Is Amir too big to drop for Pakistan?

Mohammad Amir winces and tugs at his left shoulder after taking a wicket Peter Della Penna

Ever since his comeback to international cricket, Mohammad Amir has been leader of the Pakistan bowling attack. He assumed the role almost instantly upon arrival, and has been a more or less permanent fixture in the team since - one of just three all-format players Pakistan has. It's not a role that has necessarily been conferred on him due to consistent performances, however. Rather, it's the perception that one day, this young prince will mature into a king, and until he does it's worth sticking with him. By now, even Prince Charles must be looking at him and thinking, "Boy, that's a long time to wait for a coronation."

But for the first time, it appears that conventional wisdom is being challenged within the Pakistan team management, to the extent that Amir is by no means guaranteed to be a part of the side that takes on India on Wednesday. For any other player with his level of recent performances, it would be an unremarkable decision. But if Amir does indeed sit out the game against India, Pakistan will have made a stunning call. He has been feted as a big-match player by coach Mickey Arthur, and his most memorable moments since his comeback to cricket have been against India.

If it does happen, Amir, who appears to relish the big games more than perhaps any other player in the Pakistan side, can't point fingers at anyone but himself. Imagine this: in barely over a year since that sensational opening spell in the Champions Trophy final that tore India's top order to shreds, he finds himself in a situation where he might not play the next game against them.

Since his return in 2016, Amir has averaged nearly 35 runs per wicket in ODIs, and has never taken more than three wickets in a game. His best figures, by far, came in that Champions Trophy final. He took three wickets - those of Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan, no less - for 16 runs, and set up Pakistan's tournament triumph. His second most memorable performance was also against India, in a T20 match at the Asia Cup in 2016, where his energetic opening salvo reduced India to 8 for 3.

Amir's performances since the Champions Trophy final have dropped without warning. He's only taken three ODI wickets since that game 15 months ago, at an average of almost 80 runs per wicket. It isn't just because of the quality of the opposition, either; half of his eight ODIs since have been against either Zimbabwe or Hong Kong.

For any other bowler, those numbers would mean a fight to keep his place in the side. Given the new ball against Hong Kong, Amir had a glorious opportunity against significantly weaker opposition to stop the rot. Instead, he was flat, unable to muster the intensity required of a man fighting to keep his place in the side. He bowled a wayward first over and didn't nearly have the penetration that his fellow quicks appeared to have, in a game that represented the ideal opportunity for one last shot of confidence before the India contest. Before that, he was eager to sit out the two series Pakistan played in Zimbabwe in July, only to be refused rest. In March, he told ESPNcricinfo that he wanted to cut down on Tests to prolong his international career.

Fast bowlers need their workload managed, and Amir - a regular for years in all three formats now - might have felt he wasn't getting the rest he needed. He would have the facts to back him up; he's bowled more than any fast bowler from Pakistan since his return, and ranks 12th overall, with 6072 deliveries across formats. Among Pakistani quicks, only Wahab Riaz (5662 balls) has bowled even half of the deliveries Amir has sent down in international cricket.

But it is the impression that he wishes to pick and choose when he plays that doesn't do Amir any favours. Most world-class players have their best days on the biggest occasions, but that hardly affords them a free pass in every other game. Cricket isn't like boxing; results must be produced week in, week out. It is consistency that turns a star into a legend, and it's proved a particularly elusive trait for Amir.

It's also an unenviable position for the team management to find itself in. Dropping Amir would invite intense scrutiny if Pakistan do not come away with the desired result, particularly since there's no player on the bench with the ability to replicate Amir at his best. Picking a second spinner would be a bit of a gamble, particularly since Imad Wasim failed a yo-yo test and was subsequently excluded from the squad. Besides, India play spin better than any side in the world, which would put colossal pressure on the 24-year-old Mohammad Nawaz, who has only played 11 ODIs.

Could they go with another fast bowler in a like-for-like swap? That brings Shaheen Afridi and Junaid Khan into the picture. Arthur is a big fan of the teenager Afridi, but it would almost be irresponsible to throw him in on such a challenging occasion and expect him to provide Pakistan with what Amir cannot. Junaid is a likelier option; he has a particularly good record against India and a level head, which is an especially useful asset in what can be a charged match-up. But Junaid no longer has the explosive match-changing ability that Amir possesses, and if Amir has indeed been saving himself for that game, it would be, to put it mildly, inefficient to let that simmer away on the bench.

Sarfraz didn't give anything away while speaking to reporters today, but he did acknowledge that Amir's form was a concern. "Yes, it is a concern. But it is not necessary that you take wickets to prove that you have bowled well," he said. "It's a concern that he is not taking wickets. Sometimes, you bowl well but don't take wickets, like Mohammed Shami was bowling well in England but didn't take much wickets. So we sat down and told him that you are a strike bowler and you need to take wickets, so he will try his best to strike in the coming matches."

Whether the decision to drop him - and that hasn't by any means been established - will be hailed or criticised invariably depends on how the game pans out on Wednesday. Such a consequentialist approach is inevitable in sports management; selectors live and die by big calls, and the stakes could hardly be higher. It is perhaps most appropriate to turn the focus back to Amir, and wonder why such an outrageously gifted player finds his place in the side being questioned. Only Amir knows whether some of the hunger that burned in him has faded with the grind of international cricket, but he is sharp enough to know that his performances need to pick up if he is to remain an automatic pick for the big games. It's a heck of a call the selectors have to make, but it's Amir who'll need to do the real thinking if he finds himself in the reserves on Wednesday in Dubai.