LONDON: The signs were not good for Mohammad Amir coming into the final. Of course, he had set the tone when the tournament began for both India and Pakistan, with the group-stage duel at Edgbaston. His first two balls in the tournament were beauties, both going on with the angle and beating Rohit Sharma’s bat. The fourth ball, he showed a tiny glimpse of magic, inducing Rohit to drive, except it wasn’t driving length.
Amir bowled a maiden over, serving up a tiny warning for India of what was to come a few weeks down the line. Instead, by the time the game ended, that over lay forgotten, buried within the warm comfort of another India win. Amir had, after all, retired with cramps, putting his big-game fitness and temperament in doubt all over again.
He missed the semifinal against England, too, the one which he desperately should have been a part of, the one which brought Pakistan together as one. His replacement, Rumman Raees, bagged the wickets of Alex Hales and Liam Punkett. By the time Amir recovered from back spasms, Pakistan’s bowling coach Azhar Mahmood declared, “Amir is fit. We have told him if he has any doubt he should let us know.” It was only Mickey Arthur, the coach, who unequivocally declared a day before the game, “Amir is fit and will play.”
Why had Amir not shaken up the cricketing firmament since his return from the ignominious spot-fixing ban last year? Why were the magic spells so few and far between following the three-month jail term and subsequent five-year long ban? Why had he, like the other mere mortals playing the Champions Trophy, struggled to find swing?
Was he, perish the thought, over-rated?
Was he mentally up to par? Amir appeared to be repeatedly seeking atonement. Remember, he was booed upon return in Auckland. He seemed eager to placate those in the Pakistani cricket establishment who couldn’t come to terms with his return, including some in the dressing room. It was clear Amir was struggling to shake off the guilt. Did some part of him feel he was here merely because international cricket had been charitable to him?
Was Amir holding himself back? He averages 19.14 with the ball in ODIs which Pakistan win with him in the team. When they lose, he averages 35.39. In wins, his strike rate is 25.6, in losses 41.9. Clearly, his presence is vital. Instead, after the game against Sri Lanka in which he starred with both bat and ball, Amir sagely declared, “I believe you need luck in cricket.” After emerging from the ban, he had said, “Life used to be very tough. There were times when I thought I might not be able to play. It was very depressing for me. It is a miracle I am back.”
Amir would call it a miracle. What we saw on Sunday was a skilled practitioner of the black art of left-arm seam bowling, the scion to the likes of Wasim Akram, the kind who can conjure up memories of Pakistan’s glory days with a single spell. The kind that can dismiss Virat Kohli twice in two balls.
In the final, with India already under the cosh of a 339-run target, Amir settled the debate in the space of a few balls. Before the final, Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli had scored 81.38% of India’s runs. Here, with his third ball, he found inswing at scary pace, and Rohit was accounted for. Off his ninth ball, Azhar Ali at first slip dropped Kohli. Off the very next, Kohli, shaken, instinctively played bread-and-butter shot, the flick to the onside, except in his eagerness he played it a bit early, and managed only the leading edge to point. Dhawan tried the counter-attack, clobbering him for two fours, adroitly picking the slower one, before Amir took recourse to the cross-seam and bounce in the corridor, and got his man.
After seven years, in the same city of London where he fell from grace, Amir had made Pakistan world champions again. It was an act of contrition he would have dreamed of. It was the sort of giant-killing, miracle-working, grandiose individual heroism which was needed to redeem him in the eyes of a nation. It was Amir showing why cricket made the right choice in giving him a second chance.
Most of the Pakistan team turned up in the mixed zone where players interact after the game. Hasan Ali and Junaid Khan couldn’t stop gushing about Amir, who himself was nowhere to be seen. He had already made his statement.