The crowd gathered fast and within an hour, the dust of the sports ground below the old city walls of Lahore was obscured by a mass of shouting, grinning, pushing men. Above them, behind a makeshift stage, hung two giant portraits: of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder ofPakistan, and of Imran Khan, former cricketer, playboy, the man they had come to see. Slogans boomed out. A chant rose into the air: "Who will save Pakistan?" It was November 1998 and Khan was holding his first major political rally in his home town.
Since then, there have been many more rallies, each with the same banners in green and red of Imran's party – Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf(Pakistani Justice Movement), the same portraits, the same drums and fireworks. For many years, too, there were the same smallish, by Pakistani standards, crowds and the same sneers from journalists, local and international.
One English-language newspaper in Pakistan ran a regular column, a spoof diary of "Im the Dim".
In recent weeks, however, the sceptics have been almost silent. Khan, now 59, appears on the edge of a political breakthrough. After years in the semi-wilderness, Khan – or "Imran" as he is known in Pakistan – is walking through green fields of mainstream popularity. The former cricketer tops opinion polls. For the first time, powerful and established political figures have begun defecting to his party. In October, a rally in Lahore drew at least 100,000.
One in Karachi just before Christmas also saw a huge crowd. Observers noted the variety of supporters: upper-middle-class and elite "aunties", labourers, shopkeepers, pharmacists and headmasters. They also noted, perhaps unsurprisingly in a country where two-thirds of the population are under 30, the youth of Khan's fans.
In the early years of his political career, Khan spoke with a rolled sheaf of scribbled notes in his hands. At one rally in 1998, the first line on the first page read in red: "Believe in Pakistan."
Imran Khan was born on 25 November 1952 into a wealthy and well-connected Lahore family. Ethnically, he is a Pashtun, or Pathan, as British imperialists called the peoples concentrated along what once was known as the North-West Frontier. Educated at Lahore's Aitchison College, the most exclusive school in Pakistan, and the Royal Grammar School in Worcester, before going to Oxford University, his early years were typical of Pakistan's anglicised upper classes. A precocious sporting talent meant that, in 1971, the shy teenager made his test debut against England. By 1982, he was captain of Pakistan's national side.
Imran's first autobiography, All Round View (1992), recounts his extraordinary sporting career: the victories against the odds in front of the home crowd, the career-threatening injury overcome, the return from retirement to lead his national team once more to glory, the eventual – and lasting – reputation as one of the best all-round cricketers ever.
It is less forthcoming on his non-sporting activities. A string of rich, well-connected, beautiful women earned him a reputation as a player successful off the pitch too. Then, in 1995, he married Jemima Goldsmith, daughter of the late British billionaire James Goldsmith. She converted to Islam and moved to Pakistan. The couple had two sons.
In the mid-1990s, Khan underwent a radical reassessment of his values, in part prompted by witnessing his mother's painful death from cancer. He built a hospital in her memory and raised the funds himself, auctioning his cricketing trophies. Much of the money came from a series of huge rallies at which people who themselves had virtually nothing threw crumpled 10 rupee (12p) notes into sacks.
No one is asked if they can pay for their treatment at the Shaukat Khanum memorial cancer hospital – remarkable in a country where the rich pay no tax, where the strong bully the weak and the weak bully the weaker, where money means power and vice versa. Khan's burgeoning interest in religion also began to evolve into a devout faith.
His ambitions extended beyond philanthropy, however, and in 1996 he launched his political party. With no organisation, no funds and no muscle (all usually essential in the brutal game of south Asian politics), few gave him any chance. Speaking at a dinner at her home in Islamabad in 1999, Benazir Bhutto, twice prime minister, patronisingly dismissed Khan's challenge. "Imran? The people don't love him the way they love me," she said. "I suppose I might make him a cabinet minister, if it came to it."
Bhutto went into exile a few months later; Khan did not. His party had not won a single seat at the first election his party contested, in 1997, and got only one – his own – in the second in 2002. His politics were unclear, his economic proposals undefined; he backed the military coup of 1999 but called for democracy. What was evident however was a deep conservatism, a profound nationalism, a righteous anger at rampant corruption, a distaste for the west and suspicion of the westernised. There was, too, a genuine piety.
Though more people said he would fail, though his marriage foundered, though support was rare, Khan continued to campaign.
In the late 1990s, he had compared his own experience to that of the Prophet Muhammad, who also was spurned in his early years of proselytisation. Khan's self-belief remained undented.
Yet Pakistan was changing. There were the 9/11 attacks and the alignment with, rather than against, America and the Bush administration. There was the more general radicalisation that resulted from the continuing conflict. As the decade neared its end, Khan's trenchant criticism of his country's relationship with the US, delivered in his deep, booming voice with great certainty, touched a vital nerve. Last year saw continuing missile strikes from unmanned American drones killing militants and villagers in west Pakistan, US special forces raiding the country to kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and Pakistani soldiers killed inadvertently by Nato troops on the Afghan border.
But other trends, less obvious and less talked about, are contributing to Khan's sudden success, as they have contributed to that of conservative, Islamist politicians elsewhere.
A combination of rapid urbanisation and an economic boom meant the creation of a new urban middle class, many of whom had just clawed their way out of poverty. In the sprawl of the cities, where rural traditions meant little, newer identities exerted a powerful pull.
Contemporary, politicised strands of Islam bound in perfectly with the general resurgent Pakistani nationalism. There was a new questioning of the elite's desire to be like the west. There was a new, bilious anger directed at the US, fuelled by a newly noisy media. In a time of deep disillusion with long-serving politicians – the country returned to civilian rule in 2008 – Khan is not only different but he says aloud what much of "the Pakistani street" is thinking.
His many critics, particularly among the country's liberal elite, see him as a stooge for a quasi-Islamist army and a dangerous reactionary. An editorial in The Nation – a newspaper close to the military – last week compared him with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a consummate populist politician who was president and prime minister in the 1970s before being executed in 1979. The comparison is contrived but that it can even be made is remarkable.
It is only a decade or so since ZA Bhutto's daughter, Benazir, contemptuously dismissed Khan's political aspirations. She was assassinated four years ago. Her widower, President Asif Ali Zardari, is now the target of much of Khan's outrage.
The former cricketer no longer needs the handwritten notes he used a decade ago. Precise policies and coherent ideology are not really his thing, anyway.
"Believe in Pakistan," he still tells the crowds. This is something that tens of millions of people are desperate to do. "Who will save Pakistan?" they chant, as before. "Imran Khan, Imran Khan."