It is a rare occurrence now for the buildup for a sports game to be merely about the teams. The buildup is just as much about a myriad of subplots regarding individuals; teammates, opponents and even the coaches. Acclaimed cricket broadcaster and journalist Harsha Bhogle writes “Eventually, all sport is about emotions of winning and losing, of joys and disappointments, about the aspirations that are dashed” and correctly so. For the lasting image of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final would forever be that of a dejected Zinedine Zidane walking past the Trophy after being sent off for head-butting Marco Materazzi. Or the 2011 ICC World Cup, which was a tale of redemption for Sachin Tendulkar in setting right the wrong of the 1996 World Cup semi-final in Kolkata, or perhaps an even more recent case in point being that of a crestfallen Lionel Messi, in tears after losing his third successive international final in three years, in what would go on to be his last international game. All of these individuals were subjected to immense scrutiny in their time in the public eye, but along with that scrutiny there did also lie an element of understanding, and even the staunchest of critics, at no point questioned their motives.
In the recently concluded England-Pakistan test match at Lord’s, the one man whom the limelight definitely was on was Pakistani fast-bowler Mohammad Amir. Amir’s case is similar to the abovementioned ones in a few ways, and quite different in others. It is a story nearly 6 years in the making, with an almost Dostoevskian tale of Sin and Redemption.
Mohammad Amir, a left arm fast bowler had, in his early years tried to emulate his idol, Pakistani fast bowling legend Wasim Akram, who would be the one to pluck him from obscurity soon after his first class debut in 2007. He burst onto the scene in the 2009 T20 World Cup, where he was a part of the playing XI in all games and was an integral component of their title-winning team. He was able to impress critics and spectators alike with his incisive speed and his eye for a bouncer. Comparisons to Wasim Akram were premature, albeit not completely inaccurate. Over the course of the next 12 months, Amir would go on to establish himself as one of the most exciting and promising prospects in world cricket.
In the summer of 2010, Pakistan toured England for a series of 4 Tests, 2 T20I’s and 5 ODI’s. Amir continued his good form into the series, and was, in the third Test match awarded the Man of the Match award for taking a five wicket haul, becoming the youngest to do so on English soil. He took 19 wickets, the highest in the Pakistan side and third highest in the series overall. For a player who’d had a rise as mercurial as Amir, that wasn’t as surprising as it seemed. However, a sting operation from News of the World turned everything on its head. In the sting operation, reporters had established contact with a particular Mazhar Majeed, who had been suspected of betting. In the video, Majeed went on record saying that Amir would be bowling the third over in the last match at Lord’s, and the opening delivery of that over shall be a no-ball. The third over was indeed bowled by Amir, and the first delivery of that over happened to be a no-ball. Commentary described the delivery as an “enormous no-ball, good half a meter over the line”. Amir, along with teammates Mohammad Asif and Salman Butt faced an ICC Anti-Corruption Unit tribunal and were found guilty and were subsequently banned. Amir was given a 5 year ban, and Asif and Butt received 7 and 10 year bans respectively, effectively ending their international careers. A comeback wasn’t impossible for Amir, but the greater consensus emerged that Amir’s career would forever be recalled as a case of ‘What could have been’.
Amir pleaded guilty to the charges and publicly asked for forgiveness. He was criminally convicted in court on the charges of conspiracy to cheat at gambling and conspiracy to accept corrupt payments and was sentenced to 6 months in a young offender’s institute. Amir appealed, albeit unsuccessfully against the length of the sentence. He was later transferred to another similar institute in Dorset, from which he was released in February 2012 after completing half of his sentence.
Reactions to the whole fiasco ranged from disappointed to sympathetic. Former England captain Michael Atherton stated that Amir is an asset to the game and must not be given a harsh punishment, considering his immense talent and young age. Another former England captain, Nasser Hussain, echoed Atherton’s views, saying ‘Please don’t let it be the kid’.
Atherton added, in his article: “The ‘kid’ in question was Mohammad Amir, the young, good-looking and prodigiously-talented Pakistan bowler who had blown England away on the second morning at Lord’s with a mesmeric spell of left-arm bowling and who now, we had been told, had overstepped the front line twice for a few dollars more.” Some former players around the world such as Michael Vaughan, Ian Healy and Andrew Flintoff called for Amir to be banned for life.
Harsha Bhogle stated, in his article for ESPNCricinfo:
“It is our choices that tell us who we are.
But these choices can be influenced; sometimes, and I hope never, young players can be coerced into walking down a specific path. And so it comes down to the air they breathe when their minds are still fragile. It could be the air of excellence that drives a young man to newer heights of achievement. Or it could be the putrid air of greed that could infect him and snuff a career out before it has had time to blossom………Amir is not just a young cricketer but a young man symbolizing tomorrow in Pakistan and that is why cricket lovers there should be disappointed”.
The (Road to) Redemption
Amir made it no secret that he was desperate to return to international cricket. He stated that he had maintained his fitness levels, and participated in club cricket. A long, arduous wait ensued and eventually on August 19 2015, Amir was cleared to play in all forms of cricket from September 2 2015. It was up to Amir now to seize the opportunity and prove his mettle to regain his spot in the national side, as well as achieve repentance for his acts. He seized the opportunity with a vengeance, displaying the same incisiveness and accuracy he earlier had and soon earned a recall to the national side for T20I’s against New Zealand in January 2016. However, all was not yet set right; his return to the national team was not easy with some of his teammates refusing to net with him initially. The crowds in New Zealand gave him a hard time as well, with cash register sounds seemingly played as a taunt towards Amir.
However, Amir was undeterred. It had taken him immense mental and physical strength to get into the team again and it was going to take much more than a few taunts to break him. The Mohammad Amir that emerged post-return was similar yet different to that before those no-balls. He possessed the same lethal qualities which led to his mercurial rise, yet had a much tougher mental resolve. The greed to make a quick buck wouldn’t get the better of this Mohammad Amir, seemingly nothing would. He was one of the shining lights in what was otherwise an abysmal campaign for Pakistan in the 2016 T20 World Cup in India. His spell to Virat Kohli was one of the most talked about aspects on social media, and Indian supporters were ready to appreciate the quality of the sheer brilliance in fast bowling that was Mohammad Amir.
To a few, however, Amir’s true redemption came in the recently concluded Test match at Lord’s. It was the same venue where Amir had last played a Test match, and nearly 6 years to the date of that match Amir was back there, to quite a mixed response. Kevin Pietersen, who was a part of the England side in that 2010 Test match, wrote in his article for The Telegraph “Any sportsman or woman caught match fixing, spot fixing or taking drugs should be banned for life. They have broken the rules, should pay the price and not be given a second chance. If you cheat the system either by taking drugs or money to under-perform then you are mugging the spectators, your team-mates and a sport that has been around a lot longer than you.” In his own right, Pietersen does raise a valid point, for the whole fiasco was one of the lowest points in cricketing relations between England and Pakistan. However, as the way things were, Mohammad Amir was a part of the Pakistan side and would get his chance at redemption, and indeed he did. Pakistan scripted a famous victory, winning by 75 runs and exorcising the demons of the defeat some six years ago.
In some people’s eyes, Amir has achieved his redemption, in others’, he is yet to, and in the eyes of a certain few he perhaps never can. Subjectively, different people have different views on Amir and his return.
Objectively speaking, however, Amir’s return is of great gain to the cricketing world, which had seemingly lost one of its most promising talents to the demon of greed, and Amir has emerged from the scandal a matured, mentally stronger individual. In doing so, Amir has been lucky enough to receive a second chance, something Zidane never did after what happened in 2006, or Vinod Kambli never did after the 1996 semi- final. Amir could have let his career collapse, but instead he resurrected it with the perfect blend of hard work, resilience and strength of character.