Imran Nazir and I are sitting at the National Cricket Academy in Lahore, next to the Gaddafi Stadium, on an exceptionally bright winter day in Pakistan. He is wearing a Lahore Qalandar T-shirt to celebrate the wildly popular Pakistan Super League.
Just as the sun shines after a storm, the former Pakistan batsman too is radiating positive energy as he comfortably reclines in a plastic chair, hunches his shoulders, and flips his black cap backwards. But to him, such flexibility would have seemed near unimaginable only five years ago.
“I couldn’t use my hands. I was unable to fully bend my fingers, there was stiffness. If I was to bend my arm, there was a locking of the elbow joint,” he tells me. “But right now, in front of you, I just practised playing cricket.
The former Pakistan batsman opens up about his road back from an almost completely immobilising arthritis, his unshakable faith and perseverance
“For the past five years, I haven’t been on the ground. I wanted to be, but the feeling inside me was that I will go in the ground and see everyone else playing but myself … I couldn’t bear that.”
As a precocious Under-19 player, Imran led the way for Pakistan at the 1999 Asian Test Championship. The former Pakistan opener hit a career-best 160 against Zimbabwe in the 2007 ICC World Cup. However, he struggled for consistency.
He came up with impressive innings at pivotal ODIs in Sharjah and Australia but only a few will probably remember that magical sixer to Shane Warne and how he led Pakistan into the Super Eight stage at the World Twenty20. Even fewer will be familiar, however, with his battle against arthritis — which attacks the joints — and the challenges that have come since.
Arthritis may seem like a cruel fate for a young person, but what Imran boasts, however, is an unshakeable self-belief, grounded upon his strong religious faith.
“It was written by God and I thank the Almighty that in that I had a happy life, I have spent those five years with happiness and joy. I was never disheartened. That a youngster who comes from a village, can come to the level of Pakistan [team] and gain fame — if I can reach that with my hard work then if I’m to work hard for this then why can I not get back into cricket.”
It had all started with wrist pain in 2013 while playing in Dubai. “I put it down to a normal pain, as you do when you swing a bat.” It was only when he was unable to lift a bat that he immediately returned to Pakistan and consulted the medical panel at the Pakistan Cricket Board. “That’s when I began to feel there is something wrong.”
Over the next days and weeks, the pain had spread. “Every joint in my body ached. I couldn’t get up, I couldn’t lie down, I couldn’t sleep.” Imran agrees that if one’s belief is strong, one should always be ready to face hardship. “Whenever difficulties arrive, you must always stay strong. No one could have ever imagined what I went through.”
Everywhere Imran went, he saw doctors. “I had the idea that there is no cure for this disease. Some people told me to consult herbal and spiritual healing practitioners. I did everything.
“Doctors and friends said to me, you may not be able to play cricket at all. They had suggested I pursue a career in coaching or training.” But as a sportsman, there was no way Imran would go back to the end of the queue.
“This is wrong, I will play, I will surely play. I had this stubborn perverseness.”
After doing his own research, Imran had planned to travel to the United States for his treatment. But fate had other plans. Through a friend, he came across a promising Pakistani-born American rheumatologist, who had returned to Pakistan, and who was also his fan. Out of curiosity after noticing Imran’s large belly at the time, the rheumatologist asked Imran about his health.
“The doctor said to me, you don’t need to go to America, what if America comes to you? I was shocked. He said give me nine to 10 months and then you will be back to playing cricket.
“I was referred for physiotherapy. Then I had the stem cell therapy and platelet-rich plasma (PRP) done. Slowly, slowly, after the first PRP, the first stem cells, praise to God, I started to feel that I might just be getting there.”
Before explaining the second session of the treatment, Imran pauses, takes a deep breath, and then continues. “There were so many things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t hold a cup of tea or even wash my face in the morning. Such was my situation.
“Slowly, slowly, I felt some life creep back into me. After the second to the third session, around six to seven months ago, the doctor said ‘just rest for one week, then start walking, running, and start your cricket.’ I said okay.”
After that one week, Imran was back in the ground. “I slowly started walking, running, I began to hold the bat. I felt as if I was dreaming.” With excitement in his voice now, Imran’s face lights up as he talks.
“I had to bite myself to make myself believe it was real. It does happen. A man who was unable to drink a cup of tea, or pick up a bottle of water, is back with the same power and strength, starting to play cricket. That, all of a sudden … at the end of the day, I thank the Almighty. I could never have imagined.” He also expressed his gratitude to the Shahid Afridi Foundation, Human Body Scan Diagnostic Center and the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) for their support.
“You can call it a repair, the gaps in your joints, those gaps have been refilled, and it is after the refill that they become strong.”
The diagnosis forced Imran to improve his routine to include activities which got him moving around more.
“I helped my servants with the housework, played with my children. Mostly, I spent time with my family, my children and, at the end of the day, my wife. I only prayed to God for one thing, that I don’t want to be bed-bound in such a way that I am unable to get back up again. Although it was something like this, I understand that my prayers were accepted. I just said to God, I want to remain in a state of activity and motion … out of bed.”
It’s remarkable to hear a celebrated cricketer giving voice to his vulnerabilities. As Imran admits, “I do not shy away, I feel good that I can share my story with people.
“If because of me other sufferers can be helped, then why not. If today I have been cured, then because of me or my message, or suggestions, or if I can recommend any good doctors, then I will understand I have done a righteous act. If someone does suffer from arthritis then please do get in touch with me and I will personally request my doctor, even for those who cannot afford the treatment. It is an expensive treatment, but I want to help the poor get treated.”
Imran is not the only cricketer having to battle a condition of the joints. The umpire Billy Bowden also suffered from rheumatoid arthritis which cut short his playing career. But Imran, as one might expect from the former energetic batsman, is determined to pick himself up.
“I am a very lucky person. I have seen with my eyes, that with a lot of cricketers, when they leave cricket, nobody remembers them. I believe that I am the only cricketer, when I went behind the scenes, so many people prayed for me. Many people tried to contact me. Little did they know, I couldn’t even hold a phone.
“After one to two, three, four, six months, eight months, I started my proper training, batting, started everything. I understand that all this outcome is because of those prayers. This is the power of prayers, which I believe in, have felt it and was rewarded. The training that I am doing now and feeling, I am 80 to 85 per cent.”
Imran still has the ability to learn and get better. “If I am fit for Pakistan or I’m able to perform at that level again, and if the country needs me, then I am ready and willing to serve. I always believe in my own hard work and efforts. After my hard work, I work around my fate. So I have hope that, with the will of God, maybe the next three or four years that I play, I will perform my best.”
How does he hope to inspire others who have arthritis, which affects millions around the world?
“I have honestly taken control of my health. For example, whenever I ate too much, it caused unbearable pain. So I changed my nutritional intake.”
“I went to a medical college, met a lot of doctors, where I did a speech about always staying strong. Whatever is written in your fate can never be pushed away by anyone. But I believe that I fought with my disease and because of that, I had positive results.”
“My message is also the same, if there is a problem, I don’t think it’s hard to find me. Whoever it is, I am ready to help. From the treatment to any other help, I will definitely help them out. Just stay strong.”