'Everyone gets a second chance and I want it too'
"If [Marlon] Samuels can make it then there is no reason why I can't make it," said Mohammad Amir, 20, and three years away from completing his ban for his involvement in the spot-fixing scandal in 2010.
Every day since the ban was imposed has been a "regrettable" one for him. Since returning to Pakistan after serving half of his six-month sentence at the Portland Young Offenders Institution in Dorset, Amir has limited his social life and prefers the company of only close friends and family.
It took me nearly a month to get him to agree to this interview because he isn't keen to go over the details of what happened that day at Lord's two years ago. No longer obsessed with a troubled past, Amir seems wiser, more mature, and is keenly looking forward to the day he returns to international cricket.
"I want to come back with my head held high, with a new spirit and as a role model," he said. "I accepted everything and pleaded guilty only to give myself peace.
"I know there were things that shouldn't have happened, but I can't change my past. It is obviously tough staying away from cricket; I am coping with hell at the moment and nobody can understand how difficult it is to live away from cricket. I made a mistake and paid the price for it, but everyone gets a second chance and I want it too."
It's ironic that Amir's cricket career started out with friendly bets, when he challenged renowned tennis-ball batsmen from Lahore and Rawalpindi to hit him for a six in one over and win a meal at any big restaurant in Islamabad. He bowled six dot balls.
"[The batsman's] shoelaces came undone when I bowled him a yorker," Amir said. "Several people, including Sohail Tanvir were there to see it. It was that contest that took me towards Rawalpindi. It took nearly four to five years to be selected in the national team."
Amir said the biggest lesson the scandal has taught him is to be cautious when making friends. "I am cautious about trusting people. Just because a person appears to be nice doesn't mean he is a good friend. He is obviously not if he pulls you down when he sinks himself."
Amir has joined a gym and intends to start bowling at a ground near his home. "I know my physical condition isn't rusty at all," he said when we talk in his posh bungalow at the Defence Housing Authority in Lahore. "I still run with a proper rhythm and bowl within line and length. The basics of bowling will remain the same, so I am not worried at all. I am committed to my return."
While he spends time out of cricket, he watches the game. He even spent time in a TV studio as an analyst during the World Twenty20. "It was a good experience, to be live on TV and talking and analysing cricket," he said. "Learning the game by playing is a real experience, but analysing the game while watching on TV enhances your ability to read and interpret the game. Things that I might not be able to contemplate while on the field, I was able to understand while I watched it."
His cricket education may be progressing but Amir is mindful of what Justice Cooke, who presided over the spot-fixing trial, said about him being "unsophisticated, uneducated and impressionable". "I agree that education is very important," Amir said. "I passed my matriculation and intended to go further, but then I began to concentrate only on my cricket. A lot of people still ask me to continue my studies. It's not easy at the moment but the idea is in my head."
He prays for patience and persistence and closes his mind to doubt. "My dream, for which I had left my village years back, is still not complete. It paused, so I will start over. One never knows what is in store for the future. We can only plan, and I am taking my comeback to be similar to when I was 13 and used to think about playing for Pakistan. The difference this time is that I have had the international experience. There are people who are making their debuts at 30-plus these days, so I still have plenty of time.
"I think to earn a great reputation, one should stick to his goal and shouldn't be distracted. Everyone is with you during your good times, but we need a good friend more desperately in bad times, when nobody is at your side. There are situations in everyone's life when one has to decide quickly about what to do. Choose the right way and forget about what will happen next because eventually it won't be as bad as if you chose the wrong way."
With his newly developed analyst's eye, Amir said Pakistan are desperately missing a new-ball bowler. He also has a point to make about the way the local media report on the game. "They don't report facts. If any team is better than Pakistan, they should tell the public the difference and be blunt in saying that our team isn't good enough or that our chances are bleak. But before every tournament, it is assumed that Pakistan will win it.
"People here are emotional about the game. They neglect the basic facts and overestimate every newcomer, imagining him to be the new Wasim [Akram] or Waqar [Younis]. When I was playing, the media started comparing me to Wasim Akram, which is a wrong perception. I would like to be known as Mohammad Amir. He [Akram] was a legendary bowler but I am another name and another bowler. I want to build my name."
Unlike with Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif, Amir's return is eagerly anticipated. "The number of people who want me to play again is much greater than the people who don't want me to play," he said. "While I was in prison, I received letters and encouragement from well-wishers in Pakistan and England. It's my family's support and the love of the fans that have motivated me to play again; otherwise there was a time when I had nearly decided not to come back to cricket."
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent