Mohammad Amir’s comeback to international cricket was one of the most hotly debated topics around the turn of the year. Many people are yet to come to terms with how things have unfolded. But watching him bowl at the Asia Cup in Mirpur over the past few days, no lover of the game can help but be in a little bit of awe. Even his detractors might feel what if.
Two former Pakistani cricketers who have been on opposite sides of the Amir spectrum are in Dhaka for the Asia Cup as well – Intikhab Alam is the manager of the Pakistan team, and Aaqib Javed is the head coach of UAE.
Aaqib’s stop-start international career ended in 1998, when he was still young at 31, in the aftermath of the match-fixing scandal – he had the reputation of being one of the clean guys in the team. He was later drafted in as the bowling coach of the Pakistan team and was in that position during the Lord’s Test in August 2010 – the match in which Amir, as well as Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif, did the bidding of a bookmaker, including bowling pre-planned no-balls in exchange for money.
By the time Amir made a comeback, Aaqib was away because of his UAE contract, and Alam was back for his latest stint as manager of the Pakistani team, a position he has held for many stretches since the 1980s along with being coach of the team on three occasions.
Alam was also the man the Pakistan Cricket Board turned to when they needed help with helping Amir settle down, to make his return to the Pakistan dressing room a smooth one.
Even as Amir was sending down swinging firebolts to the batsmen at the Asia Cup, Wisden India caught up with both Aaqib and Alam for their thoughts on the paceman, who looks like he still has the skill and the hunger to become one of the best in the world again.
Let’s start with Aaqib.
“I had my reservations, and I still do. Many people look from the outside and give opinions. But I was there. I was the bowling coach. It was the worst time of my life, I have the worst memories of that Lord’s Test. Our dignity and self-respect were hit. It was so embarrassing,” he recalls. “But life has to go on. This is a reality. Who knows, I could work with him tomorrow.”
During the conversation, Aaqib veers between anger and acceptance, probably displaying the conflict within.
“Look, it’s not that … you can’t be so stubborn in life, you can’t say I can’t tolerate this or that in life. If something goes wrong, I can’t walk away and give up everything. I have done that in my cricket career – taken a stance on things. Coaching … I have learnt a lot while coaching. This is the reality. I have learnt from coaching that you have to respect everyone, their talents; that’s how you help them develop. You can’t force people to play a particular way. Let them be the person they are. So, in my head, I have taken Amir’s issue positively.
“Your brother, your colleague, your friend … people do wrong things, but you can’t leave them all. You have to live with it. I have my beliefs, but everyone doesn’t have to believe the same things.”
But, after saying all that, Aaqib shakes his when talking about what his beliefs really are. “It’s fixing. It’s betrayal. Some people get away, some get caught. But it’s fixing. If you’re caught …”
Not just in cricket, but doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance in life?
“Generally in life, I don’t believe in sorry. There is no sorry in life. What I believe is, whatever you have committed, maybe the circumstances … yes, a person should come back and do things. But this is not your personal life; it’s your country. It’s a betrayal. You can’t compare this with any other crime. It’s tough to take.”
Aaqib is still shaking his head and stirring his coffee distractedly when we bring up Amir’s performance against India, where he made the ball talk and recite beautiful poetry at times.
Aaqib’s eyes are sparkling as he looks up. He is still shaking his head, but this is from wonderment.
“Oh, brilliant. [Pause] Brilliant. Same Amir, isn’t it? [Smile] Oh! [Pause] Wasted his five years. What a waste! What a waste! Where he might have reached. Most talented bowler I have ever seen after Wasim (Akram). I haven’t seen someone like that at that age. Even better than Wasim at that age, I think.”
It’s very easy to put people in brackets in situations like these. A and B are in favour of Amir’s comeback, while C and D are not. Like it’s a debate, not a discussion.
Aaqib has been branded as someone who didn’t want Amir to return to top-flight cricket. But, and it’s an important but, his stance was one of principle. He is able to put aside his feelings and appreciate great art when he sees it.
Angry? Sad? “Anger earlier. Now sadness,” he says. “No point in being angry right now. I am happy to see the way he is bowling. Such an exciting bowler. You can’t take away his skills. When you see the wasted years, that’s very sad.”
Alam, meanwhile, has always been supportive of Amir’s comeback, unconditionally.
He has, in fact, been given the responsibility to be both Amir’s manager and the team’s manager.
There is no sorry in life. For Alam, it’s the opposite – everyone is allowed a mistake or two as long as they don’t repeat it.
The question is about the role the PCB and the team management have had to play in helping Amir come back and then making it as easy as possible to not feel like a criminal, not be weighed down by his past.
“I think the PCB hierarchy played a positive role in bringing him back and convincing the people who matter. When he came back, I sat with him, I told him what the reality is, what he needs to do. It’s my job as manager to do that,” explains Alam. “The PCB have given me that role. I have told him that it’s his second life. Now it’s up to him to do what he wants.
“I always felt that he deserves a second chance. Everyone does (as do Butt and Asif). You can’t deny anybody earning his livelihood. I have always been supportive of him. The guy is talented, he did something wrong and then he accepted it; he was very young, it’s all right. He deserves a second chance,” goes on Alam, the kind eyes of the 74-year-old almost pleading.
Alam doesn’t brighten up the way Aaqib did when talking about Amir’s spell against India – the older gentleman is more about balance anyway, not for him getting too excited or too dejected.
“He is getting there. The more he bowls, the more wickets he picks, his confidence will grow. We back him, the management – just try to concentrate, that’s all he needs to do,” says Alam.
“Against India, the wicket had grass, it was greenish, some moisture also … so it was difficult for batsmen – except (Virat) Kohli, who applied himself. It’s the same for bowlers also. You see grass and moisture and you get excited. But he held his own, stayed calm, and exploited the conditions well. He is a good listener; he picks things up quickly.
“Lots of people were expecting great things from him, they were expecting miracles from him. He has been away for five years. It takes time. We have told him that, that he needs to works hard, the more he needs to train. He needs more confidence. He has been bowling well, but he needs to get even better.”
Aaqib and Alam present the many sides of the Amir story perfectly. A swing bowler and a legspinner, both of them are regarded as gentlemen – Aaqib a bit outspoken, Alam a bit of a diplomat. But between them, they go through the entire gamut of emotions when talking about Amir: Disbelief. Hurt. Outrage. Acceptance. In Alam’s case, the somewhat paternal instinct towards a boy who went astray. And for Aaqib, marvelling at the skill the boy possesses, and being dismayed at how he frittered away five years of his life.
All of those feelings have probably crossed the minds of each of us over the past many days and might well continue to each time we watch Amir bowl.