What happened that day in 2010 will follow Mohammad Amir for the rest of his life, but he is young enough – and good enough – to ensure also ends up remembered for his cricket
In a backyard in London there was a trail through a flower garden. It started straight and then slowly arched around.
A year earlier that arc could be seen at Lord’s. Back then it was from the hottest bowler on the planet, a man who could bowl fast, bend the ball, and deliver it with such energy that it flew off the surface. He wasn’t the most talented bowler on the planet, or the fastest, but his package was the most exciting, the most amazing and the most captivating.
Then he stepped over a line, way over the line. From there he ended suspended and then jail.
That was how he ended up in that backyard, that of Ben Goldsmith, former brother in law of Imran Khan. Goldsmith had his own cricket net, and while he was a modest player himself, from time to time his wealth and connections came in handy, and Mohammad Amir, no longer the exciting bowler on the planet was his net bowler.
He wasn’t taking wickets for Pakistan, he was standing on flowers in obscurity.
Somerset cricket gifs don’t usually take over the internet. Somerset’s Twitter is a well-run account, as is their Facebook, but they are a small county, from a small market, and as well as they promote, market and even play, they are only ever going to get so much attention.
On July 3 that wasn’t the case. Their accounts suddenly had thousands of new followers. On Twitter that day if you followed even a single cricket fan, the chance was you saw why. It sadly wasn’t because the Overtons had ripped through for a combined ten wickets, Marcus Trescothick didn’t make a triple century, and Peter Trego hadn’t even got a new tattoo.
It was all about three balls. One took the edge, the other two shattered stumps, and suddenly Somerset Cricket, playing with allegedly a second XI, was trending on Twitter.
After those three wickets, the BBC lead with a headline of, “Spot-fixer Amir takes three wickets on return”.
Ravi Bopara called them muppets. Others heckled them as well. A few more pointed out that it was factually accurate. Others countered with yes, but what about Justin Gatlin, he wasn’t called a drugs cheat. Some retorted with the BBC’s coverage of Gatlin mentioned his drug taking so much he singled them out.
Mohammad Amir had taken three first-class wickets, they had been viewed hundreds of thousands of times and started almost as many arguments.
Welcome back to England, Mohammad.
At Lord’s sits a young contrite, rehabilitated, Pakistani fast bowler wondering if they will ever stop mentioning the worst day of his life
He shouldn’t play. He should play.
Bumble says no. Ramiz says no. Goughie says yes. Imran says yes.
Sports make us deal with certainties. So while a few people are willing to have no opinion, or a split opinion, most are almost certain he should or shouldn’t be back in cricket. Either he broke the sacred trust of cricket, and deserves no leniency or chance of rehabilitation, or he stuffed up massively, lost a quarter of his professional playing career, went to jail, and deserves another go like anyone guilty of a crime who has been let back into a society.
He certainly didn’t ruin cricket’s innocence, Salim Malik, Mohammad Azharuddin and Hansie Cronje got there first. And how many people actually walked away from cricket because of Amir, or Sreesanth, or Samuels, or Waugh and Warne, or Westfield, or Odumbe, or, or, or.
You could argue it turned away new fans, who were intrigued by the gentleman’s game, and didn’t like the idea of the jailbird’s game. But modern sport is so rife with corruption from junior level to the Olympics, that it’s hard to find a clean sport to turn towards.
None of that makes what Amir did okay, neither does his age, the fact he was lead into it by an authority figure, his background, or even the fact he pled guilty to it in a court of law. There are some who think that players should automatically get lifetime bans if they fix in cricket, that they have lost their right to play, that the game isn’t like life, it is somehow above it, something cleaner and purer, and that by sullying it you have lost a chance to represent your nation. And he stole from fans, fans at the ground, fans following on TV, radio or online, who believed they were following a fair contest. To a nation like Pakistan, who get so much of their national pride through their cricket, it was a form of light treason. And to a cricket purist, he broke cricket’s heart, it’s trust, and did so not to win, but to make money, he didn’t cheat in cricket, he cheated cricket, it was a crime against cricket.
He did break a trust, a cricket law, and a real world law. But he didn’t break cricket.
Legendary tweeter Fred Boycott said, “Somewhere sits a young honest, non cheating, Pakistani fast bowler wondering why he’s not playing.”
He doesn’t mean Zulqarnain Haider, because he was a keeper, but since suggesting that cricket in Pakistan was corrupt, Haider has not played again. His crime was being honest, slightly unstable, and not as good at cricket as Amir.
Others suggest that he received a five-year penalty, that is not a small thing, a quarter of his professional career, and has simply done his time. His boss, in cricket and corruption, Salman Butt, got a tougher sentence, because he wasn’t just corrupt, he was corrupting others from a position of power. Banning Amir for five years is not a soft deterrent, Amir has lost far more than he ever could have earned illegally, he has a record and will be watched for the rest of his cricket life by suspicious fans and governing bodies.
No one is looking at that and thinking, well it’s worth making a quick few grand on the side and risking five years of solid earning. He has done his time, he has helped the ICC, he has become a poster child for what not to do, and should he really be allowed to use the one skill he has that can make him a decent living.
At Lord’s sits a young contrite, rehabilitated, Pakistani fast bowler wondering if they will ever stop mentioning the worst day of his life.
The public is split, the cricket community is split, the commentary is split, and you can be sure that the team is split.
Whether he should play, or shouldn’t play, he is playing.
“A visit to UK by Pakistan’s cricket teams is always an exciting prospect and I am sure we can expect some exceptional cricket this summer.” Is how David Cameron, the British Prime Minister at the time of Pakistan’s arrival, welcomed Pakistan’s two touring teams to England.
“Seen any ball tampering out there?” is what an English cricket fan says as Mohammad Amir and his team-mates are giggling during their bowling drills the day before the Test.
English-Pakistani cricket history is not simple. Pakistani cricket on it its own is not simple. Out doing their bowling drills was a man who had gone to jail for cricket fraud, another who had worn a jacket full of ill-gotten gains – accidentally according to him – and another who had just come back from a drug suspension. But this English fan was still talking about something else, a skill now practiced successfully around the world by bowlers, in order to get the ball to reverse swing, but, to this fan it was still the crime that came to mind.
Pakistan fans are a passionate fan group, and they think that England has always had it in for them, even Imran Khan and Javed Miandad have suggested that they were tolerated until they got good enough to beat England regularly. Aggrieved Pakistan fans mention how when they used reverse swing they were cheats, and when England did it in 2005 they were heroes. They mention how Shakoor Rana was seen as a cheating umpire, but there were umpires in England that the Pakistanis also believed were biased, and nothing was done about them either. A pig’s head was thrown at Pakistan fans at an ODI. Not to mention Ian Botham saying he wouldn’t send his mother in law to Pakistan.
Both teams seem to fit into an inaccurate stereotype according to their harshest critics. England has played the part of the grumpy old man, Pakistan the upset young firebrand, so many times it’s more a pantomime, rather than a HBO drama. England are stuck up, hypocritical and elitist they say, Pakistan are loud, hysterical, and untrustworthy they say. The English have a piousness in their play, they believe the spirit of cricket is how the English play, and any divergence from their imaginary cricket bible is a slight they say. Pakistan don’t play according to the spirit of cricket, they play as if possessed by lunatic passionate ghosts they say.
And that is just cricket, that doesn’t include the colonial history or modern day confusion of English born Pakistan fans.
But there is also much love from England towards Pakistan. There have been two books from Peter Oborne, one written and one co-written, Wounded Tiger and White on Green, about Pakistan just in the last couple of years, and both will sell. Giles Clarke lead, briefly, a campaign to get cricket played in Pakistan again. The 1992 Pakistan World Cup shirt was made famous in sitcoms here. Imran is more like a foreign dignitary because of his cricket than his political career. And Wasim and Waqar are seen as Pakistan, Lancashire and Surrey destroyers.
But Pakistan did walk off a field during a Test match. It was against Pakistan than Mike Gatting lost it with a home umpire. It was Danish Kaneria who was involved with getting Melvyn Westfield into fixing. Shahid Afridi scuffed a pitch. And it was two Pakistan feet, one left and one right, that crossed the line at Lord’s.
It’s a relationship, but as social media might put it, it’s complicated.
“I shall bring you a glass of bubbly” says one man, wearing red trousers, check shirt, a sports blazer, straw hat, carrying a real-life newspaper, and with a packed hamper at his feet. He says it to another man wearing a check shirt, a yellow sweater over his shoulders, beige trousers, straw hat, carrying a real-life newspaper and with a hamper over his shoulders.
The whole train carriage looked like this, old grey-haired men, check or pastel-coloured shirts, mostly beige trousers, with a few red, all reading newspapers, and as many hats or hampers as the eye could see.
“Hello old boy, where shall I meet you” says another as he gets into mobile phone coverage, he gets the answer he wants and then purposefully strides off, straw hat on his head, and bottle of champagne wrapped in foil in his hand.
Then there is the father and son in matching boaters, matching trousers, matching light blue shirts, matching sports jackets, and carrying matching hampers. You can almost imagine them not being let out of the house until someone took a photo of them together with the good camera.
This is the normal Lord’s crowd. They are people of means, often from the higher classes and not the sort who go to sporting events to see former criminals play.
Lightning did not come from the clouds to strike him, the sacred turf did not open up and swallow him, it was just a ball, bowled by a guy, at Lord’s
The first time Amir appeared on the balcony TV cameras found him, but the odd shot of him sitting and watching cricket was as exciting as it got.
Day two he was coming out to bat, there was almost a stutter from the ground announcer, as he paused just before saying Amir’s name. Everyone reads the crowd differently, some hear more boos, some claim to hardly hear any boos, and then others claim no boos. There is a feeling from others that the Lord’s crowd acted differently, and from others that it was exactly the same. So, really, it is like all cricket, no one agrees.
Amir is hit by a bouncer, but the crowd don’t seem to take joy in it, he slashed a four, and there was appropriate applause, and then a straight drive that gets even more applause.
Amir’s batting is almost completely forgotten, but in an ODI against New Zealand in 2009, he came to the crease at 86 for 8 chasing 211, he made 73 not out and smashed Daniel Vettori around for three sixes in an over. That was another lifetime ago. This time it is just 12 off 10 balls, and then he edges to slip. When he was out there was no louder applause for the wicket than any other.
The pavilion is behind him and he has the ball in his hand. It is the same pavilion that Giles Clarke tried to covertly give him his Man-of-the-series award, the same pavilion he was in the day the story broke and the same end he bowled from when his life changed.
This time it was the field that was changing, as it wasn’t what he wanted for Alastair Cook. Even in a gentle bowling session the day before the game, Amir was thinking about how he could get Cook out. At one stage he took to the batting crease to imitate him. Now he was bowling to him.
Lord’s was murmuring, because Lord’s murmurs. It wasn’t quite the young kid with the flowing hair of six years earlier, the hair was shorter, and redder, the action also didn’t have the bounce of a young man, it was more anchored by a few more years, and a few more of life’s disappointments. The photographers all re-aimed their cameras, away from the batsmen they usually focus on, and on the bowler, the crease, the foot. The press pack, usually safely in the box, are outside, watching, and listening.
The foot is behind the line, the ball swings, and Cook mishits it into cover and takes a single. Mohammad Amir is back doing what he was born to do. Lightning did not come from the clouds to strike him, the sacred turf did not open up and swallow him, it was just a ball, bowled by a guy, at Lord’s.
The only real difference is a handful of morons who shout out no-ball, it was barely louder than the champagne cork hitting the roof of the Mound Stand, and they only shouted it once, probably after a good shushing from those around them. Mostly there was applause, Lord’s is not really a crowd for angry remonstrating anyway.
At fine leg there were no enraged fans leaning over the fence screaming at him. Mostly it was a sea of blue, white and salmon shirts and boater-hatted men, watching the cricket.
Amir’s fourth over is then where it all comes together. The ball is coming out of his hand better, you can see him trying to work Cook over just outside off stump, and you can see how he will get him out. Then the edge comes, Cook had to play it, but it was just too good, the catch is regulation, and it is heading straight for Mohammad Hafeez.
The same Hafeez who said, “It is about the image of Pakistan cricket. I cannot play with any player who has tarnished and brought a bad name to the country” when he turned down cold hard cash not to play with Amir in the Bangladesh Premier League.
This time it doesn’t look like a protest, or a moral stand, Hafeez hardly has time to think, and it shows as his hands never seem to find each other and the ball hits the ground. Amir is furious, in that moment he’s as furious as anyone was at him six years ago: Alastair Cook, dropped. Misbah smiles and gives the fatherly tap on the shoulder. Next ball, on the pads, four.
The last ball Amir bowls before lunch is a short one, there are two men out, Cook thinks about it, but isn’t tempted. Some men just can’t be tempted.
If getting one edge from Alastair Cook is hard, two is near on impossible. Yet Amir found it, and this time it went towards the far safer hands of Sarfraz Ahmed. A few seconds later, had Amir looked up at the replay he might have even had a chuckle at the attempt that Sarfraz turned from a regulation chance into a ball that hit him on the face. Instead he stormed back to his mark: two edges, no wickets, and the only chuckling was from Misbah, who had his hand now almost permanently on Amir’s back.
The first no-ball in Pakistan’s innings was not a big moment. The crowd did not react, or even seem to notice at all. It was not Amir, his foot, like it was in the nets all week, like it was against Somerset, was a mile behind the line, barely touching it. In six years he’s moved only two feet.
The no-ball was by Wahab Riaz.
Of Amir and Wahab, it is Wahab who seems like the obvious villain. He is perpetually brooding, has angry eyebrows, got in a scuffle off field with Jonathan Trott and also loves to bounce batsmen.
By the fourth spell, Amir was still without a no-ball, and now he was at the Nursery End, still bowling to Cook. It came down with the slope, Cook chased it, the ball found the inside edge for him, and it cannoned back onto the stumps. Cook turned around in disgust, at losing his wicket, at giving up his hundred, at all of it. He didn’t see those airplane arms, the arms that Amir last used here six years ago six times.
August 26, 2010, that fateful day, Amir took the wicket of Cook. Since that day Amir has not taken another Test match wicket. Cook has scored 5893 runs.
WG Grace has gates at Lord’s, and openly cheated in a cricket match, not to mention rumours he cheated in other matches. Len Hutton once said women trying to play cricket was like men trying to knit, not to mention Chris Gayle’s many transgressions with female journalists. Sunil Gavaskar suggested West Indian fans were inhuman and should go back to the trees they came from in his book. Darren Lehmann referred to Sri Lankan cricketers as black c****. Graham Gooch became England captain after his rebel tour to apartheid South Africa, Mike Gatting became MCC president after his and Garfield Sobers said he would have happily played in South Africa (he played in Zimbabwe) if not for the fuss others would have made over it. The Qayyum report was a horror show for Pakistan cricket, despite the judge involved going easy on players like Wasim Akram because he was a fan of him. And these are just a few of the people who today have prominent positions within cricket, and a couple of legends of the game.
Over time their bad deeds have lessened, while the memories of them on the field have not.
Amir has not had that time yet, the memory of him right now that is the strongest is still the foot over the line. While it might never disappear, it will fade. He has ten years to dull those images and replace them with more impossible to play deliveries that seem destined for the stumps no matter what the batsman does. If he plays for ten years and is never seen to do anything bad again, if with the ball in his hand he becomes the best in the world, if cricket memories do what they always do, then his story might end up as one of redemption.
This is his second innings, and being that he trampled on cricket’s most precious flower once, he won’t get a third innings.
2015 Kashmir Despatch