Do you remember how it felt to bowl that first ball on your comeback for Pakistan, against New Zealand? I was playing after five years so there was pr...
I was playing after five years so there was pressure. Over five years, I hadn’t really played that much cricket. Before that comeback I think I had played five first-class matches [Grade 2], which is very difficult, specially for a fast bowler. In New Zealand, their conditions, which you know, are very tough. So there was pressure but thank God, I had Shahid bhai’s [Afridi] support as captain. If you have the captain’s support, then you can relax.
It was good, though I couldn’t perform that well [he had returns of 1 for 31]. The first T20 was average and I thought I did all right in the ODIs. But the T20s I couldn’t do so well. Overall I just thought I was very lucky that I was making a comeback. Performance is one thing but playing again for Pakistan was the biggest thing for me, the most memorable thing.
How different is Amir the bowler of 2010 to Amir the bowler now? Do you feel you have come back to a different game, or have you come back a different bowler?
First, if you look around, not just at me but every single person, day by day, as he gets older, he learns things and he learns them by himself. When you are 16 or 17, you think you are right about everything. But when you are over 20, you realise the mistakes you made at 16 or 18. You learn with age. Even now I am learning things and I know what things I can do better.
I think people can see that. People point out that I look more mature, that I know how to speak now. You learn these things with time but only if you want to learn. I am trying to learn things I feel I should every day. Getting older, I think, has helped me. I was young back then, now, I’m moving towards getting old! But I think things are going well.
Has the game overall, and yours in particular, changed a little?
Not a little, but a lot. Now there are two new balls from both ends. This 4-5 fielders restriction [outside the 30-yard circle in ODIs] wasn’t there. And cricket wasn’t as fast-paced as it is now. At that time, 290-300 was a total you could think about defending. But now even 300-plus is not secure. It’s because there’s so much T20 cricket now – there weren’t as many leagues back then. All kinds of leagues have started up – Pakistan Super League, Caribbean Premier League, Bangladesh [Premier League]. I think cricket is tougher now than before.
A lot of people remember that 2010 series and the amount of swing you got, and they feel you haven’t been able to get that back since your return. Is that a technical thing that can be adjusted?
I don’t think so. When a bowler gets the conditions, he will get swing. If you look at the Champions Trophy in England this year, nobody swung the ball. But when playing the Test series in the West Indies, I got helpful conditions a few times, and it did swing. When I played the Asia Cup in Bangladesh, there was something in the conditions and I got swing. When you come across a really flat pitch, where there is no swing, how can you bring swing?
If you see the Champions Trophy final, even though it was a flat track, I was pushing myself a little and I got something, I got some seam as well. I bowled cross-seam, so I got bounce too.
As far as this swing thing goes, I’m not sure how the idea of big swing has gotten into people’s heads. Nobody really swings it big anymore. If you look at the pitches, they’ve gone too far in favour of the batsmen. If you look at what used to be swinging tracks in Australia and New Zealand, even in ODIs in England, you get 300-plus runs [now]. In the Champions Trophy final we made 340 . If you use the Duke ball in England you may get swing. In ODIs, with Kookaburra at both ends, with flat pitches, you don’t get as much.
But yes as a bowler I can say that technical issues can come up because if you return after a five-year break, you can forget exactly how your shoulder and wrist positions should be. That can happen to any bowler. It happened to me, but I’m working on it and getting better. In the T20I against Sri Lanka – the last one – I got some swing. Then I played domestic cricket for Lahore Whites and the ball swung. This means the work I am doing is coming through. The main thing for a bowler is his wrist position and that, as I’ve said before, is something I’m working on. I think it will get better with time. The more I play, the more I feel my wrist and action are coming back.
Mickey Arthur recently talked about the fact that your bowling lengths in Tests have been a bit shorter than they should be, maybe because of the limited-overs cricket you have played. Has that played a part?
Yes, absolutely. When I made my comeback in Tests against England, I was playing the format after five years, so I was a little short. Before that I had played a total of five first-class games. But if you see in West Indies, I started pitching the ball further up and I got six wickets in an innings in the first Test, and got wickets in the other Tests, too. In Tests you have to pitch it a little fuller.
But also over my 12-18 months of Test cricket, 16-17 catches were dropped [off my bowling] and these things matter a lot. At the end of the day, people say I am not getting wickets, but what about those dropped catches?
What if, say, 10 of those 17 drops had been taken? Many times – a cricketer will understand – if you’re in the middle of a spell, you get one wicket, you get another with it. With me, catches have been dropped and as a bowler you put a lot of energy and planning into a spell to get a batsman out. If a chance is dropped, you have to try and get him out a second time and that takes 3-4 overs, and it takes energy out. People miss these things, because with a wicket, a bowler gets confidence.
Had those catches been taken, my average today could have been 20 to 23. These things matter. I think people had high hopes but I know at the end of the day, in cricket you need some luck, which I think in the last year or so I haven’t had.
How frustrating have the dropped catches been?
It is very frustrating because of the energy a fast bowler uses – all that gets wasted. He comes running in from quite far. At the end of the day, nobody drops a catch on purpose and even the fielder gets frustrated. As a bowler, when a few catches are dropped, yeah that is frustrating. But I think ultimately it’s part of the game. Sometimes impossible catches are taken and sometimes easy ones are put down and you just wonder how that is even possible. So at the end of the day you need luck [smiles].
Talk us through your emotions of the two balls you bowled to Virat Kohli in the Champions Trophy final – the dropped catch and then the wicket next ball.
Everybody knows if you get Kohli, India is 50% out of the game. Until he is at the crease, India’s chances of winning are 70-80%. If you look at his chasing ratio, he is at the top of the world. He chases well, he performs well under pressure. So our plan was to get their top order – [Shikhar] Dhawan, [Rohit] Sharma, Kohli, the guys who were scoring the runs in the tournament. My plan was that I didn’t want to save runs, I wanted to take wickets. If we could get one or two from the top, we could win the match.
The pitch was the kind where you couldn’t stop the runs. Even after they were six down, [Hardik] Pandya was hitting so big – the wicket was that flat. You couldn’t stop the runs flowing, you could only take wickets to win the game.
My plan in the first spell was that even if I gave away 35-40 runs in the first five but took two wickets, then we were in the game. So the target was to get these two or three guys out.
When Kohli was dropped, I thought half the game was gone to be honest. Because he is the kind of batsman if you give him a chance, he won’t score less than hundred. Ninety-percent of the time, you give him a chance, he gets a hundred. Recently against New Zealand, they dropped him on 15 or 20 and he scored a hundred. He doesn’t give you a second chance.
I remembered Fakhar [Zaman] and how he had been out on a no-ball and had then scored a hundred. That kind of thing happens when you are walking back, it came to me immediately and I thought I hope this doesn’t happen to us now.
In my mind, I thought he’ll be ready for my inswinger, because the previous ball had been an outswinger. So I thought, 80-90% he would be ready for an inswinger. But I wanted to bowl at him in the same area, and move it away again. If you look at the clips of it, you can see he shaped to play it to leg, he moved to play it to on [side], thinking I was going to bring it in. My thinking was that if I bowl again in the same area, the same ball going away, he might go to play it thinking it is coming in, and edge it to slip again, but it went with the angle to point.
What is the difference playing against India and another team?
There are two teams against whom my energy is always very high: India and Australia. I get a real boost that I want to do something against them. It is natural because they are two tough teams, very tough teams. You know Australia is a very tough side and India, as a Pakistani, you know everyone is thinking that if you can perform against India, your star value, your cricketing value, image and reputation goes up big time, from nowhere to very high. Even if you haven’t done anything in five games against other teams but manage to do something against India in one match, then it evens up all your performances in a year.
Given that the two sides aren’t playing regular series right now, how would you feel about ending your career without a full series against India?
See I’ve always believed you have to be thankful for what you already have, that we are playing cricket, and that is enough. I am representing my country, playing against Australia, England, India, that is enough. Against India, sure, there is that edge. You perform against them, it is something that stays with you an entire career like ‘Amir did this against India, or that’. If you look at Saeed [Anwar] bhai’s 194, everyone remembers it till today [because] it came against India. In India-Pakistan games, your star value increases, on both sides, and cricket benefits, cricket boards benefit. And your [ability to handle] pressure levels become very strong.
These are pressure games, not about skills, I’ve always believed that. If you play against each other regularly, under all that pressure, you become so good at handling it that in other games, with lesser pressure, it doesn’t bother you, because you’ve gone through such big pressure. So you should have these games.
How have your relations with team-mates been since your return?
To be honest, it’s been very good, and a very relaxed atmosphere. We are all pretty young in the side, and we’ve played with each other at age levels. In Under-19s, if you look, me, Imad [Wasim], Umar Amin, Babar [Azam] was a year junior to us in U-19, Shadab [Khan], [Mohammad] Nawaz, this is all one group.
Things are good with Saifi [Sarfraz Ahmed] bhai in any case. There’s also Shan Masood. With Shoaib [Malik] bhai, I’ve always held him in the highest regard. It’s been a very good atmosphere, and I’ve enjoyed it.
Shoaib Malik was appointed as your mentor by the PCB when you returned. How has he influenced you?
You know if there is one guy in the recent Pakistan teams that I want to look at and follow, it is Shoaib bhai. I look at him and his personality. He is well-groomed, well-spoken now. He knows how to speak to juniors, how to speak to seniors. He is the only guy who you could look at and want to go on that path.
What has the reception been like from the opposition when you have travelled?
To be honest, when we went to Australia, I was expecting… Australians are famous for sledging but they were very nice to me. And I was surprised. With Mitchell Starc there were verbals, but with the rest, like Warner, Smith and Josh Hazlewood, they were all very good with me. And I was surprised – nobody bothered me in that sense. They were very good, smiling faces. I wasn’t expecting it.
Since your return, you’ve had among the heaviest workloads of all fast bowlers [Only Kagiso Rabada has bowled more overs than Amir across formats since Amir’s comeback]. How tough has it been?
Very, because after five years, I’ve been playing all three formats regularly after my return. When a fast bowler comes back after a break of five years without playing cricket – that is something I feel I overdid, I feel that was my mistake. I should have spoken to the selectors, to the management and said that I should play this and this cricket for the moment, that maybe I play ODIs and T20s, and Tests later, after I have played some more first-class cricket. I started playing leagues as well, so the workload increased. I don’t think I had done the training required for it. There are many players in the world who play all formats but after a break, my training was such that I couldn’t maintain my fitness.
So when I had the injury in Dubai, I spoke to the management for a rest from the Sri Lanka ODIs. I wanted to take those 2-3 weeks to work on my fitness. I spoke to my trainer and had a plan. With T20s it doesn’t matter so much, because you bowl four overs and you can still train that day. But now I’m ensuring there is no break in training. In domestic T20, I haven’t given up my training because it benefits the longer version of the game. Now there’s the BPL – that is T20 – then New Zealand is ODIs and T20s, and I can keep up my training. You can still work in the gym for an hour or so when you play T20s.
Now I’ve made a regular schedule for training, which I didn’t have earlier. For two years I was just playing cricket and not resting. Now I have time and am able to work on my fitness.
There were some rumours recently that you wanted to set aside Test cricket and stick to limited overs.
I don’t know where it came from. It wasn’t that I wanted to give up Tests, but I wanted to manage them. I have spoken to the team management about it also. There should be a rotation policy and one is now in place. Management and selectors have done that, which is very good. New guys are coming in, they are getting chances and playing. This is about bench strength. Look at Mitchell Starc, for example: if he plays a full Test series, somewhere along the way he will get a rest from some ODIs. This is a rotation policy. I didn’t say I would retire, I had said I have to see how to manage it and will speak to the seniors about it, like Inzi bhai, Mickey, Saifi bhai, I would speak to them about how to manage Test cricket, T20s and ODIs.
So what is the plan? How will you manage it?
For example, if we have one main bowler, he cannot play five Tests. If he can play 3-4, then he should rest. At the end of the day, we are humans, not machines, and bodies need rest. If I play five Tests, five ODIs and three T20s also, that would be too much. If I do play five Tests, then maybe I take a break from a couple of ODIs. Through that rotation, your body gets time to recover.
So it isn’t just Tests, it could be ODIs as well?
Yeah it is just about managing it. If I play all Tests, then maybe I rest for two ODIs. If I play ODIs and Tests, then I rest for T20s. That rest in the middle is not bedrest. It is where you do your recovery: your training, your swimming, it is the time where you rebuild yourself.
Given that you were out for so long, have you come back and set yourself any personal goals now?
As a bowler, goals never change because it’s always about the number of wickets and the name you make for yourself. Earlier, maybe I used to think, I want to get 700 wickets but now obviously it isn’t possible given the fact that I have lost five years of my career doing nothing. It’s not like I can play for another 15 years, it’s not possible. The amount of cricket we are playing these days means we don’t get enough rest so that’s unlikely. Also, there is no guarantee that I will not get injured or that I will play five years continuously.
The 2019 World Cup is my main target. That is the dream of every player to feature in the 50-over World Cup. I missed it in 2011 and 2015, so this upcoming one will be my first and I want to do something in that tournament by which I will forever be remembered in the history of Pakistan cricket.
Since your return, who have you enjoyed bowling with the most?
[Mohammad] Abbas. At this time, Abbas is bowling the new ball really well with me. That was a problem we were having, in Tests especially, but seeing Abbas I’m very happy. He is very accurate, bowls really well within his limits. That means there is less pressure on me, because he contains it from his end and so at the other end, I can relax a little bit and go for wickets. Otherwise if runs are coming from the other end, you also have to try to stop runs from your end. You go to contain, not take wickets. I’ve really benefited from Abbas at one end.
In limited overs, Junaid Khan has been outstanding and I’ve been really happy to have him there.
How much do you miss Mohammad Asif at the other end?
[Laughs]. To be honest, I can’t say anything about Asif. I’m happy right now. Ability-wise I don’t think there is any doubt that he was the most dangerous bowler in Pakistan cricket.
As a pair when we bowled together, we were very dangerous for any side. He used to get wickets – fastest to 100 Test wickets for Pakistan [a record since surpassed by Saeed Ajmal and Yasir Shah]. So there is no doubt whatsoever about his ability. Whoever bowled with him enjoyed it. Abbas, I think, is a bowler like him, in that mould and I really enjoy having him at the other end.
Recently Karachi Kings appointed Imad Wasim their captain ahead of you, despite your seniority. Do you ever see yourself as a captain in the future?
I would hate for it to happen right now in my career. I’m very happy and comfortable as a player. To me, it is better to focus on one thing – I am a bowler, I want to bowl and I want to perform. Because it [captaincy] is such a responsibility, there is a time for it. Right now it’s not even my time to think about it.
I love his aggression, which I think a captain should have. He fights when he is playing and he can get his players to fight for him.
Can you talk a little bit about the emotions of first, winning that Lord’s Test and taking the last wicket and then this year, winning the Champions Trophy final in England again?
I realised in England, after the Champions Trophy final, that in the country where so many people had to bear so much sadness and worry because of me, in the face of that win, God got me to do that performance and I felt like I brought back some happiness to the same people in that country. That was a big thing for me, because I’ve always said it, this was a debt I owed. I had to do something by which the Pakistani nation would be happy with me. That was a day when all Pakistan fans were really happy – I think it was the happiest moment of my life.