Amir stirs memories on long-awaited return
"What are you expecting?" Mohammad Amir wondered aloud, before playing his first official cricket match in four-and-a-half years. "Am I going to rip through the entire line-up all alone? I am not Superman." Such a feat was indeed beyond him but he did manage three wickets, including two in two balls, during 16 overs that blended swing and bounce, to mark his competitive return after an ICC ban for spot-fixing.
His comeback had been delayed by four days - a match against Pakistan Army was washed out - but the Rawalpindi Stadium was bathed in sunlight on Friday, the outfield lush and green. Millions of fans have awaited his return but few people were there to see him bowl four spells, taking 3 for 73, for Omar Associates in Pakistan's Grade-2 cricket; the stadium, with a capacity of 15,000, was completely empty.
There were plenty of journalists to record the moment, however. When Amir, with sunblock on, walked out from the dressing room wearing whites and a sky blue cap, he was quickly surrounded. He looked calm, with a smile on his face, as he pushed his way through to the ground. "I feel like I am starting from scratch," he said. His last official appearance was an infamous one, almost five years ago at Lord's.
Amir has not changed a lot since then, at least physically; he is still thin and lanky in physique but with a more groomed appearance. His long, flowing hair has been cut back to go with a disciplined, sober-looking style and a trimmed moustache and beard.
He was treated like a star throughout the day but Amir, now 22, still has a long way to go to regain his lost reputation. Formerly one of world cricket's great prospects, he has been forced to play at the lowest level of the domestic game in Pakistan against the limited opposition of Capital Development Authority (CDA). He had modest success but clearly the fitness required to play at international level has faded.
The three-day match is part of the Patron's Trophy tournament, one level down from first-class cricket. Amir did have the company of a fellow international, though, as Omar Associates were led by Saad Nasim, capped three times by Pakistan in T20 cricket.
Amir bowled four spells of six, three, four and three overs respectively. The opening spell with the new ball was the most dangerous. He bowled on a good length, mixing it up with swift bouncers, and his pace touched 140kph. He missed a hat-trick chance in his fourth over, when he dismissed two in two with a teasing length - the first edging to gully after being forced on to the back foot, followed by a inswinger that was nicked to second slip. He steamed in for his third successive scalp but ended up losing his line.
His second spell was ragged, as he conceded 31 runs, including a no-ball that not only beat the batsman outside off but also passed the keeper for a boundary. "It happens, you concede runs when you are trying to get wickets," Amir said. "It was a time when we needed a wicket and had to push and prevent both batsmen getting settled. So I went on but it didn't go well."
A back-foot punch by CDA middle-order batsman Sarmad Bhatti through extra cover was the one shot which made Amir annoyed and he removed himself to take a break. His two no-balls sparked more debate, refreshing memories of that fateful day in 2010 when he delivered them to order against England.
"Nothing in cricket has changed so far as I still can bowl an inswinger with control," Amir said afterwards. "It was a good experience but it feel like starting from zero as I have lost everything. It was hard but the first ball I bowled here was with a belief that I can do it. In sport you can only be great or become a legend when you cope with the pressure and adapt in every circumstance. I today tried to give 100 percent but I need time to regain my rhythm and it will come the more cricket I play in the coming days.
"But what is important is that I was controlling my game and myself. I know a bad thing happened in my life and I regret that. It has gone and it was a lesson for me. That was my peak back then but I can't get that back. I am more concerned about my future. The fitness aspect, which I will be working on more in coming days, will further relax me in my bowling. "
Playing for Omar Associates could be a launch pad for Amir and people are already expecting his international return when his ICC ban expires in September. Amir is optimistic about the possibility and he will also represent Rawalpindi Rams next month in the Pakistan Super Eight T20 cup, though hasn't set a long-term goal. Pakistan have series scheduled against England, in the UAE, and India between October 2015 and February 2016.
"My aim always have been to play for Pakistan and I am working for hard for it again," Amir said. "Yes, the India series is something that is in my mind but I don't know what is going to happen. What I am currently focusing on playing well and remaining fit - the rest is up to the selectors and PCB to decide."
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent. @kalson