IMRAN Khan is no longer playing cricket, even for fun. Pakistan's Oxford-educated cricket idol now prefers Urdu to English. He wears baggy "salwar kameez" trousers instead of natty suits. And at mid-life, the rakish bachelor, who once featured in glossy magazine polls as the hunk that women would most like to be seduced by, may soon opt for an arranged Muslim marriage.
Now that he has walked off the cricket pitch, Khan's main team-mate these days is a hawkish self-described "Islamic visionary" who was once Pakistan's top spymaster. His metamorphosis from sporting superstar to devout Muslim - he now castigates the West for being "immoral" and "hypocritical" - has earned the ex-cricketer an enormous following in his native Pakistan. Some say he is being groomed by the Svengali-like former head of Pakistani intelligence, Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul, as a possi b le prime minister.
Few doubt that the country's foremost sports hero, who in the past shunned Pakistani politics as a dirty game, could mount a serious challenge to the Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, or the opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif. The question is: does Khan want a career in politics, which in Pakistan is tainted by feudalism and million-pound profits from heroin sales?
So far, Khan has denied any political aspirations. He protests, perhaps too much, that all he wants to do is help the country's poor; he was deeply affected by the death of his mother from cancer, and since leading the Pakistan team to a 1992 World Cup victory, Khan has been busy raising money to build a cancer hospital.
While collecting funds, he has been touring the country, attracting huge crowds. Najan Sethi, editor of the Friday Weekly magazine, said: "Imran is beyond cricket now. Wherever he goes, he's mobbed. This country has begun to despair of politicians and their corruption. People are talking about Imran as Pakistan's saviour."
Friends of the cricket star say that he had always been hesitating on the edge between traditional Islamic life and the flashy, cosmopolitan world through which he glided in such smooth and debonair style. Even during all his jet-setting parties, Imran,
like all good Muslims, never took a drop of champagne. …