Mohammad Amir may never rid himself of the tattoo of taint that got etched on his reputation when he crossed the line at Lord’s. But the gifted Pakistan pacer made the most of his five-year exile from cricket, doing everything possible to return a better bowler
There is this intriguing Mohammad Amir story that has been floating around the Pakistan dressing room for a while now. It is from the 2010 England-Pakistan match at Lord’s that the narrators — mostly Amir’s coaches and team mates — refer to as “that big no-ball Test”. The account helps to connect not just a few dodgy dots but also the two antithetical worlds that Amir has inhabited as a cricketer. It talks about a short but significant interlude that played out a day before Amir landed his right foot way outside the popping crease, the indiscretion pushing him back to the very start of his emotionally devastating journey. (Full Coverage|| Fixtures||Photos)
That massive misdemeanor caught on camera was to become a notorious frame, plus a clinching evidence. Never perhaps in the history of sport has a picture of an athlete committing the most common field-of-play foul become the undeniable and conclusive ‘Exhibit A’ needed to ban the once-in-a-decade cricketer for five years, jail him and give him a permanent tattoo of taint. But before the infamous spot-fixing drama uncoiled, ironically at the home of cricket, the devious script with deceitful lines had started to unfold.
Back to Lord’s and the narrator, who doesn’t want to be seen as a snitch and thus wishes to remain unnamed. So, at the nets on the eve of that Test, Amir walked up to a member of the support staff with a request. He wanted to stretch his delivery stride. He was willing to cut it fine, like most bowlers do. The coach was surprised, a shade annoyed too. A back story will help to understand this reaction. Since his tape-ball cricket days in Change Bangial, a remote village in Pakistan with a population one-third of Lord’s capacity of 30,000, Amir never had front-foot no-ball issues. His final step before letting the ball go was way behind the crease. Several mentors had coaxed him to finish his run-up closer to the popping crease. The incentive of extra pace that the change promised didn’t tempt Amir. The amiable pace prodigy would refuse, always with a polite smile. The coaches too didn’t insist. At 19, if you are troubling the game’s greats, coaches become less assertive. They suggest, they don’t quite order. Though, this time Amir wasn’t indulged. “No, you can’t temper with your bowling a day before the Test,” he was told. That “member of support staff” would get busy with other boys and forget about the conversation. In the coming days, a series of events would make him recall that exchange.
As Amir would reveal later, just before he boarded the bus for a net session at Lord’s, at the team hotel’s parking area, he had been informed by his then manager Mazhar Majeed, in presence of his captain Salman Butt, to bowl a couple of no-balls. Few hours later, while training, Salman wanted Amir to practice bowling “no balls”.
He followed the script, actually he ended up hamming his role. He went overboard with the “no balls”. The coaches were puzzled. Amir has spoken about the sinking feeling, when confronted by chief coach Waqar Younis, at lunch on day two. Waqar had asked the question that was on the minds of many at Lord’s: “What was going on?”
“I was panic stricken. I was untying my shoe laces and suddenly he came up to me and asked me what on earth I’d just done? I was thinking ‘What should I say?’ When suddenly Salman (Salman Butt the captain, who too was part of the fix and got jailed and a life ban) spoke up… Salman explained to Waqar that he’d told me to ‘go forward and bowl a bouncer’. I remained quiet, I said nothing,” Amir would tell former England captain Michael Atherton in an interview for Sky Sports after serving time in 2012.
In the more-than-an-hour long interview, Amir, sounding alternately wronged and righteous, remains articulate. The voice drops, maybe once or twice, but he never breaks down. He isn’t drawing sympathy, he is fighting his case. Just out of the Portland Young Offenders Institute, he was merely 20 then and had a hair style made popular by Salman Khan’s angsty-weepy-tragic-romantic blockbuster Tere Naam. Like Salman (Khan, not Butt), Amir’s unruly front flicks, with a middle parting, formed a closed bracket, tightly cupping the face, almost hiding the eyes. In the same interview, he uttered a line that is generally penned for Bollywood’s anti-heroes. It’s what the movie-goers in small towns call a ‘solid dialogue’, which when said with a relish and the right pauses makes you feel for the less-than-perfect star dealing with a crisis. When asked his feelings as he sat in the Lord’s dressing room, he said, “It was as if someone had shot me and that I simply didn’t exist anymore; that I was dead,” Amir had said.
Amir is reborn. The ban is over, he has even reclaimed the status as Pakistan’s new ball bowler. It’s January 2016. That intense interview with Atherton with chilling revelations and an apology seem like they’re from a forgotten era. He is again in a television studio, this time in Pakistan. Except for that sharp swing and the stingy pace, a lot has changed. Amir looks different. Those unruly — ugly — Tere Naam flicks have been snipped, and probably swept away with disgust off the floor of some Lahore hair-stylist’s saloon. He looks well-groomed, filled out and very, very happy.
He is on a morning show that is a cross between Oprah and Tabassum’s Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan. It’s vintage Doordarshan. Fake flowers, pink and violet, are peeping out of snow-white pots hung on the background wall. The rest of the set too gives the feel of a typically middle-class home — Pakistani or Indian. It’s a place where the pulse of the nation is felt, opinions are formed and, in this case, a fallen star is being hand-held.
Scores of homely ladies in bright embroidered salwar kameez watch Amir assault a ball of paratha-dough with a rolling pin. He is standing next to a kitchen cabinet where the anchor — someone with girl-next-door looks who calls the cricket super star ‘mera bhai’ — is beating egg yolk. The young woman wouldn’t be making to BBC’s Hard Talk anytime soon. Her questions are more indulgent than incisive. Amir is loving it, so do others on the set. The format gives the guests a voice too. “Mashallha, aap itne khoobsurat hain, aap koi film ya drama mein kaam kyun nahi karte?,” asks a lady who has her head covered. Motherly love drips from the question. Spontaneous claps and uncanned laughter fills the room. Amir replies, “To be honest, kayi offers aaye the, but …”
Even when speaking Urdu, Amir has picked up this habit of starting each of his sentence with these three words: “to be honest”. It’s his catchphrase for all recent interviews, post-comeback. That word ‘honest’ gets uttered too often on the show. Meanwhile, there is a sudden bout of giggling, as the audience is told that Amir’s London-based wife ‘Narjis’ is on the telephone line. Narjis gets asked about the one thing she likes the most about Amir. “He is very honest,” she says. Spontaneous claps and laughter fill the room again. The Amir image-makeover is working, opinions are changing. He is blowing away batsmen with his pace, fans with his charm. To be honest, Amir is hot again and the house is on fire.
The man happiest to see these fan reactions is Syed Noman Alam. Three years ago, he met Amir through a common friend. They hit it off instantly. Noman is his manager but, according to him, he is also his “dost and bhai”. After the Majeed Mazhar experience, Amir certainly needed an advisor who was a genuine friend and brother. “I decide everything for him. Which department he plays for, which advertisement he signs up, what social activity he should get involved with. I am trying to design his future,” says Noman.
While serving the ban, Amir has been seen donating blood, signing bats for kids with thalassemia and visiting kids at Imran Khan’s cancer hospital. After getting warned for playing what he perceived was a friendly game at a private ground in England, Amir kept his distance from the cricket field during his days of ban. “All he did was swimming and gym work,” says the manager. It’s this punishing schedule that turned the scrawny Amir into the sculpted Amir of today.
Although cutting all ties with the game was difficult, Amir did stay in touch with the game. He and Noman, who worked as Team Pakistan’s analyst from late 90s to early 2000s, would spend hours sitting at the computer watching videos of the games being played around the world. Even when on the move, they would buffer cricket matches on their phones. “We would watch some AB de Villiers innings and think of ways to get him out. We would talk about Virat Kohli’s issues outside the off-stump. It could be Hashim Amla some day,” Noman reveals. The two would share their glee when things worked out in Amir’s comeback series in New Zealand. “We had this plan to bowl short to Brendon McCullum. Not that it’s his weakness but he always plays the pull or hook,” says the manager. In his second ODI after the ban, Amir’s first ball was to McCullum. Amir bounced, as planned; McCullum hooked, as expected. The mishit flew but fell in the hands of third man. The five-year hiatus wasn’t really wasted.
The ban period also saw Amir spend quality time at home with his family, something he had never done. Having left home very early in life to train at the residential academy at Rawalpindi, the pacer was finally with his parents and siblings. The family has now moved from their village in Gujar Khan to the posh Defence Housing home in Lahore. The patch of land that provided for the family is now taken care of by Amir’s sister and her husband. Noman says the close-knit family has helped Amir stay motivated and grounded. “He is the youngest in the family and he behaves like one. He isn’t a cricket super star at home. Haven’t heard him raise his voice, even in jest, when he is with family members. They are all very disciplined. At around 9 pm, everybody is at home, ready to retire for the day, including Amir,” Noman emphasises.
These days Amir’s stopovers at home are brief again. Ironically, this was what the family had prayed five times a day for nearly five years. Noman talks about the wait for the D-Day. His cricket connections would take Noman to the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Lahore. The manager would wistfully look at those giant kit-bags of national campers and dream of the day when one of them would have “M Amir” painted on them. That day seemed closer when, after the ban, Amir stepped on the cricket field after four years. Amir’s remorse in the ban period had melted the ICC. It shaved several months off his punishment. Amir re-started with a club game at Lahore University of Engineering and Technology (UET) ground. On the sidelines were techies and, of course, the manager.
Noman is an emotional man. On phone from Lahore, he says he is getting goose bumps, as he talks about seeing the missing spark in Amir’s eye once he left the field after the club game. Pakistani chat rooms around the world that day were buzzing. Just one frame of Amir on his run-up got posted from that comeback game and the fans were zooming in till the pixels blurred. Someone said Amir’s action had changed and he now bowls like Junaid Khan. They wanted the speed gun reading. That’s when the following post quelled the cyber restlessness. “Just spoke to a friend who studies in UET, and watched the match live… he wasn’t putting in his all, still to the naked eye, he bowled at around 135-137 and had both the swings going. His action is also the same.” Soon armies of emojis marched below the comment, welcoming the positive ground-report. But none captured the real emotion of this spontaneous reaction. Those tiny, yellow round-faces were too plain to capture the elation, excitement and relief of a Pakistani fan.
About a year after that club game, Amir would get a call from the Pakistan Cricket Board to be part of the camp at NCA. Noman says he is getting another round of goosebumps. “We hugged each other and cried,” he says. Amir was back at his alma mater. This was his second home, with the staff — the guard, cook, receptionists, coaches — his subsidiary family. He had first been picked for NCA at 15. It’s here in the company of other young talented cricketers, that he dreamt of playing club cricket in England, earning in pounds and, finally, one day playing for Pakistan. It was here he troubled Pakistan’s big boys — Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Yousuf — when they dropped by to train. It was here that he’d thought his career was over after suffering three stress fractures. Now, he was once again at NCA, dreaming, and praying too. “The NCA regulars were so happy to see him, they made him feel welcomed. It was once again like old times for Amir,” Noman says.
Against India at the Asia Cup in Dhaka, the world would come to know that the old times had really kicked in for NCA’s ‘special one’. Noman says he had seen it coming. “I had this dream few years back. Amir was getting several Indian batsmen out and I was jumping in the stands. Amir dismissed it saying ‘You are always dreaming’,” says a chuckling Noman, who called Amir after that India game. They laughed and cried again. Amir had mended, completely.
Days after his return to Pakistan, after the jail stint in Dorset, Amir was asked a straight question in a TV interview: “Amir tum hero the, aaj hero nahi ho, par kal ban sakte ho. Kya Amir toot gaya hai?” (You were once a hero, not one now, but you can still be a hero again? Are you broken from inside?) Pakistan wanted to know if their hero had it in him to fight back. Crestfallen Amir had replied, “Toot toh gaya hun andar se. (Yes I am broken from inside.)” He would gather himself, control his quivering lips and speak about his trust in his faith and Allah’s aazmaish to make an insaan stronger.
Amir’s life has many layers. It’s a heart-breaking tale of boy who threw it away and picked it up again. It’s a story idea that would excite even the most seasoned thespian. It is a moral science lesson, a fable fit to be in a preacher’s handbook. But before that, watch this space — in the coming days, it may well end up as the greatest-ever sporting comeback.