There are very few species in the world less adept at hiding their emotions and mental state as Pakistani cricketers. As they warmed up at the Dubai Cricket Stadium it was obvious what they were thinking: they had fallen 30 runs short of what they wanted, and what they should have got if they had even a single power hitter apart from Asif Ali in the lower order. Mohammad Nawaz and Shadab Khan, two accumulators, had failed to press on from the platform set by Shoaib Malik, Sarfraz Ahmed and Asif; and against one of the two best batting units in the world that was unlikely to have been enough.
But they still had a chance – one that’s always there for a Pakistani bowling attack. They could win this game if they bowled India out. And for all their batting prowess, India still have question marks about their middle and lower order. Since the 2015 World Cup India’s middle and lower order (numbers 4 to 8) have averaged 32.57, ranking them below each of England, Pakistan, South Africa and New Zealand in those numbers; this despite MS Dhoni averaging 43.88 during this time, playing 63 of India’s 66 ODIs. But the reason India are, alongside England, the best ODI team in the world is that their middle order travails don’t really matter, because their top-three has been, by far, the best in the world. Since the 2015 World Cup India’s top three average over 61 in the 50-over game, no other team’s top-three average over 48! India’s successes are reliant on having a historically great top-three that dominates games like few other groups have before them, and it’s a strategy that has succeeded for them consistently.
So that was Pakistan’s chance – with Virat Kohli not at the tournament, they could still defend a below par total if they removed the Indian openers quickly and exposed the Indian middle order. By the time the first – and only – wicket fell most of the Pakistani contingent in Dubai had left the stadium. And it’s not as if they didn’t have chances. Rohit Sharma was dropped twice (or maybe thrice) but Pakistan failed to grab on. By the time the match finished the team that had been rightly praised as the best fielding unit Pakistan have ever had, had dropped seven catches in two matches. The worst of those, with Sharma on 14, deflated the whole Pakistan team, particularly the bowler Shaheen Shah Afridi.
Afridi had been threatening until that moment. Imam-ul-Haq’s missed dolly took the wind out of his sails and he was never the same. But of course, he shouldn’t have been the man Pakistan turned to get them early wickets in the first place. That role belonged to someone else.
For five years Pakistanis waited. Even as Junaid Khan, briefly, became the best pacer in Asia across all formats (before his injuries meant he’d never be the same again), Pakistanis waited for Mohammad Amir. The idea of Amir trumped all the alternatives Pakistan had. Junaid was what Pakistan had settled for, Amir was what they had dreamed of.
The first sixteen months after his international comeback there were sporadic instances of what the dream had been – particularly against England and India. It all culminated in the Champions Trophy final, where Amir was able to remove each of the Indian top three, expose the middle order and create the platform for a Pakistan win. That match was supposed to signal the start of the Amir that was promised. Instead it’s proven to be the peak of his comeback.
Since the Champions Trophy Final Amir has played 10 of Pakistan’s 19 ODIs. He has taken 3 wickets at an average in excess of 100 during that time! And it’s not as if he has been bowling against teams or in conditions that are not suited for pace bowling – each of Usman Khan Shinwari, Junaid, Hasan Ali and Faheem Ashraf have averaged south of 30 during that time. Amir’s economy rate is pointed to as an example of his efficacy, that even if he isn’t taking wickets he is keeping the runs down, but both Faheem and Junaid also have a better economy rate than him during this time too.
Of course, that’s not what Pakistan ask of him in the first place. Shadab and Hasan are there to take wickets in the middle overs, but Amir’s role is to attack with the new ball. A strike rate of 140 would suggest that he hasn’t succeeded in that role.
The bizarre thing in this is that he has succeeded in this period in the other two formats – the tour of England this summer saw him bowl the best he has done since the summer of 2010 in the red ball game, and he’s second only to Shadab Khan among the highest wicket takers for Pakistan in T20 cricket over the past fifteen months.
So, his struggles in ODI cricket are difficult to explain – and everyone has a theory regarding that: is he bowling too short with the new ball, is he not targeting the stumps enough, is he happy to not take risks in search of wickets or is he too complacent with his spot in the team? Everyone has questions, but nobody has the answers, least of all the Pakistan team management.
And this issue is already considered a millstone for the team management – Amir is the one who always gets to bowl with the wind, he is the one given the priority when it comes to giving rest, the one who gets to bowl when he wants, whose position is always under the least threat, and thus he is the one always accused of being the management’s blue-eyed boy. Considering what he’s done in big moments, and in other formats it feels like a role well earned, but with each failure in ODI cricket the questions regarding him loom larger. To make matters worse for him there is a section of the country that will probably never fully embrace him considering his past, and with each such performance their voices grow louder, and old skeletons are brought out.
Whatever the case may be it feels like Pakistan and Amir are coming close to a moment of truth. Pakistan began the Asia Cup thinking of it as preparation for a long season and next year’s World Cup. But three listless displays later they are in an identity crisis, and it feels like they’ll need a scapegoat. And right now their biggest star is the one under most pressure.