Two years ago, India’s ambition of winning back-to-back Champions Trophy titles lay in tatters within the first nine overs of their chase. On a flat Oval pitch, Mohammad Amir swung the ball in to trap Rohit Sharma leg-before, pitched the ball short of length to lure Virat Kohli into a flick he failed to keep down, before taking a faint nick off Shikhar Dhawan’s bat. Three world-class deliveries trampled India’s dream and showcased Amir’s game changing ability. ((ICC World Cup 2019: Full Coverage))
Then dexterity abandoned Amir.
Post the Champions Trophy, he managed just five more wickets in two years, and despite maintaining an enviable economy rate through that period, he was duly dropped from the Pakistan squad, before being named in the World Cup squad at the last minute.
The story on the grapevine goes something like this: Pakistan’s chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq got a call straight from the Prime Minister’s office. Inzamam couldn’t afford to say no to his former captain, and Amir was back in. As enticing as the gossip may be, the banal truth is that Pakistan couldn’t have afforded keeping Amir out after the dismal performance of its original pace attack in the five-match ODI series against England weeks before the World Cup.
Now Amir is the renaissance man, at the top of the wicket-takers list at the Cup, after a stunning 5 for 30 haul against Australia on Wednesday, a figure made all the more remarkable considering the rest of the Pakistani bowlers had economy rates over six, and Australia posted a 300-plus total.
Maybe it’s the big stage that brings out the best in Amir; he now has 10 wickets in three matches at an average of 12.30 at an economy of 4.73. With the conditions facilitating seam bowling, Amir has kept it simple. “As soon as I bowled the first over, I got the idea it wasn’t swinging, it was seaming,” Amir told PCB’s official site about his bowling against Australia. “So I was just floating the ball and making sure I put it in the right area instead of putting too much work onto it at the point of release. And the movement it generated came off the seam.”
The Director of PCB’s National Cricket Academy, Mudassar Nazar, says: “The conditions are tailor-made for medium pace bowling in England, and Amir is using his experience to land the ball in the right areas, which others are unable to do, and getting the ball to deviate from the right spot.”
Amir is working to a pattern: He pitches it up in his first spell, when conditions are usually overcast and there is the possibility of swing. In his second or third spell, he uses more variation, cutters being the bulk of it.
Longer spells could help Amir get into better rhythm, but the lack of proper support from the other bowlers, with the exception of Wahab Riaz, has perhaps forced captain Sarfaraz Ahmed to use him in short bursts. This may work in Pakistan’s favour though, for Ahmad would want to keep the pressure on India at all times on what could be a very dry pitch in Manchester. Amir wouldn’t worry though. Dry or a bit grassy, his performance against India has improved since his return from the five-year ban (2010-2015) for spot-fixing. Before the ban, Amir had an economy of 5.71 and two wickets at an average of 51. That has lowered to 37.33 (for three wickets in four matches) with an economy of 4.45.
Bumrah or Amir?
The India-Pakistan encounter could be lit up by a battle for pace supremacy between Amir and Jasprit Bumrah.
At the World Cup, Bumrah has five wickets in 2 games (20 overs), against Amir’s 10 in 3 games (26 overs).
Mohammad Asif, who was Amir’s partner in a fierce Pakistan pace attack before both were banned in the spot-fixing scandal, says Bumrah is ‘going beautifully’.
“The way he is bowling to the left-handers, using the crease going wide, is impressive,” Asif says. “He has the slower balls and great yorkers.”
Asif is less impressed with his former partner, and says that Amir is playing it ‘safe’.
“Overall he is bowling well but it’s not match-winning. He has got wickets but he has to strike with the new ball, because if you don’t, India will get 300 plus, and our batting in English conditions can’t chase 300.” Asif says.
For Asif, the concern is that Amir is not getting enough movement on the incoming balls to right-handers.
“He used to get a beautiful shape on the ball, that’s not coming yet,” he says.
Nazar blames it on rushing Amir straight into international cricket after the end of his ban in 2015.
“After you miss out on three-four years, it is always difficult to get back to the original level,” Nazar says. “He should have been gradually eased into the international arena after proper work on his fitness. He was picked for the first game when he became available.”
Nazar also calls out Pakistan’s weak slip cordon for Amir’s lack of success after his comeback.
“Pakistan don’t have specialists in the slip cordon,” he says. “Babar Azam is the only one who is good at taking slip catches. Amir is a conventional swing bowler unlike Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, and will depend a lot on catches being taken behind the wickets. Imran, Wasim and Waqar were great exponents of reverse swing and attacked the stumps for wickets.”
When Amir first burst onto the scene as a teenager in 2009, the left-arm pacer was an irresistible force who made for compelling watching. The world was at his feet when the spot-fixing scandal broke. Since his comeback, Amir has struggled to find his original pace and sting, and struggled to keep his place in the squad.
At this World Cup, it looks like Amir is finding his groove back.