WASHINGTON - Cricket legend and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chief Imran Khan’s ‘popularity is skyrocketing’ with his pledges to end corruption, negotiate with militants and take a tougher line with the United States, a major American newspaper reported Friday.

“(A)s Pakistan’s topsy-turvy political landscape careens into an election season, Khan has emerged for the first time as a major force,” The Los Angeles Times said in a dispatch from Islamabad. “His ascent (is) directly proportionate to the rising tide of frustration Pakistanis feel over woes such as seemingly endemic corruption, poverty and shortages of power and natural gas,” LA Times correspondent Alex Rodriguez wrote.

“For 15 years, Pakistanis exalted Imran Khan as a cricket legend but largely ignored his politics. When Khan discussed cricket, the public hung on his every word. But when he campaigned for office, they dismissed him as an outsider,” the dispatch added.

“Khan’s struggle to be taken seriously has been a long one in a country where political newcomers rarely gain traction. He even had to overcome an affliction that pained him as far back as his cricket career, which ended in 1992.

“When I became the captain of my team, I was only speaking to 11 players, but I used to have trouble speaking to 11 players,” Khan, 59, told the newspaper. “I used to tell the manager, ‘Look, you talk to them.’ ... Public speaking I always found to be a problem.”

“Now, he is drawing huge crowds by pledging to end corruption, negotiate with militants and take a tougher line with Washington,” referring to his successful rallies in Lahore, Karachi and other cities.

Correspondent Rodriguez wrote “It’s not as though Khan has yet laid out a detailed blueprint of remedies. But analysts say his popularity is skyrocketing because a growing number of Pakistanis cling to a hope that he will conjure up that blueprint soon.

“Along the way”, the dispatch said, “Khan assembled an impressive list of defectors from other major parties to his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf ...”

“I’ve always had the credibility,” Khan said and added “But I did not have the viability. Oct 30 broke the viability barrier.”

“What hasn’t changed is the veneration of Khan as a cricket supernova in a country where sports heroes have been hard to come by,” the dispatch said. “Khan’s legendary career has served as the foundation for his every endeavour, be it politics or philanthropic achievements that include raising $25 million for the construction of a cancer hospital in Lahore. The capstone on his cricket career came in 1992, when as captain of the Pakistani national team he led a stunning victory over England to win the World Cup.

In a country dominated by Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party and Sharif’s PML-N, breaking into the top tier can prove exceedingly difficult, particularly if that third party is led by ‘someone not from any political family or background’, Khan said.

“Khan has a well-oiled team that has been managing his meteoric rise, but some in Pakistan wonder whether his sudden popularity has been nurtured behind the scenes by the country’s powerful security establishment,” the LA Times said.

“The military’s disdain for Zardari’s administration recently has triggered widespread talk of a potential coup, and historically it has had an acrimonious relationship with the country’s other major party, the PML-N. After Khan’s massive October rally in Lahore, PML-N leaders accused the military of sponsoring the event.

“Khan dismissed the claim, saying the military has never amassed rallies like the ones he led in Lahore and Karachi. Citing a rally in Islamabad in 2007 that was organised by Gen Pervez Musharraf, the president, Khan said, “So here’s the [military] in government, with all of the federal and provincial parliament members with it, and [Musharraf] could barely draw 30,000 people.”

Khan says he is assembling a team of advisors to produce policy papers on energy, the economy and other issues at a later date. Analysts say he shouldn’t wait.

“How far Khan’s momentum takes him remains to be seen,” the dispatch said. Most analysts doubt his party can win enough seats in the parliamentary elections to take control of the government. That vote is slated for 2013, though it appears increasingly likely that the government will relent amid pressure to hold it this year. Parliamentary elections are crucial in Pakistan, because federal and provincial lawmakers elect a president afterward.

“Even if Khan doesn’t win, he could gain enough seats in the parliament to become a major opposition force,” the Times said.