This was to be about Mohammad Amir
, but too much else happened for it to be specific. I thought I would follow him from the minute he emerged from the pavilion, bat and redemption to hand, through to the first spell he bowled on his return to the Test match arena. I left the press box to listen to the response of the crowd and to see if I could imagine his reaction to it. I thought of his fast-beating heart and his likely prayers. Sometimes you want to hold a moment forever, other times you want it to pass so fast that the memory disappears before it is formed. As things turned out, it was neither of these. There was warm applause, a bait or two and some unseemly booing. Clearly, there were those who thought he should remain in cricket and those who thought he should have been forced to leave the game forever. Remain, leave: very UK right now. I'm in the remain camp, on both counts. I like Europe and, better still, I like a man being given a second chance.
Immediately, Stuart Broad changed gear, first forcing a panicky inside edge that flew past leg stump and then hitting Amir on the head before staring him down as if he had meant to hurt. Broad made 169 in the infamous 2010 Test
that England won in the most terrible anti-climax after the spot-fixing scandal broke. The England players felt cheated, as were the spectators and the game itself, and Broad believes that their performances have been diminished because it. This fast and accurate bouncer was a reminder to Amir that he might be back but that he wouldn't be smelling the roses.
Nervous tension manifests itself in many ways. It frees some and freezes others. Amir checked his helmet for damage and, seeing none, placed it back upon his short back and sides. The resultant leg bye meant that Misbah-ul-Haq was on strike but only for a fleeting moment. Broad burst through the captain's previously unbreachable defences with a ball that appeared fired by vengeance. So fascinating had been the arrival of Amir, that we had almost forgotten the Misbah miracle. Almost. The press-ups ensure we will not. Broad had simply had enough of it. The packed house - this has been a hard ticket, which is a credit to Pakistan - rose as one to acknowledge an innings that Misbah called his best. We shall defer to him for he is a formidable man.
Now Amir had to face Chris Woakes, who was in the middle of a spell best explained by the colour purple. First up was the ugliest of wafts at a short-and-wide sucker ball; then another; then a square cut that whistled to the boundary behind point. Next was a bouncer that eluded everyone and flew for four byes. Amir's presence had moved Woakes to bowl short and change colour to something cold. Finally Woakes pitched up but, with majestic authority, the returnee drove down the ground for four more. This was high-octane cricket, driven by a ferociously competitive but entirely fair spirit. The bars were empty, the seats were occupied. The players' intensity held the spectators' attention in a manner that best illustrated the beautiful adventure of Test match cricket.
Amir finally got Cook, the wicket he had deserved hours earlier but, by then, he was old news and Yasir was the zeitgeist
Yasir Shah hit a couple of boundaries, Pakistan inched towards a challenging total. Broad found pace, movement and the edge of Amir's bat. Travelling at high speed, the ball split Joe Root and James Vince at second and third slip respectively but Root spun his body left and cushioned it with his soft, reliable hands. The innings was over, 339. Amir made 12 good runs and put on 23 for the last wicket. He was back.
Now Misbah gave him the new ball. He kissed the surface with it, asking Alastair Cook to watch keenly and react quickly. He dug one in, pitched another up. No sign of a no-ball, only discipline and intent. Alex Hales punished the one loose ball, Cook soaked up most of the rest. Rahat Ali snared Hales with a gem that found his outside edge. Root came in at three, to plug a hole others less gifted cannot fill.
Straight away there was urgency and purpose: some cricketers react to the rhythm of the cricket, Root dictates it. He drove Rahat off the back foot, a stroke that reminded us why we love the game. Then Amir drew Cook forward into that blind spot of his a few inches outside off-stump and the nick carried nicely to Mohammad Hafeez, who shelled it. Oh Hafeez, have mercy on your man! Doubtless exasperated, Amir changed his line to straight and Cook whipped the errant delivery through midwicket as if dealing with a jazz-hatter at the old school. Then Root drove through mid-off with such precision and style that any player, of any age, would have wanted the photograph - elbow high, bat straight, balance perfect, pose held.
All this, in little more than the hour between 11.30 and 12.30 during a morning session of play that, alone, justified the ticket price. Cook and Root, England's best two batsmen, against the vibrant, unpredictable Pakistanis. Swingers, seamers, bouncers and yorkers confronting one man with 10,000 Test runs and another who promises to be among England's elite. Glorious strokeplay interacted with thick edges that sped to third man; Cook was later dropped again off Amir, this time at the wicket, and Amir's frustration turned to understandable disgust. The comeback wicket refused to yield. At times, Pakistan's ground fielding bordered on the laughable but, oddly, that added to the kaleidoscope set before us. The match was alive with possibility and drama.
Through the afternoon, legspin and all its devilish charms took over. The smiling Yasir made mincemeat of the middle-order. Amir finally got Cook, the wicket he had deserved hours earlier but, by then, he was old news and Yasir was the zeitgeist.
The day ended with Amir sprinting in from the pavilion end. No one was saying "that's the spot-fixer who did time". Rather we were saying "this is one of the Pakistan bowlers who is giving England one hell of a fright". The reintegration of Mohammed Amir is complete; the regeneration of the cricketer is a work in progress but the early signs are that little of the innate talent had been lost. As for the narrative that began on this ground six years ago, we can all move on. Test match cricket needs Pakistan every bit as much as Pakistan needs Test match cricket.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK