'Mental peace' is Amir's priority says mentor
Asif Bajwa, the mentor of Pakistan fast bowler Mohammad Amir, can see no flaw in his education of the player who fell foul of spot-fixing, but he regrets not giving Amir all the exposure needed to evade corruption traps.
Amir has praised Bajwa, his schoolteacher and cricket coach from the age of 11, for standing by him after he was jailed on corruption charges, and Bajwa is now determined to oversee an educational rehabilitation programme in which his immediate target is to give Amir much-needed "mental peace".
His young protégé's involvement in spot-fixing saddens Bajwa, who gave Amir free schooling, cricket coaching and board in his own home from the age of 11 during a time when he was largely separated from his family.
"What I taught him was to stay away from bad company and avoid indulging himself using drugs but frankly speaking we never talked on fixing stuff," Bajwa told ESPNcricinfo. "Because I have created a very clean culture around all of the kids, we never had discussed fixing. Maybe it is because I myself didn't have enough exposure about the ugly part of the world and I feel regret sometimes that I missed that particular thing in his development."
Amir came from a humble background. He was the sixth of seven children growing up in Changa Bangyaal, a minor village surrounded by dusty cornfields, in the district of Gujar Khan near Rawalpindi. His love for cricket was intrinsic, and while his elder brothers began to work, he was more likely to be found playing cricket or scampering around the streets. Then the captain of his tape-ball team took him to a tournament in Rawalpindi and Bajwa, who happened to see him, offered him the chance to move to Rawalpindi.
Bajwa's school is a simple one, a private school for children of Pakistan's middle class, with limited facilities and low fees. Amir was not a particularly successful student but he was a good cricketer, a quality that was much in his favour. Contact with his family during his teenage years was rare.
"He was similar to many kids I have in my school but with good learning skills," Bajwa said. "At such an age nobody can predict how big a cricketer he can be, but he definitely was good at his age."
Amir, who will turn 20 in April, did his matriculation from Rawalpindi. He registered twice for the intermediate examination but sporting success intervened. "He has never indicated since he became a famous cricketer that studies are no more important," Bawja said. "Somewhere in his mind he has set a goal to at least do a graduation at some point."
As well as his school, Bajwa owns a hostel and a cricket club, a good platform for the development of a cricketer. There is no hard and fast rule to apply for Bajwa's facilities. You have to be lucky, as Amir was. The cricketing relation between Bajwa and Amir was to further thicken with the passage of time.
A man who is often overlooked in Amir's cricketing development was the Rawalpindi coach, Sabhi Azhar, who described him as a "horse for a big race". Amir was brought from his village in 2003. Four years later, he was selected for Pakistan U-19s. From the age of 11, Bajwa said he took responsibility for Amir's upbringing, paying for Amir's upkeep and development. Bajwa has four children but he remains committed to helping and supporting abandoned kids with the help of education and cricket.
"There was no particular reason to bring Amir in my premises," he said. "It was just my affection for the children. Amir is not the only kid playing cricket at the top level." Two other first-class cricketers, Yasim Murtaza and Rizwan Akbar, were also under Bajwa's umbrella.
Amir retains respect for Bajwa and gives him credit for playing a huge role in his life. "He has been both my teacher and my mentor," Amir said. "And with Allah's grace he will always remain so. I respect him and always will for playing a huge role in my life. I will never forget this and even now in this difficult period when lots of people desert you, he has continued to support me from the first day until now in exactly the same way as before."
Despite Amir's prison sentence and career-threatening, five-year ban from the ICC, his mentor believes he can return to international cricket. Bajwa is once again ready to take up Amir's development. The plans are in place.
"It's not Amir but also me who has learnt the lesson and now nothing will go wrong," Bajwa said. "Everything is well planned. Three things I am focusing on: to give his mind peace, revive his physical fitness and groom his personality."
Bajwa has installed nets for Amir on the roof of his house in Rawalpindi, an attempt to motivate him. "It is to create a cricketing culture around him. He for a while was discouraged when in England, maybe because nobody of his own was around him. He was helpless and mentally demolished. What is required is to bring his confidence back. So I am trying to motivate him and trying to cover up the gap between him and cricket."
Amir was jailed for six months after pleading guilty at Southwark Crown Court last year to conspiracy to accept corrupt payments and conspiracy to cheat at gambling after a plot was uncovered in a sting operation arranged by the now defunct UK Sunday tabloid, the News Of the World.
Amir pleaded guilty of bowling deliberate no-balls in a Test against England in 2010 but insisted that he was tricked into spot-fixing and he was not aware about Mazhar Majeed's behind-the-scene plotting. His story is one of entrapment.
Bajwa is adamant that it is time to look to the future. "A mistake obviously was made by him but he suffered more than enough," he said. "It's useless to curse the past. The positive aspect is he is still young and has a bright future to pursue. This setback to his career can help him become a more refined cricketer. He is still passionate about the game and in good spirits. Ultimately he has to play cricket. That is the only option left for him."
Edited by David Hopps
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent