Imran Khan Image Credit: Reuters

Two views of Pakistan's favourite sport — cricket, just in the past week, said much about the country's overall direction.

While cricket fans last week lamented the prison sentences handed down by a British court to three young Pakistani cricketers on charges of spot-fixing, Pakistan's best-known cricket star rose to the occasion in seeking to give a new direction to his native land.

Pakistanis looking to back a fresh and credible alternative to the country's well-tried and tested politicians received a welcome choice in the shape of Imran Khan, the celebrated cricket star turned philanthropist and politician.

More than 16 years after Khan stepped into Pakistan's politics by launching his ‘Tehreek-i-Insaaf' (Movement for Justice) political party, a mammoth gathering in response to his call in the central city of Lahore appeared to transform him from a fringe player to a mainstream political dweller — a force to be reckoned with.

It was a timely development for a country where mainstream political parties are ridden with tainted politicians. It should therefore be no surprise that Pakistanis have increasingly lost faith in the country's politics and politicians — a trend best illustrated by a consistent fall in the turnout of voters during successive parliamentary elections.

The sentences awarded to the three cricketers say much about not just the favourite Pakistani sport, but also about what has become of that sport. In sharp contrast to the days of Khan as captain of Pakistan's globally acknowledged team which bagged the World Cup, the fate of Pakistan's cricket today is not too different from the country itself.

The conviction of the three cricket players in Britain was justified, and it is a sad reflection on prevailing conditions in Pakistan itself.

But it would have been in the best interests of Pakistan if a trial and a conviction had taken place on the home turf, at least to prove that the South Asian country is capable of taking such a step on its own. While the conviction in Britain should have been an eye-opener for Pakistani sportspeople, the tragic reality is indeed a radically different one. Given the controversies surrounding cricket and the way it is managed in Pakistan, it is far from clear if the conviction will lead to a major overhaul of not just this game but other sports that were once the source of national pride.

However, the conditions surrounding cricket cannot be seen in isolation from the way Pakistan appears to be progressing. A country ruled mostly by tainted politicians and controversial political parties simply continues to fail in inspiring the mainstream in building hope for a better future.

All is not well

Anyone looking at the track record of the ruling regime brought to power in the elections of 2008, must see glaring examples of corruption that has now become a fact of life across Pakistan. Tragically, the country's ruling class simply fails to acknowledge this trend while it promises to set the pace for the next parliamentary elections, due by early 2013. But to any objective observer, it is clear that all is not well in Pakistan today.

In this background, it is hardly surprising that Imran Khan — not just the most celebrated cricket star but indeed the most celebrated Pakistani sportsman — appears to be gaining ground as the hope for a better future. To his credit is not just the creation of his Tehreek-i-Insaaf party. Of greater credit is indeed his successful establishment of the Shaukat Khanum cancer hospital in Lahore, built by Khan in memory of his late mother. Khan's journey which began with the hospital has taken him further to build a world-class university in one of Pakistan's most remote regions. These are accomplishments which clearly overshadow any similar achievements by Pakistan's mainstream politicians.

Perhaps his biggest plus point is that, unlike other Pakistani politicians, Khan has never been entrusted with the responsibility of running a government. Given that Pakistanis are clearly tired of the options that currently surround the country's politics, many appear to be turning favourably to a star who comes across with the best possible intentions for the future of his country. In a week of disappointment for Pakistan's cricket fans following the convictions in London, Khan is seen by many to be their alternative choice for a leader. 

Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.