Seldom do careers have such fairytale endings when an incredible athlete can go out on the highest of highs. Having been an avid sports fan for several years, only a few instances spring to mind: Pete Sampras at his last US Open; John Elway after leading the NFL Denver Broncos to two consecutive Superbowl victories; and Michael Jordan's first and second retirements from the Chicago Bulls are a few that I can think of.
However, the one sporting triumph that I hold closest to my heart is the Pakistan cricket team's victory in the 1992 Cricket World Cup held in Australia and New Zealand. That victory not only allowed Imran Khan, one of the greatest all-rounders of all time, to end his career on a high, but also kicked off the best decade in the history of Pakistan cricket.
At the time the 1992 World Cup was being played, Imran was already pushing 40 years of age, and several cricket experts and fans were divided in their opinion on whether he still had it in him to play at the highest level. The manner of the Pakistan cricket team's early progress in the World Cup round-robin matches was disappointing, to say the least.
Then came the lucky break which, in hindsight, changed the outcome of the tournament. Pakistan were embarrassingly bowled out for only 74 in their match against England, but then divine intervention in the form of rain resulted in abandonment of the match with both teams being awarded a point each for the no-result.
After having lost to India and South Africa in succession, there was no silver lining at all with only three points earned, and an early trip home looking all but a mere formality. Then came Imran's famous 'cornered tigers' team talk, which to this day is remembered as the most motivational team talk by a cricket captain. It was simple. Pakistan needed to win all their remaining matches to even have a chance of qualifying for the semi-finals, and needed other teams to do them favors as well.
Pakistan set about the task of resurrecting their tournament under Imran's leadership by beating Australia by 48 runs at Perth. An expected, yet close, victory against unfancied Sri Lanka set up an intriguing clash of wills. New Zealand, the only unbeaten team in the tournament came up against Imran's tigers in its last match, and in the end it was no contest.
Pakistan won comfortably by seven wickets, with Imran inspiring Wasim Akram to show glimpses of what was in store for Pakistan's cricket future. When Australia finally beat West Indies in the last round-robin game of the tournament, only then did Pakistan officially qualify for the semi finals.
The semi-final was a nail-biting affair with Pakistan scraping home with a four-wicket win with only one over to spare. In an almost poetic twist, Pakistan were to play the same team which had bowled them out for only 74 runs in the round-robin stage, i.e. England. This was to be Pakistan's first-ever World Cup final, and that is where Imran took centre-stage.
Pakistan lost an early wicket while batting first. And to everyone's surprise, it was Imran himself who walked out to bat at No. 3. Another wicket fell, and then Imran fashioned one of the most memorable partnerships with vice captain Javed Miandad. The strategy was simple: keep wickets in hand, as we have the firepower for quick runs down the order. With half the overs having been bowled, Pakistan were lingering along at a mere three runs per over.
That was when Imran broke the shackles by smashing English spinner Richard Illingworth for one of the longest sixes ever seen at the MCG. He fashioned a masterful innings of 72 runs from 110 balls, which laid the foundation for middle and lower order batsmen to hit out and take the score to 249/6 in 50 overs. Imran's final cricket innings was one of his best, planned with the patience of an experienced head, and played with the pomp of a batsman in his prime.
England's batsmen remained under pressure throughout their innings, and it was the extra cherry on top of the sundae when Imran himself took the final wicket of the World Cup. Although in the end, it was Wasim Akram who was named man of the match, people still remember that partnership between Imran and Miandad as the factor which gave the team the confidence and belief to go out there and win.
Imran Khan ended up fashioning one of the most memorable performances by a player and captain in his final cricket match and final cricket tournament. This is possibly as good as it can get for a dedicated sportsman who was also one of the best to ever take the field.