Five years ago, as an undergraduate student in Montreal, I went to an Elton John concert. One of my favourite artists of an era I never knew in its prime, I jumped at the chance to see him live. What I saw was a 67-year old man from a bygone age thriving on the brilliance of his past, as well as a good old dose of nostalgia. He had lost the ability to produce the falsetto that gave him such astonishing vocal range nearly four decades ago, but a deep, melodious voice and traces of the rasp that had catapulted him to success were enough to satiate an audience that had bought a ticket to fawn rather than demand. No one was there to listen to songs from the Union or The Diving Board (his latest albums, in case you didn't know). Everyone wanted to sing along to Your Song and Tiny Dancer.
Mohammad Amir, who today announced his decision to walk away from Test cricket, is four decades younger, the age around which Elton John was at the peak of his powers. He's much too young to be doing nostalgia, and yet, now he has decided to walk away from the format that he was tipped to rule, one can do little but look back to over a decade ago for his Greatest Hits. Remember that ball to Steven Smith? Or that delivery to Alistair Cook where he came wide of the crease and still swung it enough to find the gobsmacked left-hander's outside edge?
Even Amir himself can't help but view his career in this manner. Announcing his decision to retire, he pointed to several proud achievements in the whites for Pakistan. Listen to what he says about his time before his five-year ban, and the high points after. See if you can spot the difference.
Thank you PCB, our PM @ImranKhanPTI @wasimakramlive bhi @SAfridiOfficial bhi @waqyounis99 & @yousaf1788. Thank you and my fans for always supporting me and I hope you all will support my this decision also.see video link https://t.co/BbAYzPbncl— Mohammad Amir (@iamamirofficial) July 26, 2019
"I was the youngest bowler to take 50 wickets, with 51 in 14 Test matches. I took six wickets at Lord's. I was part of the number one ranked side in Test cricket. I was part of the team that best West Indies away for the first time in our history."
The switch from individual achievement to collective is not accidental. The sad truth is ever since returning from his ban, there's been little of it, precious little to get the pulse racing. The prodigious swing that only he and Mohammad Asif used to extract in tandem wasn't there anymore. The lightning speed that teenage arms shouldn't generate had all but rusted away in the years of hiatus.
In limited-overs cricket, he had adapted, expertly enough, becoming a wily variation bowler who, once every six months, got the ball swinging back into the right-hander for the first two overs with the new ball. But for the most part, Amir the Test bowler had deforested the Amazon of talent he appeared to possess in 2009 and 2010, and even half a decade of regeneration had produced only tiny shrubs of the old brilliance.
There is little to suggest Amir doesn't look upon Test cricket with anything other than veneration. Even in his retirement statement, he considered playing Test cricket for Pakistan a boyhood dream, eyes shimmering at the prospect that, for all eternity, he would now be considered a Test cricketer. When he first played a Test since returning in 2016, he said it was "his real comeback", even though he'd been playing limited-overs cricket for Pakistan for the best part of a year.
The unkindest thing you could do to Amir is consider his Test career as two separate careers, split into pre-ban and post-ban. Not so much because of the numbers, which are strikingly similar - an average of 29.1 before and 31.5 after. It's just that if those were indeed two separate bowlers, that second one would be forgotten before 2019 had ended. Particularly in Pakistan cricket, which is so spoiled for its supply of this breed of cricketer, and has come to expect such stifling greatness for its exponents.
"When he first played a Test since returning in 2016, he said it was "his real comeback", even though he'd been playing limited-overs cricket for Pakistan for the best part of a year"
The Amir of a decade ago was the prince of fast bowling, Wasim Akram's successor, maybe even Pakistan's greatest would-be quick of all. He was raw, aggressive, innocent yet absurdly confident in his own abilities, with a front-on action so smooth it appeared to be one singular motion. The tousled mop on his head swung this way and that, the fringe falling on his face just as he delivered at frightening speed.
The Amir that came after was pragmatic and world-weary. He didn't have the world at his feet; he seemed to carry its weight on his shoulders instead. The fringe was gone, and so, alarmingly, was the pace. The good fortune that so many cricketers rely on yet so few acknowledge had deserted him as well - from his return to June 2018, just one bowler who took 20 wickets had seen a greater percentage of catches dropped off his bowling than Amir's 37%.
It wasn't as if he didn't care how his Test career went, either. After Pakistan fell to an nine-wicket defeat against South Africa in Cape Town earlier this year, Sarfaraz Ahmed had an absolute go at his quick bowlers, admonishing them for lacking speed, and not matching up to Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada and Duanne Olivier. With the three fast bowlers being Amir, Shaheen Afridi and Mohammad Abbas, it was clear who the barb was solely directed at; Amir's speed hadn't touched 135 kph all match.
On the first day of the following Test in Johannesburg, Amir's quickest delivery was clocked at 132 kph. I began to ask him about his pace and Sarfaraz's comments, only to be cut off with a prickly comment. "Please, leave this question, leave this question," was all he said, before aborting the press conference, barely four minutes after it had begun. If his captain picking up on it had ticked him off, there was little chance he would have that discussion in front of a press pack. With the pace going and the swing petering out, Test cricket - "actual cricket", as Amir put it - was always going to be a challenge.
It was time to ditch the falsetto and become a baritone. The high notes are immortalised in YouTube clips and first-hand accounts in any case, telling the story of a bowler who flirted with greatness, but, two or three dates in, found a way to blow it. The regret may always be there, but so will those magical times. That, as Amir knows full well, no deceitful mentor or uncompromising governing body can take away from him.