea,” Imran told me, “was that I would join the government coalition, which would do Musharraf’s bidding once elections were held, and that in return I would be made prime minister.” Imran at first stalled, and then roundly declined the offer when pressed for a reply. Colorful language was used. “You’ll never be anything now!” Aziz shouted at him.

Three years later, in May 2005, Newsweek reported that U.S. interrogators had desecrated copies of the Koran while questioning prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The 300-word story cited sources as saying that investigators looking into abuses at the military jail had found that “GIs placed Korans on toilets, and in at least one case had flushed a holy book down the pan.” Imran lost little time in calling a press conference at which, flourishing a copy of the magazine, he demanded that President Musharraf secure an official apology for the incident, which was “a disgrace” and “an insult to Muslims,” who were now “under direct attack” from the West. At least 17 people were killed and up to 600 injured when demonstrators then took to the streets in Peshawar, Lahore, and other parts of the country to shout anti-U.S. slogans and burn the American flag.

Imran remained unapologetic, even as he disassociated himself from the violence. “To throw the Koran in the toilet is the greatest violation of a Muslim’s human rights,” he announced. “Should we close Amnesty and the Red Cross because they bring up violations? When you speak out, people react.” Newsweek subsequently disowned much of its original story, noting that errors in its report were “terribly unfortunate.”

Imran’s political fortunes reached their nadir in November 2007, when, having resigned his parliamentary seat, he took his protest to the streets by giving a series of stridently anti-Musharraf speeches at Pakistan’s schools and colleges. After narrowly eluding capture on one occasion by climbing out of a bedroom window and jumping over the back wall of his home when the police burst in at 4 a.m. one morning, he was subsequently arrested on the stage of nearby Punjab University, where he had again called for Musharraf’s impeachment. Imprisoned for six days in medieval conditions, Imran was unexpectedly released when the government announced an amnesty for “our friend Mr. Khan [and] all others held under the interim security provisions.” The BBC speculated that the gesture came about primarily because the detention of the nation’s greatest sporting hero was “making waves internationally, and causing embarrassment in Islamabad and Washington.”

President Musharraf left office the following August and now lives in a luxury government villa, planning his comeback. His immediate successor, and the man with his finger on Pakistan’s nuclear trigger, emerged as Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto. Apart from other issues, there were soon questions about the state of the new president’s mental health. In a corruption case brought against him by the Musharraf government, Zardari’s own lawyers told a London court in 2007 that he had suffered from “dementia, depression, and other psychological problems,” after being repeatedly tortured on the orders of his political opponents.

Should Imran Khan come to power in 2013, we can expect him to continue his divided approach to U.S.-Pakistani relations. On the one hand, he’s continually denounced “the so-called war on terror” as it affects Pakistan and regularly demands that “the insult of the Western jets and drones” overflying his country be stopped or, if necessary, shot down. On the other hand, he’s also repeatedly praised the “basic American promise of freedom and generosity to others” and does most of his lucrative hospital fundraising here. Imran once told me that he made a sharp distinction between the ordinary citizens of this country and “the stooges at the Pentagon.” Truly legitimate governments, he added, can survive only as long as they are grounded in the “affections” of the people. “Whatever else democracy means in this age of terrorism and corruption, it surely has to mean at least that.”

Christopher Sandford is a Seattle-based writer and the author of a 2009 biography of Imran Khan.