Mohammad Amir poses for a player portrait
Stu Forster / © Getty Images

Profile

Who is the real Mohammad Amir?

The teenage sensation from 2010? The more workmanlike post-ban bowler? An intelligent loner? Let's visit the various worlds he has lived in

Osman Samiuddin  |  

I

Like a drone, the end was hovering. And like a drone, I think it may have crept up on Mohammad Amir, perhaps even during the course of our conversation, gliding in from the periphery of his consciousness. The end end - a hard exit from the game - is still not here. But when we met two months before last year's World Cup, in Dubai, Amir talked himself into the revelation that he'd had enough. If he didn't get picked for the World Cup, he'd retire. And even if he did, he might retire after it. Either way, an exit was looming.

The recorder was off by this stage. But given that he did retire from Tests soon after and that he's now, effectively, freelancing for Pakistan rather than employed by them, this doesn't feel like a betrayal of confidence.

It had crept up. The year before, Amir had already spoken of managing his workload, by playing fewer Tests, itself a pronouncement that doused rumours he wanted to quit altogether. Pakistan were cool on the idea, then acquiesced by not picking him for five home Tests (in the UAE) in late 2018, but took him to South Africa. As much as acquiescence it was acknowledgment of a new reality that the once vast horizon of Amir's bowling had been hemmed in. There were limits to what he could do, to what he wanted to do.

Those would never have felt more constraining than in March last year. Since the 2017 Champions Trophy final, Amir had picked up five wickets in 15 ODIs. That encompassed a stretch in which he took one wicket in nine ODIs. The format is no friend to bowlers but somewhere across New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Dubai and South Africa, against opponents including Hong Kong, it must yield more than the solitary wicket of Zimbabwe's No. 10, Tendai Chatara (batting average 6.6), no? For your sweat, your skills, your genius? That is a run from hell and then some.

People talk after that kind of run. Players hear that kind of talk. A great deal of Amir's building frustration was with the criticism. Taking wickets was a difficult business and not taking wickets even more so and people didn't get it.

In the 17 years since he first moved to Rawalpindi to pursue cricket seriously, Amir's career could have ended at any number of moments, in any number of ways

"I wanted to talk about this," he simmered. "Everyone has an opinion, that's fine. Last Test series [in South Africa, where he took 12 cheap but not especially impactful wickets] my performance wasn't bad. In T20s I am probably the top Pakistan bowler. ODIs sure, last 12-14 matches haven't been great.

"People can talk but not many see that since I've returned, I've been playing constantly, across all formats, playing and playing. And after a long break, doing that, the body, the mind, the tactics, all are affected. It has to. It could've been in Tests, in T20s or in ODIs. But somewhere it had to take a toll. Your body gets tired, your mind gets tired.

"All I can do is keep trying and giving everything to it. Maybe this is a time when things just aren't happening for me."

The point about the physical toll was valid. From his return till the day we spoke, only seven fast bowlers had bowled more overs. But actually it was the load in the first year of his return that had been overbearing, more than anybody realised. In that year, no fast bowler played more international matches and only Josh Hazlewood bowled more overs. No bowler on that list - fast, medium, slow, righty, leftie, tall, short, fat, thin, white, brown, black - was coming off a near five-year break in which they had not bowled at all.

In hindsight, it was that first year back that broke Amir and only now does it come across as truly negligent that Pakistan had no plan to ease him in. No plan, that is, other than to play him in every game possible - he missed only five matches all year - as if squeezing five years' worth of bowling inside a year.

But he was housing a deeper frustration, more complicated because the focus was inwards. Amir was, I think, coming to terms with what he was, as against what he could have been. Or maybe he was coming to terms with the divergence between what he had always known himself to be and what people remembered him to be. Because, though it could be argued that this run of form was an outlier, it could equally be argued that it was a caricature of the broader sense that this Amir was not that Amir. And then we're a reasonable extrapolation away from the conclusion that that Amir never existed.

The memory of that Amir is clearest from one ball, or rather one kind of ball. If you could rank by evocativeness, by the yearning they generate, all the deliveries in the world, Amir's inswing would be top. It is the delivery that most triggers Pakistani fans, sightings of it even now making cricket alive and vital like little else. It's the Shane Watson dismissal at Lord's a decade ago, leg-before and bowled in one ball, or Mitchell Johnson castled in the next Test, at Headingley.

These were deliveries that swooped upon a batsman, with the grace of a bird of prey unerringly picking up a tiny morsel off the ground and soaring back up; these deliveries looked like they gathered momentum off the bounce. Not least of the genius was in the precision - controlling swing is barely in nature's control, let alone man's.

They were transcendental, no longer mere deliveries from bowler to batsman. They were engagement, a physical experience, because the stomach traced their trajectory as if on a roller coaster. They were powerful markers in the life of a nation, powerful enough to lift dark clouds, to find light at the end of tunnels, to help you sleep, to give you reason to wake up. Pakistan was a grim country around that time, but in the millisecond existence of those deliveries, it was the greatest place - or at least it was polite enough to fade into the background.

And because memory is but the grandest deceit, those came to be deliveries we remembered Amir bowling all the time.

Play 04:06

Amir, before and after his ban

And now he wasn't bowling them all the time. Now he was bowling them once a year. A few strung together to Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli at the Asia Cup, a couple again in the Champions Trophy final (more than the swing, this was about occasion), a ball to Jonny Bairstow at Lord's, two in the first over of a PSL game in 2020.

In between was a lot of reality. Barely three wickets a Test, an average over 31 and a wicket every 11 and a half overs worth of reality. Five-wickets-in-15-ODIs reality. At no point did Amir look like a bowler somebody could take apart, or one who was out of place. But he rarely looked like a bowler who could take others apart. The swing - no, the swoop that took you along - had gone. Some friends of mine on WhatsApp had begun to despair of Amir's bowling: seedhi seedhi - as straight as a boy scout, no swing, no movement, nothing. Curves ironed out meticulously like wrinkles from a shirt.

Where had it gone? How had it gone? Why had it gone?

There were no obvious answers. The wrist wasn't as rigidly locked in as before, slow-mo cameras revealed. He wasn't delivering from as close to the stumps as he used to. The most interesting were discussions around the lengths he was now bowling, especially in Tests. In short, went the diagnosis, he wasn't full enough for long enough. If only he went a little fuller, especially in his first spells. If only he didn't slip back to a shorter length so quickly, one that would keep batsmen honest but not necessarily see them off.

This wasn't armchair sniping alone. Azhar Mahmood, Pakistan's bowling coach through much of Amir's return, would often sit in the pavilion and predict exactly how soon and often Amir would switch to back of a length. People cribbed that Amir was doing this to protect his figures, that his concern wasn't with taking wickets but with buttressing his economy. The perceived crime here was not so much one of selfishness - that he was looking after his own figures - as much as the betrayal of a tradition. How could a Pakistani fast bowler not be bowling full, because to bowl full is to attack, and if you're a Pakistani fast bowler who's not attacking then you're not Pakistani or fast: you're just some '80s county trundler.

Didn't Amir in that first golden year bowl full all the time? Isn't that what brought him the swing? Go full boy, and see what the sky and clouds give you, because the earth underneath ain't giving you nothing.

"One single guy with 220 million hopes behind him, he has to win a match - people have to understand it isn't easy" Mohammad Amir

Except that, one, length is hardly binary, where, say, full is good and anything that's not is bad. It has never been as simple as that. Conditions, circumstances, the kind of ball being used, the opponent - there's so much else that goes into the length of one single ball. An often overlooked stat was that in 11 of the first 14 Tests Amir played, he had Mohammad Asif at the other end, as accomplished a pressure-building partner a bowler could hope to have as any. Amir's figures in those Tests may as well be of another bowler: over four wickets per Test, an average under 30, a wicket every 53 balls, nearly two overs quicker than his overall figures.

But, two, there is no evidence that Amir did bowl fuller more often in that first year. The memory, see? According to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, nearly a fifth (19.35%) of all his deliveries in Tests post-ban have been full (including full tosses and yorkers). Pre-ban, less than 5% of his deliveries were as full. Even accounting for the subjectivity of ball-by-ball scorers, that is a big difference. Looking at his use of the new ball doesn't make a difference. Before the ban, under 3% of his deliveries with the new ball (from overs 1-20) were classed as full. After it, nearly a fifth again.

Neither does changing the lengths we're looking at. Let's expand the parameter for full to also include good-length deliveries, which, as Asif and Glenn McGrath forever remind us, are as much the bedrock of attacking bowling. That leaves us with the not wholly unreasonable argument that in most conditions, bowling back of a length with a new ball can be construed as a defensive move. Before his ban nearly 35% of Amir's deliveries were classified as back, or short, of a length; after his ban this fell to 21%.

This kind of data is not for everyone. But it's undeniable that the two Amirs are different. Which brings us back again to this: What if the "what if" we posit about Amir is the wrong one? What if it isn't "What if Amir had not been banned then how good would he have been"? What if it is that that Amir never existed but for a brief, glorious period? What if that Amir existed because he played all but three of his Tests in Australia, New Zealand and England, and that in the English summer of 2010 the ball swung like a chandelier in a hurricane? What if that Amir was good, but not as good as we thought? That he was flattered by the conditions he played in, the bowlers he played alongside?

Amir defended his bowling in much the same way that all athletes do their poor performances - they are trying, it's the process that's important, bad times come to all, numbers don't tell the full story. But the more we spoke, the more he seemed to be arriving at that "what if", the right one, and even a broader disaffection.

People remember that 2010 summer, I prompted.

"That cricket has changed, those conditions have changed, people have to understand that."

He was almost pleading.

"That year everyone swung the ball. The wickets, the overhead conditions. Now the wickets have changed. Tell me how much does Mitchell Starc swing the ball? [Trent] Boult swings it in conditions where there is a little swing. I think he's the No. 1 bowler in the world, but conditions make a difference. In Ireland, in England, in South Africa, I swung the ball. When it doesn't swing in conditions for swing, then, sure, that is a problem.

"But playing a lot of cricket takes a toll. After playing without a break, the body is tired, the mind is tired."

Do you think those old memories of Amir are a burden?

"I wouldn't say burden exactly but yeah, people's hopes from me are higher."

Why aren't you doing what you did to Watson or Johnson in 2010?

"People have to understand that age, rhythm… I had played consistently then and had a rhythm about my bowling, a confidence. Now I am back and things change. That is life. I'm nine years older. I was 18, now I'm 27. The biggest loss I've had is my mother, who passed recently. Even having a daughter makes a difference.

"Ball in hand, playing - that isn't it for us, it isn't everything. There are a million things to manage in life, to look after family, the pressures of performance. Many things. One single guy with 220 million hopes behind him, he has to win a match - people have to understand it isn't easy."

A miracle kid: when Mohammad Amir first burst onto the scene, we all watched with our mouths agape, like Shane Watson here at Lord's, 2010

A miracle kid: when Mohammad Amir first burst onto the scene, we all watched with our mouths agape, like Shane Watson here at Lord's, 2010 Tom Shaw / © Getty Images

Earlier this summer, a year on from when we spoke, Amir was cut from Pakistan's central contracts list. This was the official "We've-decided-to-move-on" moment. He initially made himself unavailable for Pakistan's current tour of England, for which he would only have been involved in the T20Is. His wife was expecting their second child and with quarantine requirements in place, it wasn't logistically feasible for him to be part of the series. But an early birth meant that he could play, a decade on from Lord's.

In the 17 years since he first moved to Rawalpindi to pursue cricket seriously, Amir's career could have ended at any number of moments, in any number of ways. Those early weeks in the big city, when he yearned for home; major back injuries; the fixing ban - this slow fade is an innocuous and unexpected way for it to go.

A story Amir has told many times is of the time he received his first Pakistan shirt. He couldn't stop looking at his name. He couldn't believe it was his name. He couldn't stop looking at himself wearing the shirt. He kept it on all night.

So often has he told it, it now comes out as practised as the jokes a husband and wife tell every new couple they befriend about each other. But he's still able to summon a genuineness in every retelling. There is no question it meant a lot to him. To go from that to the disaffection of that March day, it didn't seem right that this is how it might end. That for all he has overcome, he isn't the balloon that popped but the balloon that exhaled itself out of existence, floating this way and that until it wasn't.

II

Get on the Grand Trunk (GT) Road from Rawalpindi southbound towards Lahore. About 55km down, take a left to Gujar Khan. Drive through the market, through to a railway crossing a couple of kilometres down. A decade ago you'd have to drive across it but when he was prime minister in 2012, Gujar Khan's Raja Pervaiz Ashraf had an underpass built to cut underneath it. There's nothing like an underpass to gift to local constituencies - governments can't provide drinking water yet wave underpasses around like they are an index of development.

Keep going. It's now half an hour since you turned off GT Road so don't worry if it looks like you've left behind the modern, urban lived experience. Open, agricultural fields on either side, and other than the little sand-hills or clusters of low-lying homes, the horizon rolls out unimpeded. After 12km, a left to Changa Bangial.

Some friends of mine on WhatsApp had begun to despair of Amir's bowling: seedhi seedhi - as straight as a boy scout, no swing, no movement, nothing

Turn, drive past a government primary school for girls and, ideally now, call the local you've arranged for, to meet you at the turn onto a cement path. Without him, you're not going to get there. The path is wide enough for one car, so if there's an oncoming vehicle, somebody will have to reverse. It is elevated, with a two-foot drop on either side into agricultural lands. Park your car at the end of this path, about 2km long. It's taken nearly two and a half hours from Rawalpindi.

Follow the local into the lanes snaking through this hamlet. Most days, no life is to be heard from the houses. Most are made from brick but not reinforced with concrete and so look incomplete, with boundary walls low enough that if you're an adult male of average height and stand on your toes, you could see inside. The smell is the dried cow dung on the walls. After five minutes you will arrive at "H. NO: 11", the home of Raja Mohammad Fayyaz and his seven children.

This was, for the first decade or so of his life, the quiet, secluded world of Mohammad Amir, the second youngest of six sons and one daughter. There's a handful of houses surrounding his, all slightly removed from the actual village of Changa Bangial.

Not that long ago, when Amir was a child discovering the game, and that narrow cement path hadn't been built, and the road through Gujar Khan was narrower and more difficult to navigate, this little cluster was as good as an island: difficult to get to, difficult to get out of, existing solely to not be found.

It is not important what Raja Mohammad Fayyaz did as much as that whatever he did kept a large family going. Amir says, without detail, that his father was in the army and he then worked, in an unspecified capacity, in government. Michael Atherton's account, in 2012, has him as a watchman at a school. Either way, it was enough for Amir to recognise the importance of a man doing whatever he can to run his life and support its many dependents. It was also enough that Amir's childhood was not an unhappy one.

"It's a beautiful village, the most beautiful you'll see," he says, painting the kind of idyllic picture one does of a home from the comfort of not having to be there any longer. "You can enjoy all kinds of weather. If it gets really hot, you go there and you won't feel so hot. In the evenings you might still need a blanket."

Billa Tennis, the celebrity tape-ball cricketer who was bested by an 11-year-old Amir

Billa Tennis, the celebrity tape-ball cricketer who was bested by an 11-year-old Amir © Billa Tennis

Whatever else passed the village by, cricket did not and Amir drifted into the game at school when he was seven. This being the late '90s, no surprises that it was word of Shahid Afridi's incredible feats that wormed its way into his ears. Pakistan were playing a game, and his friend told him about a hundred Afridi had scored and how they had to watch him.

The first cricket that turned Amir was the 1999 World Cup, the first time he saw Wasim Akram. Around this time he started playing tape-ball cricket with friends, usually in a field behind his school and it became a vital part of the day. He'd walk to school, listening to commentary on radio if Pakistan was playing, get through the day - maths wasn't the easiest but school was painless and uneventful - and then lose himself to the game.

In seventh grade, when he was around 11, there was a moment of local fame. The school had a tape-ball team and was playing in a local tournament. Because of Akram, Amir was, naturally, a fast bowler and already better enough than the others to be made captain. As often happens in a lot of these small, local tournaments, the match was played to running commentary from speakers along the sidelines.

"I took a couple of wickets," he remembers. "But there was a catch I took where I dove in the rough sand outfield. On commentary they really appreciated the catch and said this boy has talent, he can really do something."

This small, but public, validation, the catch itself; the Afridi innings; the '99 World Cup and Akram; gradually this flotsam of experiences grouped together so that one day, he was in deeper than he realised. His local legend began to grow. His older brothers and their friends would play against teams from nearby villages. Most of the kids Amir's age were excluded, but Amir would play because he was already that good. He was small for his age and soon became the team's central hustle: "That little kid? Really?"

As the second youngest in the family, these games usually required Amir sneaking out without his mother noticing. He would go to other villages nearby, do his thing and return, the thing by now being pace and yorkers: "That's what works in tape-ball cricket." Also uncommon smarts, knowing when to bowl what, to what field, gleaned mostly from TV.

This world would suffice until the day he was sent out by his mother to pick up some curd. He was idling around the house, she wanted him out.

Billa Tennis is the most legendary Pakistani cricketer you've never heard of. Sajjad Khan, as nobody now knows him, though it's not like he has a player profile page. But in an alternative universe, in which tape-ball cricket is the real thing, Billa Tennis is king, bestriding Punjab's circuits for 40 years now.

Only now does it come across as truly negligent that Pakistan had no plan to ease Amir back in. No plan, that is, other than to play him in every game possible

He's played all over Pakistan, and its most prosperous province, the Arabian Gulf. He's played alongside Mohammad Hafeez and Misbah-ul-Haq. He's had his thumbs broken by Shoaib Akhtar (in a rare hard-ball game, while keeping to him). He's hit six sixes in an over 12 times, though sometimes he says it's 18. He once hit Sohail Tanvir - also a tape-ball champion - for ten sixes in a game. A friend of his moved to the UK and set up a sports equipment business: he named the store Billa Tennis Sports Shop because it needed brand recognition (it's okay to roll your eyes at this one).

Sometime before the 2003 World Cup, Billa Tennis was invited to play a tournament in Changa Bangial. Villages often arranged such tournaments, hoping to build the name of their own teams by inviting others from surrounding areas. There was good prize money on offer (though nothing like now, when it can go upwards of a PKR 1 million, with cars and motorbikes as individual prizes). This particular tournament coincided with an Urs Mubarak - a commemoration, or celebration, of a Sufi saint, held at a shrine - in the village. Billa was from Rawalpindi and was at his peak, so snagging him was a major coup.

When Billa and others arrived, they were told of this little dynamite kid, a bit of strutting in the good name of the village of Changa Bangial.

"You hit this boy for more than two sixes in an over and we'll buy you a meal in any hotel in Pindi," was the challenge laid out.

The next day Amir was on his way to buy the curd when he ran into a cousin, who said Tauqeer bhai, a part of the village team who had first mentioned Amir to these visitors, was calling for Amir. The cousin said he'd get the curd but Amir better go.

"So I went - they were staying at somebody's house, these ten to 12 guys from Pindi.

"Ji Tauqeer bhai, assalam waleikum."

"'Amir, come." And to the others: "See, this is that kid."

The guys looked him up and down and laughed.

Tauqeer bhai, now on the front foot.

"Okay, not two sixes, you hit him for two fours. Let's do it now."

When Amir first emerged on the national radar, he was

When Amir first emerged on the national radar, he was "very, very frail but could do things with the ball," Mudassar Nazar, then the NCA coach, recalls

It was a warm afternoon as they walked to a ground nearby. Wickets were put up, Billa took guard and Amir ran in, not knowing it would be the death over that bought him a life.

"Six out of six on his toes," Amir sings. "The last ball undid his shoelaces. Yorker after yorker. He hit me for one boundary. They were all sitting there, watching Billa not hitting me, thinking this kid is something."

Amir remembers the boundary, leg side somewhere. Billa, not known to play his feats down, doesn't.

"I could lie about it, tell people that I once hit Amir as well," he allows. "But no, why should I? The truth is I couldn't hit him. He didn't let me hit him. He was that good then.

"He was this little paindoo [bumpkin], shalwar kameez, chappals - I don't know how he ran in those - but he used to land yorkers at will. And he was quick for his age."

The tournament proper began that evening. The big guns were in town, including "Jayasuriya" from Gujrat, Sohail Tanvir from Rawalpindi and Papa Tasawwar from Lahore. Near midnight a couple of teens arrived outside Amir's house on a motorbike. Amir was sleeping outside, on a cot close to the gate. Word was spreading like a virus about this skinny little kid Billa couldn't hit and they wanted to see him again.

Amir woke up, bemused but willing. Amir's mother also woke up, unwilling. No way was her boy going anywhere this late. Luckily Ejaz - Amir's oldest brother - was already there and, satisfied that a chaperone would be present, she eventually relented.

Like a circus act, Amir was wheeled out: The Kid Who Nobody Hit. This time there was a crowd that, in Amir's remembering, included prime-minister-to-be, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf. This time he didn't even have a taped-up tennis ball, he had a ganji or bald one, sheared of its felt covering. Again, he bowled single overs at a line-up of the most fearsome hitters. Again, they couldn't hit him.

Amir now is the bowler Asif Bajwa built: disciplined, efficient, intelligent, consistent. A man charged not to blow your mind but to mildly arouse it

Looking on was Saqib Naqeeb, a batsman who, around that time, had just begun what would be a brief first-class career for Rawalpindi. He was sold. Amir's future, he reckoned, lay on the real cricket circuit. Amir, meanwhile, went back home, not allowed by his brother to stay on as it was so late.

The next morning Zafar Shah, a village elder and now an emissary for Naqeeb, came to the house to speak with Ejaz. Amir had something special, they said, and there was an academy in Rawalpindi he could be placed. He had a future.

Instantly Amir, his brothers, even his father, agreed. His mother not so much.

"From a small village to go to the big city, her little boy, you can understand her concerns," Amir explains. "It took a week to convince her. Every day I moped around with a long face. And then some of the older village guys spoke to my mother and said, 'Maaji, we will take responsibility for this, we will take care of him.' These were our team seniors. Finally she agreed."

"Aasmaan me Allah, aur zameen par Asif Bajwa," is how Naqeeb understands the interventions that took Amir from where he first saw him to where Amir is now. Even if you don't believe in the former, you can't not believe in the latter.

Asif Bajwa runs one of Pakistan's most acclaimed private cricket academies, in Rawalpindi. Now 23 years old, it is much more than an academy - he offers schooling and a place to live for those, such as Amir, who have nothing when they come. From the day Amir arrived in February 2003 to the day he left after being selected for Pakistan in 2009, Bajwa was his coach, mentor, father and consigliere. In many ways, he still is.

Asif Bajwa had a disciplinarian style of coaching but he was a key father figure in Amir's life

Asif Bajwa had a disciplinarian style of coaching but he was a key father figure in Amir's life BK Bangash / © Associated Press

The bowler Amir is now is the bowler Bajwa built: disciplined, efficient, intelligent, consistent. The boy wonder of that first year in international cricket - the bells and whistles of the swing, the pace - was, in a way, a red herring. The real thing is the man you see now, charged not to blow your mind but to mildly arouse it.

The day Bajwa first saw him, he tossed Amir a hard ball and asked him to bowl. Amir held it for a few seconds before asking him what the seam was. He'd never held a hard ball before.

"I explained to him it was the seam, and that is where you grip the ball," Bajwa says. "He bowled a ball, an ordinary delivery, ordinary speed, ordinary bounce. But the thing was, he had a good action. Almost exactly like his action now."

On that basis he took Amir in, reasoning as he has always done that if kids came to him readymade then there wouldn't be anything for him to do. Amir was given a small room and little luxury. In any case, Amir was goggle-eyed by the cricket facilities - the nets, the equipment, the pitches. For that first week he was treated with extra care, but he soon discovered that Bajwa was a disciplinarian.

A tight daily routine was established. School till 2pm, back to the room for food, practice and nets after that, back to the room early evening to finish off school work, eat, sleep. Repeat. On weekends, he'd take part in his first hard-ball games.

"I learnt how to bowl at the academy," Amir says. "I learnt from Sir about discipline in bowling. I wasn't allowed to bowl bouncers. I was allowed only to bowl six out of six on a good length. If I hit elsewhere, I'd get a slap. Just doing that got my mind working like a machine on where to land the ball."

Bajwa saw in Amir an exceptional ability - for that age - to absorb instruction. He would stand at mid-on during games and draw out, ball by ball, entire three- or four-over spells and be amazed at how diligently Amir executed them. And then more amazed by how, three weeks later, Amir would remember a detail from the game and apply it to a new situation.

"I could lie about it, tell people that I once hit Amir as well. But no, why should I? The truth is I couldn't hit him" Billa Tennis, a legendary Pakistani tape-ball cricketer

But that first year was tough. Amir pined for his mother, Changa Bangial, his friends and their old life. He would go back often on sanctioned leave, but on two occasions he did so without telling Bajwa, not wanting to return. Bajwa's brother found him and brought him back.

The deeper the pair's relationship grew, though, the more settled Amir became. Any expenses Amir incurred were unquestioningly covered by Bajwa: accommodation of course, but also food and regular pocket money. "My food used to come from my house and I used to leave that for Amir," Bajwa says. "Because he needed the energy and sustenance."

By 2005, Amir was displaying the purpose and drive of elite achievers. That year he took his matriculate exams while also rising through Punjab's schools cricket. He'd do well enough in those games to start attracting broader attention, though Bajwa recalls Amir's exam results - "first-class, 625 marks out of 850" - with as much pride.

Amir began to work his way through Pakistan's byzantine age and regional tiers. Sabih Azhar, a veteran Rawalpindi coach, wanted Amir in his Under-19 Rawalpindi side. But Bajwa felt Amir, at 16, was too young.

Reluctantly but dutifully, Amir agreed to wait another year. But Bajwa sensed the disappointment and conceded. District (inter-province) cricket was a big deal, the first step to regional prominence and then, who knows, national.

It was the first time Amir was bowling long-form in games played over two days and getting through a large number of overs. Azhar picked him again for the inter-regional championships that followed and performances there put him on the national radar.

Amir tasted plenty of success early in his career, but it was within a team riven by politicking and mutual suspicion

Amir tasted plenty of success early in his career, but it was within a team riven by politicking and mutual suspicion Tom Shaw / © Getty Images

Word got to Mudassar Nazar, who in 2006 was heading the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Lahore. On a scouting trip he went to Abbottabad and Rawalpindi on the same day, saw Junaid Khan in the first city and Amir in the latter, and drafted them both into a development programme at the NCA.

"Junaid was stronger physically, but Amir," Nazar says, letting out a whoosh, "he was very, very frail but when I saw him bowl, I wanted him at the academy. Amir could do things with the ball."

Amir went to trials for a Pakistan U-19 series that year with India and everyone liked what they saw but thought he needed another year. That winter his performances suggested he didn't, so rapidly was he developing. He played his first senior-level competitive cricket, a regional grade II tournament, and was the fifth-highest wicket-taker and the youngest among those around him by at least eight years; when he went back to a U-19 tournament after it, he averaged 6.05 with the ball, picking up 18 wickets in just over 50 overs.

If there was any doubt he was ready, it was dispelled at a camp in Lahore in June 2007 organised by the PCB for fast bowlers of all ages, shapes and vices. Akram was overseeing it. Asked about prospects, he lifted his left arm to shoulder height, cocked his left wrist up, wiggled it to indicate movement both ways and said: "Amir. Idhar udhar ball move karta hain, pace bhi hain. I like it."

In the extremities of the next two years is the foretelling of an entire career. In these years we begin to appreciate the improbability of Amir's career in the first place; to be discovered, to survive a transplantation, to evolve and then plough through, a career hung on a stray, fraying thread of fortune and fate, hostage to its weakening tensile forces. At any moment it could snap and yet at every moment it is a marvel he has gotten there. It is also to appreciate a point Akhtar made upon his retirement, to remember not only the struggle before playing even a single game of cricket for Pakistan but to recognise how life-changing that single game can be.

It began on Amir's second Pakistan U-19 tour, to England. (His first had been to Australia where, on landing, he'd hoped nobody came and spoke to him in English. Until that trip he'd never had an ID document.) It was on this England tour that a wider public began to get giddy about Amir. Time at the NCA had made him stronger and increased his pace considerably, and here, across a month, Amir put all of it together.

There's a school of thought that suggests the enforced gap in Amir's career could help him prolong his career: five years of no wear and tear on bodies notorious for them

But he'd also been complaining of a sore back. Much to Nazar's irritation, the PCB had refused to send a dedicated physiotherapist on the tour, instead arranging for one from a county at every venue. Amir would bowl, pick up wickets, feel stiff, have massages and ice-pack treatment, bowl again, pick up wickets, move on.

"I knew there was something wrong," Nazar says, "but we couldn't get it diagnosed there. He came back, had an MRI done and found three fractures in the back. One he'd probably had while he was playing tape-ball and it had healed itself. Two - the L3 and L5 [the specific vertebrae] - were really, really bad."

It was the first time Amir had heard the word "fracture". It is not an uncommon injury in young athletes but Amir's case was slightly more complex. Medical opinion within the PCB was that there was a good chance he wouldn't bowl again unless he had drastic surgery. Nazar, who had broken down and cried when he found out, was told it might be worth investing elsewhere.

Nothing doing. Nazar doubled down. Keep him at the academy, draw up a nutrition plan, figure out his rehab and get him fit again within the year. For nearly five months Amir trained and shadow-bowled. He'd not been told of the medical opinion but had started to think this might be his end. He would cry often, desperately homesick. Around him things were moving, players were progressing, passing through the academy and either moving on or moving out. He was stationary.

But gradually the pain went. They'd suggested a remodelling of the action, which he had ignored. Finally, at the turn of the year, Nazar took a punt and called him to his office.

Ready?

Yes.

You're going to Sri Lanka.

Four wickets in his first game there sealed his selection to the U-19 World Cup in Malaysia.

Amir and fellow left-arm seamer Junaid Khan (standing, fourth and fifth from left) on the Pakistan U-19 tour of England in 2007. Amir took eight wickets at 16.37 from five matches

Amir and fellow left-arm seamer Junaid Khan (standing, fourth and fifth from left) on the Pakistan U-19 tour of England in 2007. Amir took eight wickets at 16.37 from five matches Matthew Lewis / © Getty Images

"Our first match was against Malaysia," Amir says. "I had a headache. I took two early wickets. But by the third over my body gave way, I had no energy. Eventually I knelt down and the boys had to carry me off. I had a fever of 101 or 102."

Two days later, drifting in and out of consciousness, he was taken to hospital. Blood tests revealed dengue. In Amir's telling, another day's delay could have been fatal. It took him a few days to recover enough to be able to travel back, his tournament over. Down again, this time in Changa Bangial.

And then up again, a month or so later as he made his List A debut, taking three wickets and partnering in a ten-run last-wicket stand that won the game. Another high, more tours, this time with a Pakistan Academies side to Bangladesh and then Zimbabwe.

And then to hell.

He started feeling pain in his lower back again during a four-day game in Harare. He played through, managing his pain, returned and rested, played an U-19 final for Rawalpindi because Sabih Azhar asked him to, where he took a six-for, but the pain wouldn't go. Then, on cue, Bajwa called.

"It was really getting to this stage," Amir recalls, "where every time I was getting closer to a breakthrough, something happened. Did I really need this? Sir Bajwa called and said, you've done well with your studies so far so let's continue with it. When you're fit again, in a year or two, you can start playing. I could tell he thought my career might be over."

Bajwa was worried, but the idea to continue studying, he insists, was just in case. You know. So many things could go wrong.

What if that Amir was good, but not as good as we thought? What if he was flattered by the conditions he played in, the bowlers he played alongside?

Amir went to Bajwa's academy that evening, had a net and Marie Kondo-ed his head.

"I said to Sir, give me six months. Let me play and if this back pain doesn't improve I'll just leave and get on with my studies."

Bajwa put together a month-long plan, the blue-sky thinking behind which was: lohey ko loha hi kaaththa hain [only iron can cut iron]; the greater the pain, the harder you train. The finer details involved Amir moving back in and starting each day at Fajr prayers with a run, wearing a weighted belt. He would come back for breakfast, sleep, wake up and then bowl in the nets with the belt on. Every evening would end with intense massages and treatments from a renowned Rawalpindi physiotherapist, Dr Mushtaq Bhutta.

After Zimbabwe, Amir had signed a contract with National Bank of Pakistan (NBP), one of the leading domestic first-class sides in the country. Towards the end of November of this cursed 2008, they called to ask if he was ready for the season. He said he was even though the pain hadn't gone.

"I had to take a chance, do or die, if it wasn't happening I'd just quit," Amir says. "The [NBP] camp was in Karachi, they didn't know but I think suspected I had this back thing. So I went to Sir and asked him. He said now that you've taken a chance, go all in."

As insurance, Amir carried with him some water his mother had given, blessed by a religious elder from the village. Drink it for ten days and the pain will go. Amir is a man of faith so he drank the water every day he was at the camp.

"The last day of the camp was the last day of the water. I drank it, woke up and thought, I'm feeling okay. I didn't put on my belt for the first time and went into the nets, bowling off a few paces, not too fast. Eventually I was asked to put on spikes and come out to the middle for practice. I bowled a couple of full-pace deliveries, off my proper run and no pain. The first time I'd bowled a ball in months without any pain."

Amir with Bajwa (in white cap), who was there again, ready to help him train as he looked to return to international cricket after his ban

Amir with Bajwa (in white cap), who was there again, ready to help him train as he looked to return to international cricket after his ban © Asif Bajwa

The next day he made his Quaid-e-Azam Trophy debut, against Habib Bank. He took six wickets, including that of Younis Khan twice. He ended the tournament with 55 wickets and in the summer of 2009, debuted for Pakistan.

"Aasmaan me Allah aur zameen par Asif Bajwa."

III

The referral to Sajida Malik came through a junior member of Salman Butt's legal team. Here was Mohammad Amir in a world of trouble and he needed a lawyer. Cricket is not much Malik's thing - though her family is obsessed with it - but she had heard about the three players accused of spot-fixing.

The first time she met him, in February 2011, was on Skype. He was in Lahore and she in London. Earlier that month an ICC tribunal had found him guilty and banned him for five years. A day before the verdict, the UK's Crown Prosecution Service had charged the trio, confirming they would face trial in London.

"He came across as a quite frightened, very young person," remembers Malik. "He was in a room with men in suits and he was a child. Very polite in that way young people are. We were talking in Punjabi. I told him who we were, what we do, that we were not sure whether we were the right people for him."

Malik was right and wrong to think her firm, Birnberg Peirce, was not for this case. One of the partners is Gareth Peirce, often reduced in profiles to "radical lawyer" when she's really a crusader against all manner of injustices. (She was named Jean by her parents but changed her name to Gareth.)

Peirce has, over 30 years, fought to right some of the gravest miscarriages of justice in the British legal system. Most celebrated was her role in freeing the Guildford Four, wrongfully imprisoned for life for an Irish Republican Army bombing. You may also remember the case from the 1993 film In the Name of the Father, in which Peirce was portrayed by Emma Thompson, who was nominated for an Oscar, but whose portrayal Peirce is said to have been unhappy with.

She turned her attentions to the War on Terror thereafter, sensing, as she did with the Irish community during The Troubles (the conflict in Northern Ireland), a similarly wrongful targeting of a people. She was instrumental in the release of four Muslim men illegally detained in Guantanamo Bay, including, famously, Moazzam Begg.

"When we won the World T20, I bought a house. I wanted to have my parents living with me. That was a massive moment, to be able to do it with my own money" Amir

To her clients she is more than a lawyer, so deep becomes her involvement in their cases; some of her Arabic-speaking clients refer to her as Al-Umm, or mother. Malik is cut from similar cloth, investing herself so wholly in cases that they become causes. The firm's office in Camden, north London - cramped, cavernous, spilling over with files in high, deep shelves - can't help but reveal this spirit: there's an endearing haphazardness in the way it is arranged that suggests far greater care is being applied to those the office works for than to its upkeep.

Amir was an odd client to take on because, in the world of Birnberg Peirce's legal activism, Amir's misdemeanour was minute; and because he was not wrongfully accused. But in tending to a young man neglected by a wonky administration, the firm were playing closer to type.

"We specialise in human rights and terrorism," Malik explains. "He was abroad and I was thinking it was a little odd that he was coming to us, but having seen him on Skype, I got a sense that he was really isolated.

"By that point a lot of people had contacted him and offered money to represent him. He was very sweet and then he phoned back the next day and said, I think you should represent me, I can talk to you."

It was a bad time to debut for Pakistan. In that first year, Amir played under four captains. His first, Younis Khan, twice tried to step down before he succeeded. His second, Mohammad Yousuf, was removed and banned. His third, Shahid Afridi, quit after one Test. His fourth was Salman Butt.

Bad time? More like the worst. Amir's debut was Pakistan's first Test after their last one at home for nearly a decade. They won the 2009 World T20 - Amir's first taste of international cricket - but as the year progressed, it got crazy.

Amir (covering face) with Mohammad Asif (right) and Salman Butt (in red) at Heathrow, returning to Pakistan soon after the <I>News of the World</i> sting was published

Amir (covering face) with Mohammad Asif (right) and Salman Butt (in red) at Heathrow, returning to Pakistan soon after the News of the World sting was published Steve Parsons / © PA Photos/Getty Images

Deep fractures grew within the side. Players revolted against a captain. The tour of Australia was so bad and messy, the least bad thing about it was the fact that all nine international matches were lost. It led to bans on seven players and the manager calling his team "mentally retarded"; the board responsible came off worse. Performances veered dramatically enough to be played out against a growing murmur of corruption. Inexplicable batting collapses and surprise defeats accompanied by unsettling reports of proximity to undesirables and accusations by the government all felt very late-'90s. Little fires flickering - noted but not, perhaps, understood as sufficient warning - into the fireball that would erupt at Lord's.

Navigating a way through was Amir, who had enough to contend with in the vast change his life had already undergone. He had been his family's main breadwinner for a while now, since Nazar had put him on a monthly stipend at the NCA that was modest but still more than anyone in his family had earned. Now there was security at NBP, with a monthly salary and associated perks, but also the map of a life post-cricket. Team Pakistan comes and goes, but a job with a department is for life.

Playing for Pakistan and winning the World T20, was, however, a different order of financial uplift. As a child, Amir had done itikaf several times, an Islamic practice, generally reserved for Ramadan, that takes the form of temporary asceticism. The person spends a number of days inside a mosque, in isolation but in worship, an individual communion with God.

"I used to pray and say, 'Ya Allah mujhe ek acchi gaari, bahut saare paisey aur ek ghar de dena.'" Please God, give me a nice car, money and a house.

"So when we won the World T20, I bought a house. I wanted to have my parents living with me so I told them to come. That was a massive moment, to be able to do it with my own money."

"He was very sweet and then he phoned back the next day and said, I think you should represent me, I can talk to you" Sajida Malik, Amir's lawyer in the spot-fixing case

Pakistan's itinerary that year was intense. Beginning with the World T20 in England in June, Amir was on the road with few breaks until the end of August 2010. England, Sri Lanka, less than a month's break, South Africa (2009 Champions Trophy), less than a month's break, the UAE, New Zealand, Australia, a longish break, the Caribbean (2010 World T20), Sri Lanka (Asia Cup) and back to England; over 100 scheduled match days, seven countries, nine tours. He would steal a week here, three days there, to be with family but for that year the team was family.

Slowly he was slipping free of one mooring out into the open, searching for another. After one big win Amir was feeling good and decided to pop up his shirt collar, a simple act of fashion that, translated figuratively, sounded a bigger warning. Afridi, no stranger to the baggage of teenage superstardom, clocked it immediately. Put them down, he said. It's too early.

Younis was good early on, a natural with younger players. Just before Amir was to bowl in his first televised game - a warm-up against India before the World T20 began - Younis came up to him and told him to relax. Take three deep breaths. You get hit for fours, no tension. Breathe deep, go again. But he wasn't around for long. Yousuf was supportive but ditto. Akhtar, like Afridi, could see where it was going. But who was going to take career advice from him? And he wasn't around a lot.

Bajwa was on hand from a distance and, like any father, he sensed trouble growing. Friends in the board were telling him the players and people around Amir were those he'd best avoid. The sudden expansion of his universe, in beginning to appear limitless, unsettled Amir.

"You know it feels good the fame and everything, but it's very difficult to deal with," he explains. "You don't know who is happy with you, who is saying things to your face but something else behind it.

"Sometimes you don't say much in front of people and walk away, wondering what they might make of you. They might say you're arrogant or have an attitude. Life becomes really tough. You have to be on your guard, thinking every second. Every step you take, you have to think hard before taking it. If you're sitting with ten guys and want to laugh hard, you think twice because they might think you're a shoukha [a show-off]. But if you don't laugh, then you're badtameez [ill-mannered]."

Amir often tells the story of how he felt when he first saw his name on a Pakistan shirt

Amir often tells the story of how he felt when he first saw his name on a Pakistan shirt Glyn Kirk / © AFP/Getty Images

Eventually Pakistan and Amir turned to Butt. As an NBP team-mate, Amir had been struck by Butt's assuredness in the world around him; they both inhabited the same world, Amir thought, but not every day.

"Amir wants to make it clear he wants to take full responsibility for what he did by bowling two deliberate no-balls."

This is part of a statement read out by Amir's legal team in Southwark Crown Court in London on November 1, 2011, the day Butt and Asif were found guilty of conspiracy to cheat and conspiracy to accept and obtain corrupt payments. Twenty-two words together forming a quiet little shiver in the continuum of the history and culture of his country.

Given the weight of evidence, it's reasonable to think he had no other choice. Nobody could deny this. Except they could, as Asif and Butt, in filing not-guilty pleas against that very evidence, did (their admissions came nearly three years after the Lord's Test, and only in order to return to cricket).

Put Amir's admission against the context of the Justice Qayyum report, and the eight cricketers sanctioned in it as well as the numerous others name-checked, not a single one of whom has admitted to anything. Although the Qayyum investigation was not a criminal prosecution, almost all those names swan around now, successful careers in tow, redeemed in a conspiracy of silence.

Think of all the public figures over the years in Pakistan and the tales of their corruption; a stream of industrialists, military men, politicians, judges, bureaucrats. All those investigations, inquiries and court cases in which precisely nobody ever admitted to anything.

Amir spent much of the year after the News of the World sting operation not admitting. In December 2010, the PCB held a series of secretive meetings with him to convince him to plead guilty to the ICC tribunal. He didn't, not even after he was handed the ban.

He played along in a TV interview the evening he was banned, disingenuously telling viewers he couldn't understand getting banned for bowling two no-balls. The next morning he was put out by a newspaper headline that chose to "slap" the ban on him. It was disrespectful.

"People can talk but not many see that since I've returned, I've been playing constantly. And after a long break, doing that, your body gets tired, your mind gets tired" Amir

It wasn't until the criminal case dawned that he began to consider an admission. He arrived in London one day before the first hearing in March 2011.

"He was in a hotel in Kensington with Butt and Asif," his lawyer Malik recalls. "They arrived late in the evening and we were in court the following morning, for his first appearance at which we were making a bail application.

"That was when we got a sense of what was going on, that he was this young man, in awe of everyone around him. What really struck me was the class divide. You had Amir, who was this village kid and Salman, a middle-class, educated guy, clearly running the show. And Amir sitting there with his head down.

"We extracted him from that, partly because we needed to spend time alone with him so that we could make decisions."

Malik's own initial scanning of the case, from public reporting, had made it clear this was not a case to prove someone's innocence. The day after the bail application, she had a frank conversation with Amir. They wanted to help. Something had happened. If it was what everyone thought, put your hand up. They were there to get him through this.

He was, Malik remembers, profoundly ashamed. There was a bit of bravado about him otherwise but when it came to talking about it, the shame was overwhelming.

"Then he said something did happen and I want to tell you about it but I'm not sure how," she says. "It was really hard for him. He was worried about what people would say, about what he had said at the ICC. We were saying, this is a moment, you have a new team, you're young, you understand the situation and that there was a way through all of this if he told the truth and that we would help him to do that. He thought about it quickly and said, 'This is what I want to do. How do I tell the truth?'"

Amir's mother and brother Ejaz watch the news of the sentencing proceedings in London, November 2011

Amir's mother and brother Ejaz watch the news of the sentencing proceedings in London, November 2011 Anjum Naveed / © Associated Press

Malik told him to sleep on it. In the care Peirce and Malik took of their clients, Amir came across something he didn't know he needed in the first place; as if it hadn't occurred to him there was an adult way to confront what he'd done, with understanding and no judging.

"My father always said, as Muslims, if you've made a mistake and you try to hide it, there is nothing you can hide from Allah," Amir says. "To tell the truth is difficult and a bitter thing but it makes the future easier. If you have made a mistake, just accept it."

The next day, two days after that first hearing, he went to Malik and told her the entire story.

On September 16, at a pre-trial hearing, Amir pleaded guilty, though because of restrictions and its impact on the trial of Butt and Asif - who had pleaded not guilty - that would not be made public until sentencing. That was nearly two months later, after a month-long trial. Once he had filed his plea, anxiety gave way to relief. He had not yet told anyone, not even his family. He was worried about how ashamed they would feel, and the spotlight it might bring upon them. With the help of Malik, though, he spoke to his brother Ejaz and explained what they were doing and why. He told Bajwa himself.

Amir spent a lot of that summer between the offices of Birnberg Peirce and friends he was staying with in London, and through whom he would meet his future wife. With friends he would seek normalcy, watching a lot of Bollywood. His legal team, meanwhile, was charting a way forward for Amir post-trial, arguing that the five-year ban effectively amounted to a life ban, given that the ban essentially prevented him from bowling anywhere but his own house.

Amir got to know staff at the firm, many of them cricket fans. A couple of times they convinced him to bowl at them in the nets in Regent's Park, not far from the office. He took it seriously. Occasionally he'd tell Malik that he could take this guy's head off with a bouncer, but he'd rather let him feel good about himself and give him an easy drive.

If you're a Pakistani fast bowler who's not attacking then you're not Pakistani or fast: you're just some '80s county trundler

He also became familiar with the realities of Birnberg Peirce's other work. The firm was involved in well-publicised US extradition cases at the time, which struck a chord with Amir because he could relate to what the men were going through and because of that, their families. These clients were embroiled in graver messes but as the trial date neared that October, Amir grew anxious again.

The night before he was due in court for sentencing was a long, low one. He broke down, worried not for himself as much as for the humiliation for his family.

"They took me straight from court. The first thought I had was for my parents. No parent wants a day like this for their child. It felt like the last day of my life. You don't ever think of ending up like this. When they were taking me to the institute, I broke down because I was all alone."

There had been hope that because Amir had pleaded guilty, because of his age, because Pakistan cricket failed to protect him, because the game failed to protect him from corruptors, he might avoid a custodial sentence. But the public nature of the trial and the media coverage around it led, in Malik's words, to a "really horrible English thing happening". You come here, play our pristine game, and you dishonour it. We're going to teach you a lesson.

There is merit to the righteousness of this point. The basis of Amir's plea was that the no-balls at Lord's were the only occasion on which he had transgressed, when in fact there was evidence - as noted in Justice Jeremy Cooke's sentencing remarks - that suggested otherwise. That was in the form of texts between Amir and "Ali", a man in Dubai. Amir had forwarded Ali his bank details and then, amid a flurry of messages on the eve of the Oval Test (before Lord's), this: "so in the first three bowl whatever you like and in the last two do 8 runs?"

The evidence was not deemed actionable enough by Justice Cooke for a harsher charge to be raised, but it did convince him to hand down a custodial sentence. Amir has never satisfactorily explained "Ali", only telling Michael Atherton in an interview that this was the first time "Ali" had mentioned fixing and that he was, by turns, bored, curious and hassled enough (by the volume of Ali's messages) to respond.

It leaves an asterisk on the admission, but it doesn't invalidate it. Prison time makes sure of that. Amir was taken first to Feltham Young Offenders Institution, a prison with a long and notorious reputation for violence and racism. His celebrity and the fact he didn't speak English well meant there were genuine fears he could come to harm. Prison authorities recognised the situation and put him in a separate cell that first night, by which time Malik had already placed a request for a transfer. He was allowed to call Malik in the morning, telling her he was okay, but that, she knew by now, was his default position.

Back to the wall: a TV cameraperson shoots inside Amir's Changa Bangial home after he was sentenced in London

Back to the wall: a TV cameraperson shoots inside Amir's Changa Bangial home after he was sentenced in London Anjum Naveed / © Associated Press

A day later he was moved to the Portland Young Offenders Institute in Dorset. Malik was still worried - "a very white prison," she says - but it wasn't Feltham.

"I didn't sleep that first night, I couldn't, my mind wouldn't stop," Amir recalls. "The first two, three days I didn't sleep. I had a separate room, I had a TV, a PlayStation, there was a library I could go to, they taught me a first-aid course. But I was in prison."

Malik was more or less his only visitor and a regular one, assuming the role of surrogate family. On one of those first visits, she found him as low as she had seen him. She was talking to him about the future, and a return to cricket once he got out, and he shot down the idea. He told her not to talk to him about cricket again. He wasn't going to pick up a ball, let alone play another game.

This mood continued for a while though routine - one of the lesser-appreciated anti-depressants of our time - saw him through. He took up a cleaning job to give him time outside the cell - not that he did much cleaning. But interactions with other inmates allowed him to improve his English, which was important because English was pretty much the only language spoken inside.

"It was a little like school," he says. "If I wanted to go to the library to read books, I could do that. Sometimes they would get boys from one wing to serve food to boys from another. In the evenings, you had table tennis, football.

"I made a few friends. The guys knew me because they'd been reading the paper. They used to say I made their institute famous."

His older brothers and their friends would play against teams from nearby villages. Most of the kids Amir's age were excluded, but Amir would play because he was already that good

Ultimately, though, each day, with long hours inside his cell, represented a struggle. He had access to a gym but could not get himself to use it. When he spoke to family, he was the one putting on a front, pretending he was fine and telling them everything would be okay, that he'd make everything all right for everyone. He couldn't unburden himself or draw on their emotional support because, in that very subcontinental way, he didn't want to show that he needed it and they didn't understand fully what he was going through, least of all over a phone line.

There were regular counselling sessions, some of which helped and some of which - because they focused on his future plans and he didn't have any - deepened his funk. The only thing he looked forward to was the phone calls with the woman who would eventually be his wife.

"She never let me fall," he says. "Whenever I said anything negative, her response was always to bring me up. She understood what I needed and what I was feeling."

When he did get out, in February 2012, his lawyers had secured him a stay in the country for a few more weeks (ordinarily, he would have been deported as soon as he got out). They wanted him to have time to adjust to the prospect of returning to Pakistan. He'd been in England for a year now and was dreading going back.

The day before he flew out, he attended a Birnberg Peirce work party. It was an eclectic and bohemian gathering, with former IRA men, Muslims wrongfully accused of terrorism, black activists, musicians, legal heavies, and intellectuals. And for Mohammad Amir, another world to add to all the ones he had already inhabited.

IV

Four years, six months and 15 days after his last competitive delivery, Amir bowled his next. It was a second-tier domestic game in Rawalpindi and it shaped in a little to the right-hander. The pace, Amir remembers with some surprise, was healthy. He took two wickets in two balls in his fourth over, and a third later. But it was hard graft that first day, 16 overs in all, and his body reminded him of the strain of every single ball that evening. The first few games were a struggle, his body having unlearnt the unnatural strains fast bowling put upon it. All he could do about the deep aches was make sure to rest and sleep well each day, and on bowling days, a masseur kneading and squeezing his body loose.

When he ripped out India's top order and led Pakistan to a massive win in the 2017 Champions Trophy final, Amir briefly felt beloved again, like he had back in 2009-10

When he ripped out India's top order and led Pakistan to a massive win in the 2017 Champions Trophy final, Amir briefly felt beloved again, like he had back in 2009-10 © Getty Images

Committed as we have been in our search for that old Amir, it has sometimes escaped us how improbable and remarkable a feat his return is. We're used to players returning from serious injury, after a year, two at a stretch. A gap as long as Amir's is in all but unknown territory. When I put this to Timothy Olds, a professor at the University of South Australia who has written on the morphological evolution of athletes, the first references he responded with were Karoly Takacs and Leontien van Moorsel.

Takacs was a short-range pistol shooter from Hungary, the best in the world, and widely expected to win gold at the 1940 Olympics. In 1938, however, during army training a grenade went off in his right hand - his shooting hand. After a month in hospital, he returned and, in secret, began training with his left hand. In 1939, the left hand was good enough to win the national championship in Hungary. The Olympics of 1940 and 1944 were cancelled, but Takacs qualified for and won gold at the London Games in 1948. He repeated the feat in Helsinki four years later.

van Moorsel, meanwhile, was a Dutch cyclist who won the Tour Cycliste Feminin (the Tour de France for female cyclists) twice in the early '90s. By 1994, however, a tip to lose weight to help her hill climbs spiralled into a battle with anorexia, forcing her to quit. She returned in 1998, winning three golds at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, cementing her reputation as one of the great cyclists (a retrospective caveat, as with all cycling of the era, are the doping allegations made against her in 2017).

On a surface-level reading these are unusual and misplaced references, because both were out of sport for different physiological reasons and the nature - and success - of their returns are of a different order. But that, perhaps, is the point. This is not some sharply defined subset of athletes. Muhammad Ali was out of boxing for three and a half years for refusing the draft. The sprinter Justin Gatlin was out for four after failing a doping test. These are small islands, with their own geographies and climates. It's just that our instincts are to locate them within an archipelago.

Amir, for example, simply let his body be for a large chunk of the time he was away, leading to a slow decompression from the years of fast bowling it had been tautened up for. Not only did he not play any cricket, he barely did any exercise. He was banned from using any cricket facility owned by the PCB, including even those of self-run clubs simply registered with the PCB.

He started doing light training towards the end of 2014, when the PCB engaged the ICC in an attempt to relax Amir's ban. At the time, Bajwa had moved to Lahore to be close to Amir. He had him enrolled in a gym and, along with his own son, started taking Amir to a park for nets. There Amir started bowling, for the first time since he'd bowled seven overs for a village team in Surrey (in contravention of his ICC ban) in the summer of 2011. Serious training began in January 2015, once the ICC allowed Amir to return to domestic cricket. Two and a half months later he was playing that second-division game; by May he was playing domestic T20s; by September his first first-class game; by November he was at the Bangladesh Premier League, mingling with the world's best; by January he was back in international cricket.

"I had some savings from cricket but, it was a really difficult time. Where you were spending 10,000 rupees, you spend 1000" Amir on the time he spent outside cricket

For all the demands it makes on the body, fast bowling is an accumulative discipline. Up to a certain limit, the more you do of it, the better you get. While that is true for every sporting skill, because fast bowling requires such contortions of the body and coordination of bodily torques and twists, and because it relies on an intricate biomechanic syncing, it is more so here.

But actions are as fragile as egos, prone to being upended by any number of slights. A slope across a ground; running into the wind; slightly damp ground underfoot; harder soil or the wrong spikes. A tweak to the wrist to bowl cutters on subcontinental surfaces has knock-on effects on attempting outswing in England. And that's nothing to say of the impacts injuries have. A million things can go wrong between the first step of the run-up to the release from the tips of the fingers. Most actions take years of repetitive training to become grooved.

Once you stop doing it for as long as Amir did, there's no knowing how difficult it is to return to it as it was, or whether there is a danger of unlearning. It isn't impossible that there is a forgetting effect over a long period, although as Olds says, at an elite level it is unlikely to be significant.

"Humans as a whole have an amazing muscular memory for skills," he says. "Take driving. You don't drive for a decade but then get straight back into it. With that extremely high level of skill there'd be lots of tweaks and getting that body feeling right. That might take some time to rebuild. But we do have an extraordinary memory for skills and that would help where skill is a major component."

What Amir did definitely lose out on is the acquisitive benefits of knowledge - and skill - of bowling in those five years. Each ball bowled represents an infinitesimally small byte of data, stored away - often subconsciously - to be summoned at a moment of choosing or need. Amir has bowled, on average, 3000 balls per year. He missed out, then, on maybe 15,000 balls worth of data, each bowled at the elite level of a continually evolving sport; new formats, advances in batsmanship, changes in regulations, in conditions and even the tools of the game. Fifteen thousand balls, which would undoubtedly represent an opportunity for progress. Instead, not bowling all those years wasn't stagnation, it was regression.

Amir had age on his side. A five-year ban at 19, it needs no further explaining, is better than one at 27 - as Asif was when he was banned. Asif had no chance of a serious career once his ban was over and has not had one. In fact, there's a school of thought that suggests the enforced gap early in Amir's career could actually help him prolong his career on the other side: five years of no wear and tear on bodies notorious for them.

Family ties: marriage and fatherhood, Amir says, have loosened cricket's hold over him, with his other responsibilities taking precedence

Family ties: marriage and fatherhood, Amir says, have loosened cricket's hold over him, with his other responsibilities taking precedence Philip Brown / © Getty Images

Amir himself retained a fair degree of confidence throughout the ban that he'd be able to return physically, perhaps reasoning that if the back injuries of his youth didn't derail him, then prolonged rest was unlikely to. He understood that he would have to catch up - "not bowling for four days, you regress by a week and a half" - but that it would be a matter of time.

"You have to almost open up your body all over again after a break that long," he says. "To get it used to doing this. My main concern was that it would take a year and a half to get back to my proper self, rather than be back in four, five months."

Amir's Test retirement would appear to be a kind of scientific marker, though. It's slightly complicated by the shift in cricket's ecosystem, whereby freelancing in T20 is the most lucrative option; but Amir knew that his body, as it now was, couldn't cope with five-day cricket. There wasn't any science to lean on for insight into when and how he might best make his return - not that the PCB would have leaned on it if there was - but there's little doubt not the lack of management of his workload when he returned hastened his decision.

T he challenge was - is - never going to be only physiological. One of the things that surprised Malik was how often Amir was alone on that 2010 tour. He was already a star when he arrived and a tour of England is the most sociable for Pakistani cricketers. The demands the big names face on their time from fans, hangers-on, businessmen, family and friends, are unlike those in any other country.

But as she dug into the case, it emerged that Amir had spent a lot of time in his hotel room. If he could, he avoided going to functions. Where his team-mates were often out after a day's training or play for dinner, Amir would prefer to eat by himself. If he did go out, it was usually by himself. Whether or not he was always like this, the first person he sank into when he returned to Pakistan after his release was himself.

He'd been dreading the return, keenly aware of the vitriol that awaited. The interview to Atherton before he left was to avoid having to keep telling his story over and over again in Pakistan. Malik flew back with him and remembers the flight being difficult. A lot of passengers sought Amir out to say hello. They were well-intentioned and supportive, but it made him awkward. He eventually found a row of empty seats, lay down and pretended to be asleep.

From the day Amir arrived in February 2003 to the day he left after being selected for Pakistan in 2009, Bajwa was his coach, mentor, father and consigliere. In many ways, he still is

Once back in Lahore, he became a recluse, avoiding the media camped outside his home those first few days. At this point he still wanted nothing to do with the game. But home was a cold, hard reality check. Not just his family but the entire little economy he was supporting around him - relatives, hangers-on, household staff - had come to a standstill. They were all waiting for him to start playing again so that they could start living again.

"I had some savings from cricket but if I'm honest with you, it was a really difficult time," he says. "A really difficult time. But you have to pare back. Where you were spending 10,000 rupees, you spend 1000. I had to change my life completely."

Malik had arranged meetings with the PCB, which was supportive and open to finding a way back for him. That offered him an in, and he needed it. But did he want it? Did he want to go through the grind again of all athletes, waking up exhausted, going to sleep exhausted, foregoing genuine relationships and friendships? And if not, what else could he do? Cricket defined him. Everything he had, everyone he knew, everywhere he'd been, everything that had happened to him, was because of cricket. As much as he didn't want it there, if it wasn't there, what was he?

There were days, such as when he watched Pakistan lose to India in the 2012 World T20, that he fantasised about returning but only to redeem himself.

"What if I did something special for Pakistan, something amazing? Maybe I can overcome what has happened to me and people will start loving me again. If you get punished for a bad thing, you also get rewarded for a good thing, right?"

There was a meeting with Akhtar that turned into a pep talk because Amir realised there were people out there he respected who respected him back. But there were also days when he would tell friends about acting offers and whether that could be a career. There were vague plans of getting into the property business, or studying again.

If Amir is a poster boy for anything, it is for a system that lets down those who aren't equipped with a playbook to navigate it

If Amir is a poster boy for anything, it is for a system that lets down those who aren't equipped with a playbook to navigate it Aamir Qureshi / © AFP/Getty Images

The tangle was evident to a life coach Amir started meeting informally, and who became one of the very few people in that period he allowed in. They were irregular sessions but enough for the coach to work out he was an unusually intelligent and self-aware young man, and that it was perhaps working against him now because he couldn't stop thinking back to what had happened. There remained a lot of pent-up anger and resentment, at himself, at those around him, at the game, the country.

The coach wondered whether Amir's retreat from public life wasn't only a consequence of what he had done but of the schisms of Pakistani life. The country's headline wounds are in the name of religion, but as deep are those caused by the divides of class. Money and fame, such as what Amir has earned, don't buy a way through those barriers. And such are the skewed moralities of the Pakistani elite, they are much less likely to forgive the misdemeanours of Amir, a nouveau arrival from the back end of beyond, than some entitled feudal lout, an unscrupulous business don, or a megalomaniac military general.

Indeed - and without at all absolving him - it isn't far-fetched to see in Amir's awe of the middle-class, urban Salman Butt, this equation of power dictating how the fix played out. To be burnt as he then was, it only seems natural that he would shield himself from the world he now found himself in; only natural that he would then, as the coach discovered, begin to see most of those around him as users and shrink the circle of those he trusted ever more.

Amir is married now, a father to two daughters. With his mother's passing last year, they have anchored him. Not long now and - this boggles the mind a little - he'll have been back as long as he was away.

There have been stirring moments, like the Lord's return in 2016, when he took the final wicket to seal a heartening win - the most nervous he's been ahead of a game, because he felt this was his real comeback. Or the Champions Trophy final, where he brought to life his redemption fantasy from that day in 2012. And the World Cup, which with each day that passes, assumes the sense ever more of a goodbye.

"What if I did something special for Pakistan, something amazing? Maybe people will start loving me again" Amir

A credible argument could put it that the World Cup, not 2010, was the authentic representation of the bowler Amir really was, or at least how God and Bajwa intended him: razor-sharp upstairs, nimble and alive to every scenario, underlined by an ascetic streak. There was the unmistakable impression then that he was alone, although not in an unhappy or disruptive way. And there have definitely been days when it has looked like he didn't want to come back but was compelled to.

Along the way he discovered that people could move on from what he had done, men such as Afridi, Misbah, Younis and Mickey Arthur, who, without fuss, welcomed him back into the side.

He has not come back whole, though. There's either a part of him he left behind or pushed so deep inside that only he has access. He moves on regardless, more worlds to live through than those he has lived through, each day freighted with the baggage of his own history, believing perhaps that the further he keeps moving, the lighter that baggage becomes.

With inputs from ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent, Umar Farooq

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

 

RELATED ARTICLES

Comments