Hassan Cheema

A tale of two Pakistani bowlers

The two Mohammads, Irfan and Amir, are a study in contrasts in terms of how they are perceived

Hassan Cheema
Hassan Cheema
Even in his follow-through, Mohammad Irfan towers over the non-striker, James Taylor, Pakistan v England, 1st ODI, Abu Dhabi, November 11, 2015

Irfan: no sex appeal, but his numbers aren't half-bad  •  Getty Images

Mohammad Irfan is out of form. Since the World Cup he has averaged over 40 with the ball in 12 ODIs. Questions are being asked about whether he's good enough to lead the bowling unit; whether he was ever good enough to do so in the first place.
But those questions are usually raised by those who haven't watched him bowl in this period. On the lifeless pitches of the Asian summer he has repeatedly been Pakistan's outstanding bowler, perhaps even their only saving grace. His ability to do everything but bring the ball back in to the right-hander has been on show. Often forced to partner with mediocre medium pace, this lumbering giant has shown that he may be the smartest, most complete pacer in the country.
Or perhaps the second most.
Mohammad Amir is in form. He's taking wickets wherever he goes: 16 in four Quaid-e-Azam Trophy matches has whetted the appetite (although considering the conditions, pitches and ball being used for that tournament, you do have to take it all with a bushel of salt - after all, four fast bowlers, including Umar Gul and Sohail Tanvir, have better averages than Amir this season). And the BPL, in which too he features, has now become the temple for those whose religion is pondering the what-ifs of Pakistani cricket.
Pakistani bowling over the next year or so will be defined by these two men, the public perceptions of whom are based on things not in their control.
Amir lived by the phrase carpe diem. In just over a year he had more "moments" than most cricketers have in their lifetimes: the over to Tillakaratne Dilshan, the offcutter to Sachin Tendulkar, that summer in England. Irfan hasn't had anything like it - since his return against India, he has always played second fiddle: to Saeed Ajmal, to Junaid Khan, to Wahab Riaz. At the end of the World Cup his average was a fraction better than Wahab's, and his economy rate far better, yet six months later it's not Irfan for whom Homeric paeans are written.
Irfan's average of 23.25 and economy of 4.53 in the World Cup showed just how good he can be in helpful conditions. Since his return in ODIs he has averaged 22 and under (economy under 4.60) in each of Australia, England and South Africa, with his finest performance reserved for South Africa in New Zealand. But barely a quarter of his matches have been played in these four countries - he has instead been forced to grind on slow and low wickets in the era of two new balls (and thus little reverse swing) and rules that are more batting-friendly than ever before. And since his debut series Pakistan have not played a Test outside Asia or Zimbabwe, meaning his work in whites has never been required.
In ODIs, Irfan has often been the violinist on the Titanic, playing a glorious tune without anyone noticing or caring, as Pakistan have lurched from one incompetent batting unit to another
In comparison, Amir had things different. Think of the mental image you have of him, and invariably, with the exception of the Tendulkar and Dilshan performances, it's of him in whites. Despite averaging over 40 in each of his first three Test series (in Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Australia) he got the fans salivating. The potential for greatness somehow appeals more than even greatness itself. The England series, in conditions tailor-built for him, made him a rock star.
Then there's the small matter of context. Irfan's Test debut came after Pakistan had lost just one series in two and a half years, Amir's came when Pakistan hadn't won one in two and a half years. Irfan was the final piece of the jigsaw, Amir the saviour.
The jigsaw fell apart and was then restructured without Irfan. In ODIs, he has often been the violinist on the Titanic, playing a glorious tune without anyone noticing or caring, as Pakistan have lurched from one incompetent batting unit to another. Amir was the iceberg, stopping the unstoppable, the shining light after the darkness of the Raos and the Samis. His run-up alone was sexier than anything his immediate predecessors ever did. If Wasim was Ursula Andress, Amir was Daniel Craig with water dripping off him. Irfan meanwhile seems like a Transformer in the process of breaking down as he runs up to the wicket, questioning the very basis of Pakistani fast bowling: can a fast bowler really call himself that if he doesn't have a spectacular run-up?
Both, though, are representative of Pakistan. We talk of the potential of Amir but Irfan has only played ten more first-class matches than him, yet it's only the former with whom the word "potential" is regularly used. Amir is a product of the PCB and the Pakistani cricket fraternity's work: through underage teams, to being coached by Wasim Akram as a 16-year-old, he was proof that the system worked. But it's the same system that hasn't been able to rid itself of the curse of fixing over the last two decades, of which Amir is again proof.
Thus, they are now symbols. Irfan proves that the cracks in the system are so big that a seven-footer who bowls at 140-plus kph can be ignored. Amir, to the puritans who wish to rid Pakistan of the curse of fixing, is the Antichrist. For them, unable to take to task the '90s lot, he has now become a lightning rod - an icon for redemption turned into one who provokes vengefulness.
His return in Rawalpindi during the domestic T20s a couple of months ago was instructional too. Among the loudest roars from the crowds were reserved for Amir, the home-town boy. Even as one stand chanted "fixer, fixer", it was drowned out. This, after all, is a country that will always forgive your sins if you bowl fast.
The question now is whether they'll play together. Some suggest, including those within the dressing room, that Amir's comeback ought to be delayed, that he needs to be observed and followed to see if all that glitters truly is gold. Yet what does that achieve? If you are willing to delay his return, why have him return at all? For some, especially the fans, he has served his time and then some. For others, especially former and current players, he was never punished as much as he should have been. The phrase making the rounds now is: "Now everyone knows you can sell your country [sic] and be back after only five years."
Irfan and Amir are just canvases for Pakistanis to vomit their emotions on; neither, though, is the most complete pacer in the country. As the Twitterverse, TV shows and WhatsApp groups become shouting matches, in nets in the heart of Lahore, Mohammad Asif was busy breaking abdominal guards and making fools out of the best batsmen in the country. Asif, the habitual line-crosser, will ask with his mere presence: does the career and legacy of a player rely on his talent and performances or other factors? The contrasting perceptions of Irfan and Amir could provide him with the answer.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @mediagag