Champions Trophy 2017

Mohammad Amir, the superstar that might have been, finds his paradise again

Somehow, in the midst of his match-defining spell, the decision to allow the spot-fixing-convicted Pakistani to play cricket again made perfect sense.

“We like chasing.”

Virat Kohli had many reasons behind his decision to put Pakistan in to bat after winning the toss ahead of the final but prime among them was the confidence in his and his team’s ability to chase down any total that the opposition could put up.

It wasn’t just ego that caused him to take the decision either. Rather it has its roots in fact. The wicket wasn’t likely to change much, so he wanted to give his bowlers a go at it while it was fresh. Pakistan’s batting line-up could be unpredictable. In contrast, India’s batting line-up has great depth. And last but not the least, in Mahendra Singh Dhoni (average in successful chases: 97.36) and Kohli (average in successful chases: 95.20), India had two of the best chasers in world cricket. It all made perfect sense.

However, common sense and Pakistan don’t often go well together. They rarely, if ever, do common sense well – victory or defeat, it always comes with a dash of spectacular. On the day, Pakistan’s batsmen decided to turn up. Fakhar Zaman and Azhar Ali put on a 128-run stand (the highest ever opening stand for Pakistan against India in an ICC ODI tournament) before a comical run-out saw Azhar heading back. At that point, India seemed to heave a collective sigh of relief: the real Pakistan was back.

Still, it was a different kind of ‘real’ – the much-anticipated collapse never arrived. Pakistan put 338 on board and as Kohli walked off the field, his face wore a grim expression. It wasn’t the ‘we’ve lost this’ kind of grim. Rather, it was the ‘this isn’t going to be easy’ kind.

For India to chase and win, the pieces would need to come together in perfect fashion. The openers would have to click (as they had all tournament), Kohli would need to do his thing, and finally, Dhoni would need to finish it. You could call that dream a plan. Given that India had done that before, it was perhaps an achievable one too.

But as it turned out, India weren’t the only ones with a plan. Then again, just how do you counter a genius, even though it was one that was recovering from a back spasm?

India 0/0. Mohammad Amir 0-0-0-0

1st over

Amir’s first ball to Rohit was widish but the right-hander reached out to it. He got an inside edge. He survived. The second ball relied on the left-armer’s natural angle. It was on a good length and the India opener left it well alone. The third one wasn’t even a set-up. Rohit knew it was coming. The spectators at the ground knew it was coming. Hell, we knew it was coming. But that knowledge didn’t help. It swung in, Rohit – never one to take a big stride early in his innings – was stuck in the crease and the ball hit around the knee roll. Gone. Gone for a duck. Amir always did have the happy knack of taking a wicket in his first over. He did it on his T20 debut, and on his Test debut too. But this perhaps he would be his most memorable one.

In walked, Virat Kohli. If anyone could inspire confidence in that situation, it was the Indian captain. But Amir’s first delivery showed that it was going to be far from easy – it was bowled at 145km/h and it beat Kohli. Swing, seam and now, searing pace. The fifth ball was hit straight to the fielder at mid-off. The sixth was typical Kohli – he shuffled across the off-stump and flicked it through square leg.

India 2/1. Mohammad Amir 1-0-2-1

2nd over

Kohli was back on strike. He had his game face on. The first ball saw him shuffle again, but this time the ball took the outside edge and went through the point region. He was into the shot a tad too early. They ran through for a two but that meant Kohli stayed on strike. The second ball was hit back straight to the bowler – Amir collected it and threatened to throw it back at the stumps but Kohli put up his hand as if to say, ‘calm down.’ Kohli was grinning at this point. He seemed calm – this contest, as he will remind you as many times as possible, is what he craves.

The third ball was just back of length – it forced Kohli to play at it. It took the edge and flew straight to first slip. Azhar Ali moved to take it but it hit the ball of the thumb and popped out. He threw his hat down in disgust, Amir looked angry as he walked back. Pakistan, oh Pakistan.

Then, the next ball… back-of-length again. Kohli was again shaped to move across and flick it; instead he got a leading edge to point. Shadab took the catch, Amir punched the air and the crowd chanted his name. Pakistan, oh Pakistan.

Yuvraj Singh was in next. He got a single off the first ball and Dhawan defended the final delivery. Was there some way to play out the Amir spell? Was there a way to survive this?

India 7/2. Mohammad Amir 2-0-5-2

3rd over

Finally, someone decided to stand up to Amir. Two of India’s in-form trinity were back in the dressing room. Only Dhawan was still there in the middle – perhaps because he had faced just one ball from Amir. Still, this over gave India some hope. The first two balls were dots. The third was short and Dhawan was waiting. He hooked it – timing it superbly – for four. The crowd cheered, a wave of blue surged, hope floated. The fourth ball was driven but Malik moved well to stop a boundary. The fifth was a slower ball but Dhawan was once again, waiting. He waited long enough and then smashed it for another four. A single off the last ball ensured he kept the strike.

India 16/2. Mohammad Amir 3-0-14-2

4th over

A leg-bye off the first ball got Dhawan off strike and Yuvraj just played five balls without looking to score. He recently played his 300th ODI and he was bringing all his experience to the fore. India just wanted to play out this spell. They wanted Amir gone. Amir, on the other hand, was still looking good. Just before the final, Pakistan’s bowling coach Azhar Mahmood had given an interview in which he said: “Amir has got everything: skill, pace, mind [...] I think he is bowling at 70% potential. That is my feeling. He needs to put his foot on the throttle and just go.” If this was still 70%, then imagine what 100% was like.

India 22/2. Mohammad Amir 4-1-14-2

5th over

Just before the start of the fifth over, Wasim Akram tweeted:

It was praise of the highest order and in the fifth over, Amir gave people another reason to compare him with Akram. He had a proper go at Dhawan, this time round. The first ball was just back of a length and on the off-stump. Dhawan could do little but defend. The second one was quicker – 143 km/h – but also slightly shorter. Not too much movement, Dhawan got behind it but punched it straight to the fielder. The third one was quick – 143 km/h again – and Dhawan defended solidly. A single off the fourth ball got Dhawan off strike but Yuvraj took another single off the fifth ball. The final ball was genius. Dhawan had so far countered everything that Amir could muster up – swing, seam, bouncers, pace… everything. So Amir ran in and bowled a cross-seamer in the corridor just outside the off-stump. Dhawan loaded up to glide it to third man for a single but the ball bounced on him, took the outside edge and went straight to Sarfraz. Over… and out. Not just Dhawan’s innings but India’s challenge too.

Between them, Rohit (304), Dhawan (338) and Kohli (258) had scored exactly 900 of India’s runs in the tournament. With them gone, it was game over. Indian fans clutched straws and to a false, desperate hope but in their heart of hearts, they knew it was over. And one man, Mohammad Amir, the superstar that might have been, had found his paradise again.

India 33/3. Mohammad Amir 5-1-16-3

6th over

The sixth over was a blocking exhibition. Dhoni didn’t look to score, he blocked. Amir was in his sixth over and Dhoni didn’t expect him to continue bowling. The damage, though, had been done. 338 without those three was impossible.

India 47/3. Mohammad Amir 6-2-16-3

Redemption?

In November 2014, Ramiz Raja wrote a piece for ESPNcricinfo explaining why the PCB were “shooting themselves in the foot” by allowing and even encouraging Amir back.

“I am all for rehabilitation and for finding ways to set a young man back on course in his life. But it just can’t be in the game that he sullied and brought disrepute to.”

And one could see how Raja was right. Amir’s crime was proven. His guilt was real. Azhar Ali, who played a brilliant hand in the opening partnership, and Mohammad Hafeez, who made a quick-fire 50, had refused to play with him on his return. Others had expressed similar sentiments.

But somehow, in the midst of his match-defining spell, the decision to allow Amir back made perfect sense now. In a way, the best example of what playing cricket can do as against playing a fixer is right in front of everyone watching. Would you rather be the one earning all the glory and the accolades or the one doing jail time? And if that can’t set you on the right path then you were never meant to take it anyway.

The past shouldn’t come to define your present but to many, Amir will always remain a fixer. Still, with this spell, he showed that perhaps he will be able to fix himself too. It won’t happen over the course of one brilliant spell but if and when it does happen, it will, in many ways, be his greatest triumph. Till then, we’ll make do with this.

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