'I want to be Pakistan's go-to guy'
Mohammad Aamer is young, energetic and beaming with confidence. He's quick, able to move the ball, and takes wickets. Important ones, mostly. Barely four months into his international cricket career, he has not only won praise from experts and admiration from opponents, he has helped his side to a World Twenty20 title.
Aamer has set his sights high, and considering he's only 17, has plenty of time in which to achieve his goals - not to mention the ability and talent.
His early success belies his rough journey up the ladder, marred by stress fractures, back problems, and a bout of dengue that left him incapacitated for two months. Prayers, conscientiousness, ample support and luck propelled Aamer into orbit after he was forgotten in the wake of being hailed as an exciting prospect. His love of cricket has made him stay away from home, play through pain, and rock up to his bowling mark having not walked for weeks.
As a six-year-old, Aamer had a talent for impersonating performers he saw on TV. His school clipboard felt the brunt of his precocious talent - it was repeatedly broken in two and used as a bat. Luckily for his parents' finances, he started playing tape-ball cricket with people much older than him, using proper equipment.
Spotted at a local tournament, he was fast-tracked into the coach Asif Bajwa's academy in 2003. The move to the academy in Rawalpindi and away from his home in Gujjur Khan, Punjab, was a significant step for the young left-armer.
"I was very young at that time and was told I have to stay at the academy, away from home, if I wanted to play cricket," Aamer says with a smile that indicates he was prepared for as much anyway. "Life had become really simple and the future seemed very exciting."
Taking wickets, it seemed, was Aamer's birthright. Nine came in three matches for his district Under-19 side, 20 in five for his regional academy, and 40 in nine for the regional Under-19s. A few months after being told he was too young to accompany Pakistan's Under-19 side to India, he was taking wickets in Australia: 12 in five.
With the wickets and achievements, however, came injuries. Too much bowling, it seemed, had taken its toll. Still 15, two stress fractures on the tour of England in 2007 effectively put his cricket on hold for the next nine months.
"Being away with the injury was a terrible time for me. I used to bowl all day and loved doing that, but in the end that proved to be the reason behind the injury," Aamer recalls.
"The nine months I was out of cricket were made easy by Mudassar Nazar [then director of the PCB's national academy]. He looked after my training, rehabilitation, diet, and gave me a shoulder while I worried about my future. He treated me like a father would treat his kid."
A fairytale comeback lay ahead of Aamer, though he was warned against bowling too much. He tried to make up for lost time, taking 10 wickets in three matches on the tour of Sri Lanka, but he suffered a jolt when he was struck by dengue at the Under-19 World Cup in Malaysia.
"I had no energy to get up, walk or turn over. I thought that might be the end of my cricketing career," he says. "I spent one month in a hospital and one month at home. The world had turned upside down for me."
But while he was drained of physical energy, his will was not so badly hit. He turned up for a domestic cup match at a day's notice - preceded by two months with no training and no exercise. Wickets proceeded to come by the load, for Rawalpindi, for Pakistan U-19, and Pakistan Academy.
The due call-up to first-class cricket arrived, as expected, but there was a price to pay. Playing with a back strain, Aamer was only able to bowl 46 deliveries before he retired hurt to face the wrath of his coaches.
"This was a tough situation for me. People were telling Bajwa to let me go since I was getting injured often. I was on the doorstep of first-class cricket. If I was to take a break then people would forget who Aamer was. I didn't work this hard to come this far and just let it go.
"I wanted to play cricket even if I had to wear 10 belts [for the bad back]. If the pain didn't go away, I told my coach I'd leave cricket and get back to studying, but I wanted to give it a shot."
That, for Aamer, was his day of reckoning. The permission he got to play on ultimately allowed him to be part of Pakistan's World Twenty20 and Champions Trophy squads.
It seemed like a dream, he says, the journey to the conditioning camp in Bhurban, following 56 wickets in his maiden first-class season, the training camps that followed, and sharing a dressing room with the greats of Pakistan cricket.
"I was very nervous meeting the team. They were people I had come to adore on TV," he says. "It felt great, becoming one of them, representing Pakistan with the whole world watching and people following us. It teaches one a lot about life, helps you mature and gives you great joy."
Pressure situations are what Aamer craves. His favourite batsman, Ricky Ponting, is his next target, and Aamer has his eyes set firmly on where he wants to be in five years. "I want to be the go-to guy for the team, someone the captain and the nation relies on to lead them to glory. Like Ponting, like Afridi, like Younis."
Away from the field, he wants to be well known, have a bundle of wickets to show for his efforts, and "have a bit in my wallet". None of that, going by the story so far, seems implausible.