India were already two down, and Mohammad Amir was whipping up a storm. Then Suresh Raina did a little shuffle and lobbed the ball to mid-on for the easiest catch Wahab Riaz will ever take. Almost before the ball had landed in his cupped palms, Riaz had a smile spreading across his face.
Minutes later, after Amir had bowled another unplayable delivery, Riaz was right next to him, a smile, a couple of words, a pat on the back … Fast bowlers hunt in pairs and often make great partners, but such unadulterated joy at the success of a peer is not too easily spotted.
Amir has been back a while, and turned out for Pakistan in the limited-overs series in New Zealand in January. But the Pakistan v India Asia Cup match on Saturday (February 27) was the first chance for many people to watch Amir in action, to see if the five years of self-inflicted ostracism had taken away the edge that had made him the hottest fast bowler in the world at the turn of the decade.
The answer was a resounding no.
It could well have been Trent Boult or Mitchell Starc bowling at Eden Park in Auckland, as Amir charged in, went high with his release, and sent down 145kph-plus bolts that landed at a fullish length and jagged back in to the right-hander. There was the odd variation to throw the batsman off, ones that held their line or went away, but the inswinger was what he focussed on. Amazingly, especially in the case of Ajinkya Rahane, it seemed as though the batsman knew exactly what was coming his way, but still didn’t know how to deal with it. Prior to Rahane getting bamboozled, Rohit Sharma didn’t have a clue – first ball of the innings, he was probably lbw, but the umpire let him live to fight another day. Or another ball, as it turned out. But it was still a fight Rohit lost; another delivery – identical except slightly shorter – sent him packing. Raina was strike three, in Amir’s second over.
He wouldn’t pick up another wicket after that. Virat Kohli’s class and Yuvraj Singh’s grit and good luck, as well as the end of the Power Play overs that freed up Kohli a bit, meant that the show was over. But 3 for 18, against India while still on the comeback trail, wasn’t a bad workday at all.
“I think he bowled really well,” said MS Dhoni afterwards. No surprises there, because after India had bowled Pakistan out for 83, a straightforward chase was expected, not 9 for 3 after three overs.
“The length was crucial,” went on Dhoni. “For a left-armer, he could bowl slightly more up and that was the length. It becomes very tricky. You want to cover the swing. If you move too much in, there are chances of lbw, and if you’re not covering the line then there are chances of caught behind, caught at slips also. I feel he used the conditions really well. It was very good bowling; especially the first three overs, he was right on the mark.”
Waqar Younis, the Pakistan coach, was laudatory as well. Younis, who was one of the first to back Amir when the paceman – not yet 24 – came back after serving a five-year ban for spot-fixing, said of Amir’s spell, “He is bowling well and when someone is bowling well … his swing, his pace, his length, it was just outstanding.”
Amir gave Pakistan a chance. The total their batsmen had put up was next to zilch, but with three of the top four Indian batsmen back in the hut before the Mirpur crowd had finished crying over, or celebrating, the goings-on in the first innings, it was game on.
“Something like 83 is a middling target. You don’t know if you have to hit out or take time for the first four-five overs,” offered Dhoni. “Amir started really well. If two wickets fall in the first over, it is considered to be a very good start. Again, we knew that if we had any partnership – it could have been for even 20 balls because we know that the run rate wouldn’t go that high.
“We knew that there won’t be much swing after four or five overs. And if you look at their bowling, Amir is one bowler who bowls that fuller length. (Mohammad) Sami is another one. Other than them, the other two fast bowlers (Riaz and Mohammad Irfan) don’t bowl too full and don’t swing it too much. So I felt that that the opening spell was very crucial for us.”
As it turned out, Shahid Afridi chose to bowl Amir out in one go. There wasn’t much of an option, seeing that there were no death overs to worry about – it wouldn’t go that far.
“In T20s, you are only allowed four overs,” agreed Dhoni. “So the captain is also under pressure to decide whether to bowl him out or keep him for later. We knew that if we had a partnership with the number of balls, then 84 wouldn’t be too difficult.”
Asked if he wished there were no quota of overs for bowlers, as there is no quota of how many balls a batsman could face, Waqar laughed. “It’s a shorter version. You have to have a quota, otherwise it will be very difficult to score runs,” he said. “It was an outstanding spell for Amir, but we needed to keep taking wickets. Kohli and Yuvraj took the game away from us. They were lucky, too, as they were beaten a few times. On another day, it might have bene different.”
Waqar also had to field the what-if question that has refused to go away since Amir was allowed a top-level return, and will probably be asked again and again for a long time to come. “It was his own fault, so one shouldn’t cry on that,” said Waqar. “He’s definitely world-class, as Virat Kohli also said. He’s coming back and he’s getting stronger and stronger. He bowled superbly in New Zealand and even today, he is getting better and better. He is going to be an asset for Pakistan in the next few years.”
On the Saturday evidence, that can’t be denied. Apart from the skill on display, Amir was hungry, desperate to succeed, eager to impress. It worked well. On another day, with a decent enough total to defend, he can probably win Pakistan a game. On this day, it just delayed the inevitable, added a dollop of spice to a marquee clash. Considering the circumstances, Amir would probably take it.
And, just for the record, he looks much better than he did that time at Lord’s, too.