Stuart Broad in action on the second day of the second Ashes test at Lord's. Photograph: Getty Images
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Wounds from a hard campaign, visiting Lord’s with my sons – and Malala the Great

Imran Khan's diary.

Battered but not broken

For the last two months I’ve been in a terrible state physically. After my accident, when I fell from a stage during an election rally in Lahore in May, I spent two weeks in bed. I’ve never done this in my life. It was potentially a very serious injury: three vertebrae broken, cracked ribs, head injuries, and so on. Then I spent another three weeks in a brace, walking slowly. Finally I had the brace off after seeing a specialist here in England and doing physiotherapy. It’s been a testing time for someone who’s always been fit (I played international sport for 21 years) and has not known what it is like to be in a prolonged state of unfitness.

Now I’m out of my brace and on the mend. I’m ready once I go back to provide a proper opposition in Pakistan, which we haven’t had. More importantly, the one province – Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa – where we have a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government is a golden opportunity for us to show what good governance is all about.

The reckoning

Looking back, I have mixed feelings about the election. On the one hand, my party did extremely well. Here was a party with zero seats in the last election, which we boycotted, and before that only one seat in parliament, and it has become the second-biggest party in Pakistan. We fielded 80 per cent new candidates – this was a movement against the status quo. The challenge was not winning the elections but to bring a change. If we had gone for winning the elections, we would have just picked tried and tested old political faces who were dying to join us, because we had these massive rallies and everyone knew the young were with us.

But these were the status quo politicians, against whom my whole movement was fighting. Of our candidates, 35 per cent were below the age of 40. We wanted to bring in young leadership. We put our party through trial intra-party elections. No other political party in Pakistan has ever held intra-party elections so they’re basically family parties – it’s son taking over from father or mother. Benazir Bhutto’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, basically inherited a party as a 19-year-old after his mother was killed. The husband produced a will and said the party had been inherited by the son!

Bearing in mind we had all these new candidates and only a three-week campaign, we achieved what no other party could have hoped to achieve. We got almost eight million votes, and it’s a party that is now all over Pakistan, a federal party; the others are restricted to provinces. You need 140 seats to form a government and we got about 40 seats – but in 123 constituencies we came second. It means the party is poised for the next election, whenever it is. For now, we have time to organise our party properly.

To the streets

The downside was that this was the most rigged election in our history. Every political party that participated claimed that it was rigged. With each election, the rigging has increased because no one ever gets caught. We’ve accepted the result – Pakistan has too many crises to face a fresh election –but what we want is for the Supreme Court to do a detailed investigation of four constituencies out of 272. Then, with all the wrongdoings exposed, at least the next election should be free and fair. Our whole idea with insisting on this investigation is that we do not want a repeat of election-rigging. At the moment, I’m afraid we’re being resisted, but we are determined, even if it means a street movement. We will go on the streets to insist that there should be an investigation and that electoral reforms should take place in Pakistan.

Terror surge

Right now, the issue of terrorism in Pakistan is serious. In a year, we have had more than 300 terrorist attacks in the country. Pakistan is more radicalised thanks to the US war that we were forced to enter into by Pervez Musharraf, a military dictator. The state has got weaker at controlling terrorism and the army is stuck in the tribal areas. Some 50,000 Pakistanis have been killed, many times more than the British and Americans have lost in Afghanistan. The worst thing is that we still don’t have any solutions, because the government doesn’t have the will to pull us out of this war, which was never Pakistan’s war in the first place. There were no Pakistanis involved in the 9/11 attacks and the Taliban were in Afghanistan.

So how did we get stuck? I’m afraid it’s down to a ruling elite’s lust for dollars. They first took dollars to create the jihadis in the 1980s against the Soviets, and now they’re taking dollars to kill the same jihadis. The people of Pakistan have paid the price.

Mighty Malala

After she spoke, I read Malala Yousafzai’s speech at the United Nations. This 16-yearold girl, shot by the Taliban for her campaigning work on education, has touched everyone – and in Pakistan, too. She’s become a symbol, standing up for education. If there’s one thing a country needs, besides security, it’s education. Pakistan has an appalling record of educating its people and its female literacy is one of the worst in the world. My government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is spending more than any other province ever has on education. We’ve made education a priority – especially female education.

Ashton, Prince of Ashes

Aside from seeing a specialist about my injuries, I’m also in England to see my boys. I love watching cricket with them because they both enjoy it. We are going to the Test match at Lord’s. The first Test was unexpected. I did not think Australia would be able to put up such a fight but they surprised everyone. The young debutant Ashton Agar was very impressive; he’s got a great future.

Half of the game of cricket is fought in the mind, the other half on the field. Australia’s attitude in the next matches will be different. People had written them off, but they will now be mentally much more ready to face England. Having said that, England will still win the series and retain the Ashes.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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