February 8, 2015

Amir's ban a blessing in disguise

He may have saved himself from the physical toll that years of fast bowling takes on the body

The biggest challenge Mohammad Amir faces in regaining his old heights is shedding the stigma of being a fixer © AFP

And so the prodigal returns. Seven months before his five-year ban was due to expire, Mohammad Amir is back in whites, shown clemency by the ICC due to his cooperation with the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit, his admission of guilt, and his remorse. Not everyone is entirely over the moon about this, or indeed convinced his contrition is genuine.

A petition has been filed with the High Court in Sindh by Rana Faizul Hasan, a citizen, calling for the imposition of a life ban on the grounds that Amir "brought disgrace to the nation". Ramiz Raja, the former Pakistan opening batsman who unwittingly shared a dressing room with serial fixers exposed in the Qayyum Report, has written in these pages that Amir ought to be allowed his rehabilitation, just not in cricket. Each sees the youngest player in the history of Test cricket to take 50 wickets as a blight that ought to be purged from cricket's body, from its memory.

Wearing the humble colours of Lahore University of Engineering and Technology, Amir took 3 for 27 in his comeback game. He is now free to play domestic first-class cricket and, once the original five-year sentence passes, on September 2, to return to the international fold. With a T20 competition as his only opportunity for top-level domestic cricket before then, he has signed up for a Grade II stint with Omar Associates in Karachi, where he's likely to be watched by as many rubberneckers as well-wishers.

To anyone who has read Michael Atherton's excellent forensic long-form account of Amir's fall, this all might come as a surprise. Writing in November 2012, Atherton recounts: "Those who have spent time counselling him [in the Young Offenders Institute], say that his moods swing from confusion, to anger, to resignation, to relief that he has been able to recognise the dangerous path he was travelling down, back to depression. It is clear to those closest to him that if he is forced to sit out of cricket for the full term of his ban, he will find it impossible to play again." Seven-month reduction notwithstanding, Amir has endured a natural cycle of shame and contrition, and now feels ready to resume a career, a stellar trajectory, derailed in such shocking circumstances.

Yes, Amir, in his own words, "cheated cricket", but this was hardly the systematic deception for personal advantage of a Lance Armstrong. In that lies much scope for forgiveness

Clearly Amir's return is a highly emotive issue, yet Atherton presents compelling support for the argument that he was the panicked and gullible victim of coercion from his captain and his agent (as the famous Milgram Experiment has shown, the subconscious susceptibility to blindly obeying authority figures is not unusual), that there was never a financial motive, and that it was the first and only time he had, so to speak, overstepped the line.

However, sidestepping this moral maze, there is a simple sporting narrative here too. What exactly will the enforced hiatus have done for Amir the cricketer? Will he have suffered for the loss of five potentially crucial years honing his craft? Will his time in the wilderness have hampered his physical development at an age when English or Australian counterparts would be immersed in rigorous strength and conditioning programmes? And, more generally, has the Pakistan squad, under the serene leadership of Misbah-ul-Haq, forged itself an identity that could do without him, without the "complications"?

You could mount an argument that missing Pakistan's series in the UAE over the past four winters - none of Amir's 14 Tests were played there - has severely hindered his cricketing education, depriving him of hands-on lessons in how to bowl on flat, lifeless pitches. Equally, you could say that missing out has spared him a thankless slog on those self-same flat and lifeless pitches, with all their associated frustrations (in seven unbeaten "home" series since Amir's ban, over 18 Tests, Pakistani quicks have 115 wickets at 37.14, at a strike rate a fraction under 70).

It is certainly hard to make a case that Bilawal Bhatti, Mohammad Talha or Rahat Ali are superior bowlers - in his last six Tests, all in England, Amir took 30 wickets at under 20 apiece - while it is unlikely that, given a collective belief in the authenticity of Amir's remorse, the team wouldn't welcome him back with open arms. Cricket teams, on the whole, are pragmatic about having a full arsenal at their disposal.

Yes, Amir, in his own words, "cheated cricket", but this was hardly the systematic deception for personal advantage of a Lance Armstrong. In that lies much scope for forgiveness, although it may well be that the biggest challenge he faces in regaining the old heights is shedding the stigma of being a fixer. What will happen when he bowls a no-ball? You can imagine the way a soccer crowd would react (or, perhaps, an Indian cricket crowd).

The whole episode will, no doubt, have given him a sobering dose of humility, often the making of a man. As for his technical development, the muscle memory will still be there, awaiting its reawakening, and it's not as though he had been through cricketing university when he was knocking over Test batsmen of the calibre of Kumar Sangakkara, Ricky Ponting and Kevin Pietersen.

Counterintuitive as it sounds, the five-year absence from international cricket might actually prove a blessing in disguise, certainly from a physical point of view. Those 60 months would have provided a lot of cumulative stress on a body that had already suffered stress fractures in the lower back when Amir was a teenager. By the time he approaches his peak fast bowling years - aged 26 to 30 - he will have less miles on the clock, and thus, having been spared the treadmill during his late teenage years, when the maturing body is still frail, he ought to be fresher, freer than he otherwise might have been of the attendant niggles of the paceman's vocation, still in peak condition when others, perhaps, are bowling within themselves.

That's a place he has doubtless been for much of the last five years, and somewhere he'll be all too happy to leave behind.

Scott Oliver tweets here