Amir's inspiration not enough for Pakistan
An ambulance screeched past the Grace Gates at Lord's as Mohammad Amir started the first over of the day from the Pavilion End. The impact of those loud sirens lingered long in the ears of the thousands clustered inside the ground as Amir shot out the England middle order with the ruthlessness of a sniper. His attack was cold-blooded, quiet and quick. All of England shivered on an overcast Friday morning.
Having been unlucky during the brief spell of play possible on the first day, when a hapless Umar Akmal dropped an easy offering from Alastair Cook, Amir returned today undaunted and not haunted. Also, he was that bit smarter after Waqar Younis, Pakistan's coach, had suggested he bowl a little closer to the stumps having noticed him going wider on Thursday afternoon.
A quick learner Amir did not break any sweat in adopting the suggestion. In his first three overs of the day he fired in one unplayable delivery after the other, casting a spell over a startled England line up. Cook, who seemed to have crushed his demons at Edgbaston with a resolute century, was forced to play the perfect outswinger which he duly edged to Kamran Akmal behind the stumps.
The fact that Kevin Pietersen was hunting in the dark for fluency was not lost on Amir as he slanted a fuller and wider delivery that was thoughtlessly chased leaving Pietersen to pay the price. Paul Collingwood was next, going back deep in the crease only to be beaten by an in-ducker that swung in sharply to trap him in front. Amir then proved that Eoin Morgan still has plenty to learn at Test level as he drew Morgan into an outside edge third ball. Amir's mind never stopped ticking and England looked in danger of folding for a total under 100 for the first time this summer.
Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior persevered to avoid that ignominy but Amir achieved a personal landmark when he induced the England wicketkeeper to edge a delivery that straightened late after pitching. It was Amir's 50th Test wicket. He may not be the quickest to the landmark, but his statistics reveal a young talent that is unique. In his 14th Test, Amir's strike-rate is 55.6 with 51 wickets. It compares well with some of the best fast bowlers of this generation: Wasim Akram (63.7/45), Waqar Younis (38.7/71), Dale Steyn (42/61) and his team-mate Mohammad Asif (44.2/70). Just 18 years old, Amir is already walking the same path the good and great started out on.
Numbers, though, aren't a true reflection of Amir, who is on the shortlist for ICC's Emerging Player of the Year. It is his fighting attitude, his perseverance, his knack of reading batsman's grey areas, and his ability to ignore the woeful fielding mistakes that stand out like logos of prestigious brands. It means the captain can depend on him regardless of the conditions. The captain can throw him the ball when the situation is getting out of hand. The captain can walk up to him to seek advice. Champions prove pressure builds them and Amir is already a matchwinner.
Earlier in the summer, against Australia at Headingley, on the first morning in severely overcast conditions, he put Pakistan in the winning position straight away by rattling the Australians into submission. Then, in the third Test of this series at The Oval, in far brighter light on the third afternoon, on a true pitch, he worked hard on the ball to get the reverse swing to trigger England's sudden collapse and put Pakistan in a winning position.
A critical element of Amir's success is he enjoys his bowling immensely, just as he is enthusiastic about targeting the opposition's best batsmen. Even if he is only a teenager in Test cricket he already has an enviable list of victims: Ricky Ponting and Andrew Strauss (four times in four matches); Collingwood and Cook (three times in four matches); Michael Hussey (three times in four matches).
Sadly for him, and Pakistan, the day did not end in the rousing fashion it had begun. Butt missed a trick when Amir and Asif had England under the cosh before lunch. Instead of having fielders at vital close-in positions such as a third or fourth slip, an extra gully and a short leg, Butt showed his inexperience by wasting men at thirdman, deep point and deep square-leg. The wilting English hearts suddenly started swelling with hope and by the end of the day it was England who held the edge in the final Test. "If we were 110 all out this Test series would end two-all," said Stuart Broad, who got his name on the honours board at Lord's with a maiden Test century.
Amir, the youngest bowler to get a five-for at Lord's (he became the youngest to achieve the feat in England at The Oval last week), was proud but pointed out it was disappointing to end the day behind England. "It was special day considering I got the best figures in my career but I'm a little sad because they are [now] in good position. Now we are on the backfoot."
Yet Amir and Asif, his comrade-in-arms, who was unlucky not to take a wicket today despite delivering his usual stack of marvels, will return unfazed in the second innings to create panic in the minds of the batsmen. Renowned for their unpredictability, Pakistan can be certain of that.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo