"Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future." - Oscar Wilde
t was just another month in cricket. South Africa and England had put on 600+ innings totals at the Cape town Test, before the precociously-talented Kagiso Rabada finally stood up for the bowlers with three five-wicket hauls in the next four innings. On the other side of the globe, Indian and Australian bowlers showed no such resolve as they were getting pummeled mercilessly in a seemingly never-ending five-act play – 'The series of the 300s'. Just another month in cricket.
A testing trial
Between the fourth and fifth ODI in the Indo-Aus series, on the other side of the Tasman sea, however, a different struggle was underway. After the madness of the T20s, the first ODI between New Zealand and Pakistan witnessed an even contest between bat and ball. More importantly, a Pakistan side desperate for a return to its glory days, had handed tainted speedster Mohammad Amir his first international ODI cap after the five-year ban. His comeback had been unremarkable till now - he had conceded 100 runs for 1 wicket across the three T20s that the visitors had lost 1-2.
As he ran in to bowl his first over at the Basin Reserve, a section of the crowd began taunting him. Worse, his first ball, rather horribly, was a wide that brought back memories of that ignominious no-ball. Worse ensued when he returned to boundary duty after the over, and a certain spectator started waving currency notes as the bowler watched on despondently. Thankfully, former T20 captain Mohammad Hafeez stepped in to save the youngster from further humiliation as the fan was chastised and given a sound warning by the ground staff. Amir, uncowed, went on to finish the match with impressive figures of 3/28 off 8.1 overs before a freak injury cut short his 9th over.
Trail strewn with thorns
Hafeez, though, has not always been on Amir's side. In fact, he had refused to attend the preparatory camp for the tour in December alongside Amir. “Hafeez had talked about his reservations when Amir was included in the camp and after meeting with Waqar. Hafeez told him categorically that he will not attend any part of the camp in which Amir is present,” a source close to Hafeez told AFP.
It was not just Hafeez.
The captain of the ODI side Azhar Ali had as well vociferously refused to toe the party line.“Hafeez and I can’t accept Amir’s presence in the camp,” Ali had said. “We are firm on our stance but are ready to talk to officials.”
Pride at stake
Of course the cricketers were indignant. Hafeez had always said that “it is about the image of Pakistan cricket”. Which was why he rushed to Amir's defence.
Azhar, as well, was one of the first to close ranks behind Amir when the incident happened.
Aaqib Javed, Pakistan's bowling coach when the news of the scandal involving Asif, Amir and Salman Butt broke out in 2010, was mournfully philosophical about the incident when interviewed last September.
“It was the worst day of my life. I was the bowling coach then, and have just horrible horrible memories. That was the worst time of my life. All of us were so embarrassed. We couldn’t go out even to restaurants for a few weeks. In fact, we couldn’t even leave our hotel. It hit our dignity and we couldn’t show our faces anywhere. I don’t want to see something like that happening to Pakistan cricket or to any nation again,” Javed recalled that fateful event in an Indian Express exclusive.
This was not the first time Javed has had to endure the pain of betrayal. It was he, who in 1999 had deposed against Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, in a match-fixing scandal. Aaqib would suffer a sudden end to his international career and a decade-long phase of ostracization after the episode.
That episode should, however, throw some obvious light into the reasons behind Amir's inclusion despite the public outcry – a need for Pakistan cricket to get back to its good times.
Grasping at glory
While Pakistan cricket did have its share of batting greats in Zaheer Abbas, Miandad, Inzamam and Anwar, it was always that rapidly diminishing breed of fast bowlers that ruled the roost. Imran Khan, while an all-rounder is better remembered for his fiery spells, not to forget his magnetic aura and leadership. The Sultans of Swing were the greatest ODI bowling combination ever to have graced the cricketing greens. The effect of seeing them across the pitch was so frightening that it struck frantic terror in the hearts of the God, let alone mere mortals.
"It was baptism by fire. So much so that after my very first innings in Test cricket, during which I was all at sea against Wasim and Waqar, I began to doubt my ability to bat and question whether I was ever going to be good enough to play at international level,” said Sachin in his autobiography.
Nobody batted an eyelid when the internal commission dismissed the betting allegations against these two. They were just too big to fail, guilty or not we shall never know.
While the undercurrent of “Conform fixed! They have sold our country” (http://www.pakistanherald.com/news/9111/13-january-2016/dark-knights(col)-from-akram-to-amir) did flare up every time they lost, the nation had decided to move on. As always, the love for cricket converted even the hardest of skeptics in time.
When Shoaib Akhtar hung his boots, the last of them had ridden into the sunset. As Pakistan harked back to those days, Mohammad Amir held out a final hope of putting Pakistan back on that pedestal. He was one in a generation. Unrefined yet, but he possessed raw pace and a real intellect. He was Akram reborn. And he was just 18.
He was so good that when Imran Khan saw him, he remarked “I saw both Akram and Amir bowl at the same age and I feel Amir is ahead of Akram.”
“Amir is much cleverer than I was at 18,” Akram admitted.
He did all that they hoped he would. But then, he went and did what that they had hoped he or anyone would not do again.
However, his return has rekindled those, a return grudgingly anticipated all through by a nation that holds wistful memories of the heydays.
The road to redemption ain't ever rosy
Shahid Afridi was the first from the dressing room to lend a hand to the comeback kid.
"Happy to have Amir back in team," Afridi tweeted on January 1st. "He told me truth first time I asked him in England. He admitted his mistake we should back him now. Amir spoke the truth both to courts and the Pakistani public. Unlike the rest who kept lying for two-three years."
The first step in his redemption had been taken by Amir five years back, when he confessed to his crimes almost immediately, but not many were impressed.
Aaqib Javed is a hard-nosed realist, an aberration in that land of romantics. He does not set much stock in tales of redemption.
“Amir was old enough to understand the right from the wrong. At least in the episode we are talking about. There is no question of him being treated differently because he is three years younger compared to the other guy. It’s about setting examples and age has nothing to do with it,” he told Express.
As Pakistan seemed caught in a terrible struggle over accepting Amir's return to the fold, the rest of the world seems to have moved on and is absolutely fine with giving him a second chance.
Away from the emotionally-charged atmosphere in Pakistan, the cricketing world has been fairly supportive of Amir. "He's done his time and been cleared to play," Mascarenhas said. "So we'll just get on with it and play against him," New Zealand's Mascarenhas said.
Bredon McCullum as well came out in support of Amir ahead of the tour.
“He was a very, very young man, a boy really (when he was suspended),” NZ cricket chief White said supporting his return.
He is still a very young man, all of 23 – an age when most dream of an international debut. An age when most of us still had received that first pay check. An entire life (to reader – should I use dream here) had been lived and lost in that span for Amir.
And that is what we find undeniably endearing about Amir. The innocence of youth, abused. The promise of youth, unfulfilled. The hope of a second chance, held out.
Second chances. We all want second chances. That long lost friend we wish we had not given up on. The one love we wish we could get back to.
Second chances. The first one was fine. You were lucky and perhaps deserved it. But then you fall. You grope in the dark searching for a foothold. You grasp at straws for eternity before a helpful hand pulls you up. Not everyone of us, however, gets it. And that is why we want to root for Amir.
He may yet fail. Heavy is the weight of the collective hopes of a nation. Heavier are the expectations from second chances. However, he has shown the grit and gusto to come so far. We hope the end is not too near.