Pakistan’s new managing director Wasim Khan has never hidden his ambition. Last month, in a wide-ranging interview for Wisden Cricket Monthly, he spoke to Phil Walker about hundred balls, working-class cricketers, his dreams and why he’d have to sit Tommy Cooper next to Imran Khan at his dream curry night.
It was only after we’d finished that Wasim Khan let the cat out of the bag. Up until then we’d been talking with due solemnity about ‘the state of English cricket’, before getting to the really big stuff, such as who should sit where at his curry night, shuffling Angelina up alongside Malcolm X, squeezing Tommy Cooper next to Gandhi on the floor and so on, clarifying that his first invite would be Imran Khan.
“I love his philosophy. He’s got charisma, he’s got presence, he’s got a story… You would want him to sit there and talk us through his journey.” I ask if there’s a kind of hushed deference afforded Imran that’s pretty much unique to him. “If you’re from a Pakistani background, certainly,” he says.
Moments later, with the the voice recorder put away, Wasim Khan is talking again about what Pakistan means to him; adding, with a twinkle, that if a job were to come up, and with it the chance to be the man to return Test cricket to the country, it would be an irresistible thing for him and his family to turn down.
So what is Pakistan cricket getting? Indeed, where do you start with Wasim Khan? At the beginning, when the family moves from Kashmir to Birmingham and young Was, born a few years later in 1971, develops his passion for cricket?
Or the ‘creeping into Edgbaston’ years, when it takes hold: moving from streets to parks to manicured lawns, the Warwickshire youth captaincy, England under 19s? Probably, on balance, we should home in those first strides onto the Warwickshire staff as the very first British-born Muslim cricketer to play county cricket, if it wasn’t for all that came after.
And so on we go, gathering our breath through the ’95 season when he averaged 49 in the club’s Championship-winning year, to the subsequent moves to Derbyshire and Sussex, and the various careers post-retirement: joining the Cricket Foundation in 2005 and becoming its CEO in 2009, helping develop their Chance to Shine scheme into a £50m-a-year operation; via the Wisden Book of the Year for Brim Full of Passion in 2007, the MBE in 2013, the MBA from Warwick in 2015, and in the same year taking on the “all-consuming” day job of turning Leicestershire, a down-at-heel county, into a profit-making business; all the way through to this year, and the chairmanship of the ECB’s Domestic Playing Programme Working Group, the findings of which were released in October.
When we meet, these proposals, relating to what the county season will look like from 2020, have just been released. This of course is year zero for The Hundred, or, as the ECB’s press release describes it (with a quaint Orwellian murmur): ‘New Competition’.
Khan knows it’s a tough sell but gives it his best shot. He insists that the challenge of incorporating the new tournament into the rejigged schedules – and prioritising it to ensure it’s given a fighting chance of succeeding – underscored every meeting of the county chairmen and CEOs.
Whether or not every county was onboard with the original proposals (spoiler: they weren’t), he insists that they’re now all united, at least in sentiment. “We simply can’t afford for it not to work,” he says. “It’s got to be a ‘one game’ approach now. Our credibility is on the line.”
“You’re never going to get the ideal solution,” he concedes, cheerily. “You speak to T20 fans, they’ll say, ‘Why can’t we have it in July?’ You speak to the members: ‘It’s disgraceful that we haven’t got any four-day cricket in July!’ You speak to Team England’s department of performance, you speak to Andy Flower – does he want four-day cricket stuck in early April, late Sept? Of course he doesn’t! But ultimately things have to give.”
It’s not hard to see why he’s in such demand.
As Leicestershire’s chief executive since 2015, Wasim Khan knows all about life at the sharp end of cricket’s scrap for survival. He took over a club that was reeling from a fifth loss-making year in a row, without a four-day win in three years, and appearing powerless to prevent the migration of many of its best young talents to richer top-tier clubs.
The glory days of the Nineties, when the club won two Championships in three years before the short-form goldrush of three Twenty20 cups between 2004 and 2011, looked to have vanished for good. For Wasim Khan, this constituted a dream job.
“It was seen as a basket case within sport. While all the newspapers were saying, ‘What’s he doing going from Chance to Shine to that?’, I looked it at as an opportunity. I backed myself to go in there and galvanise and energise that club and bring some direction back. There was a need for a complete culture transformation.”
Since he took over, the club has turned five years of financial hits into three years of net profit. The challenges of a Leicestershire differ from, say, their Test-ground neighbours up the road at Trent Bridge, but the bottom line remains the same: “How do you pay the bills next month?”
Khan’s time at the Leicester coalface, allied to his years forcing cricket into the neglected nooks and crannies of British life through his work at the Cricket Foundation, has left him convinced that the £1.1bn TV deal signed last year and due to run from 2020-2024 has the potential to alter the landscape for good.
He describes the annual payment of £1.3m over five years as a lifeline to a club like Leicester: “I think for many of us non-Test match grounds in particular, it’s a real lifeline because when you look at the sustainability of the game financially, you dread to think what state the game could have been in had the ECB not secured that big rights deal.”
The deal, he says, can help safeguard the game’s future. “We know numbers are dropping, as well as participation. We need to do as much as we can to make sure that the foundations are there. So more money into grassroots participation and growth programmes, Chance to Shine, All-Stars Cricket… they’re critical to the future of the game. They are our future players, our future members.”
Wasim Khan came up through the hard way, and literally wrote the book on it. “I was inner-city Small Heath, Birmingham. I got told from a young age, ‘What you playing cricket for? Those gates of Edgbaston aren’t for us’.
“When I had a bat in my hand, I never saw any colours. I said, ‘I’ve got talent, I know I can do it better than anyone else’. We produced 16 professional cricketers within a three-mile radius of where I grew up. Sixteen pro cricketers!”
One of which, of course, is Sparkhill’s Moeen Ali. While Khan is nobody’s fool – “Look, it’s evolving. Has there been some kind of revolution? Clearly, no…” – he’s still going to shout about the good stories when they break through. After all, championing the underdog is a half-way decent summary of his life’s work to date.
“Who’d have thought that two guys with long beards, practising Muslims… that other players in the dressing room would make space for them for their prayers,” he says.
“Who’d have thought that today’s players, in that moment of glory and ecstasy when they’ve actually won a series, are there with their champagne bottles, and saying, ‘Hang on a minute. Mo, you’re in the team photo, we’ll wait’.
“Who would have thought that these guys would have the emotional intelligence to stop and think at that particular moment, as they do, game after game. There’s your example.”
The first British-Asian Muslim county cricketer. The first BAME chief executive in cricket; the only BAME CEO working across any sport in the country. “You’ve got to have political intelligence to get on,” he says, with a glint. “You need to be savvy to manoeuvre yourself through complex environments. And you’ve got to see juggernauts coming…”
Well, he’s seen this one and decided to jump in front of it. They don’t come much heftier or more complex than the top job in Pakistan cricket. Wasim Khan could have had his pick of any number of offers. Not for the first time, he’s taking his own path.