Mohammad Amir's re-entry into international cricket in the limited-overs series against New Zealand in January 2016 was an event of great significance for Pakistan cricket. For a start, it marked the return of a bowler, who in terms of pure talent, was regarded at one point as the true successor to Wasim Akram. His exile from international cricket, which was triggered due to his involvement in the 2010 spot-fixing scandal wiped out five crucial years which could have seen him propel himself to greatness. More importantly though for Pakistan, the lack of good pace-bowling options due to the removal of Mohammad Asif and Amir in such a dramatic manner in 2010 had left a huge abyss in terms of bowling fire-power. The replacements for Amir, such as Junaid Khan and Wahab Riaz, were found to be wanting in their effectiveness for Pakistan.
Amir thus restarted his international career with a huge weight of expectations on his shoulders. It was a general assumption, possibly a flawed one, that the young fast-bowler would continue where he left off in 2010 and take Pakistan to greater heights. But the reality was very different.
A combination of bad luck and the possible erosion of skills due to time spent away from the game meant that Amir's wicket column remained on the thin side. While he was continually described as bowling well and the best Pakistan fast-bowler on display, there was a distinct lack of match-winning performances in all forms of the game, which was starting to hurt Pakistan.
It is in this context that Amir's role in the thrilling victory against Sri Lanka in the Champions Trophy had great significance for the bowler's own career. It was also important for Pakistan in the short-term as they look forward to the upcoming semi-final against England and has long-term implications with Amir's status being confirmed as the leader of the bowling attack.
His performance against Sri Lanka, where he picked up two crucial wickets and then defied odds to stay 28 not out as he helped his captain steal victory from a somewhat impossible situation, was a matter of great satisfaction.
“I feel that I had been bowling well for a while but I was a little unlucky as I wasn’t able to get wickets. Today (Monday), I got wickets which is great but also my batting worked and for that I have to thank and give credit to our batting coach, Grant Flower. He has worked very hard with me on my batting and also believes that I can become a good all-rounder as long as I take my batting seriously,” he commented after the match.
To most pundits, Pakistan's victory against South Africa was nothing more than a flash in the pan given the disastrous loss against India in the game before. The precarious position Pakistan found themselves in during the game against Sri Lanka had the danger of proving the critics right. It was left to the brilliance of captain Sarfraz Ahmed and some obdurate resistance by Amir to save the day for Pakistan, after they had been reduced to 162/7 in pursuit of a target of 237. It was Sarfraz, as Amir explained, who lead the way, encouraging the fast-bowler to provide able support to his captain.
“When I came in to bat, there were a few overs left in the innings and the required run rate was around three an over. There really was no reason to panic, so Sarfraz told me to concentrate on seeing-off the main bowlers, who did not have many overs left at that time. He felt that if we could see off the main bowlers, then he could take us to victory but he did want me to bat as long as possible and not play any rash shots. Our plan was to rotate the strike and thankfully that plan paid off."
It may well be easy to speak of keeping one's cool in hindsight but only Amir and Sarfraz would know the pressure involved in such tense games. As Amir said, “I always enjoy myself when I am batting and today (Monday) when I came into bat, Sarfraz told me to play calmly as the required run rate was not that high. He was very calm although he isn’t always that way! This was a high-pressure situation but I would like to thank Sarfraz as he was guiding me really well and he himself played an outstanding knock.”
While it would be right to praise the Pakistan captain for his presence of mind to lead his side to victory, it would also be correct to point out some element of luck that helped Pakistan as well. The various misfields, over throws and crucially the two dropped chances, which had Sarfraz looking to the heavens, also played a huge role in the final result.
“I am a firm believer that you need luck to be successful in cricket. Even Sarfraz admitted to that in his remarks at the end of the game as he felt that the Almighty was looking after him during the time he was at the crease," the 25-year-old bowler said.
However, to many who would be worried about Pakistan's up and down performances which point out old weaknesses, Mohammad Amir had this simple message.
“There is no doubt that we didn’t perform well against India but this can happen in a game of cricket as you can under-perform on a particular day. However, for me our fielding and bowling against South Africa really lifted the team a lot. Even in the game against Sri Lanka, we seemed to be doing well at the start when we were batting but then this is what cricket is all about. A loss of a few wickets can completely change the complexion of the game but thankfully we persisted and won the game."
The five years Amir spent away from the game he loved was a sobering period which seemed to have made him hungrier for more success. However, it would have been disheartening for the pace-bowler to see that success was not forthcoming at a rate he had expected. Although, the success against Sri Lanka seems to have pleased him to no end, “As a senior bowler, one always gets frustrated when you cannot get wickets. The only solution to this is to work hard and try and put in your best in every game which is exactly my objective as well. I did the same against Sri Lanka and with the Almighty’s help, I was able to get two wickets.”
The adage that fast-bowlers always hunt in pairs is one that Pakistan have implemented with good effect throughout their cricket history. The Imran-Sarfraz, Wasim-Waqar and Amir-Asif pairings brought a lot of joy to Pakistan but in recent times, it's only been Amir, who has been carrying the burden of the pace attack on his shoulders. It is that reason why the re-emergence of Junaid and the meteoric rise of Hasan Ali has brought relief to Pakistan supporters.
"Junaid Khan's form has been awesome and he has been performing really well during this competition starting with the performance against Bangladesh in the warm-up game. Hasan Ali has improved by leaps and bounds as well and that is great news for the Pakistan pace attack," stated Amir.
After the end of the Group stage, all attention is now focussed towards the upcoming semi-final games. Bangladesh will take on India on Thursday while Pakistan have a tough assignment as they take on the tournament favourites England in Cardiff on Wednesday. Pakistan, while overjoyed with their recent successes, are under no illusion about the tough task ahead.
"All teams that make it to the semi-final stage need to be respected and there is no room for complacency. There is no doubt that the match against England will be a tough one but you have to remember that whoever plays well on the day can win. We have also improved a lot during this tournament and our bowling and fielding is providing us with a boost to our confidence. We will also take a lot away from the game against Sri Lanka as winning a game under such pressure gives you a lot of confidence. The semi-final will be played on a true cricketing wicket and with some sunshine before the game, the audience can expect to see a good game of cricket played on a good pitch. So, we are very hopeful of a good result against England and I feel that the semi-final will be an exciting game to watch for all," Amir concluded while expressing cautious optimism ahead of the game.