Friday, 1 January 2010

Smells like teen spirit

(A version of this article appeared on Cricinfo's "Inbox" blog in January 2010)

Pakistan’s Mohammad Amir should bring a smile to the faces of cricket fans in the decade ahead

Six months ago, I was watching from the lower tier of the Grandstand at Lord’s as Mohammad Amir ran in to bowl the first ball of the ICC World Twenty20 Final. I nervously reminded my brother, who was sitting next to me, that I had earlier picked out Pakistan as the team most likely to halt Sri Lanka’s march towards victory. I knew that unlike the other semi-finalists (South Africa and West Indies), Pakistan were used to facing Sri Lanka’s unorthodox bowling attack, and although Sri Lanka had come out on top when the two sides met in the group stages, I was wary that Shahid Afridi’s sensational catch against New Zealand had sparked the kind of hot streak that always makes Pakistan a dangerous proposition at the business end of big tournaments.

But if I was nervous, how did Mohammad Amir feel? The left arm quick was just 17 and his international career barely two weeks old. Here he was in a major final at Lord’s. The outfield was a lush, brilliant green, but the stands were even greener, thanks to the masses of flag-waving, klaxon-sounding, Zindabad-shouting, Pakistan fans. Over in Pakistan itself, a nation deprived of international cricket after the Lahore attacks was no doubt in front of its TV sets, while up in the Sky Sports commentary box, Amir’s mentor Wasim Akram was at the microphone. On strike, awaiting Amir’s first ball was the Player of the Tournament, Tillakaratne Dilshan, who up until then had sliced, diced and daringly Dilscooped anything that had been served up to him.

How would the teenager begin?

With a bouncer. A rapid bouncer, and well-directed too, forcing Dilshan to duck out of the way at the last minute. Next up? More short balls, pushing 90mph and cramping the batsman for room. The plan was simple and the execution perfect. On the fifth ball of the over, Dilshan skied an attempted pull to short fine leg, and Sri Lanka were 0 for 1. To my left, four men dressed in orange jumpsuits forgot about waving their improvised banner saying “Guantanamo Bay: Day Release” as they hugged each other in delight. “Dil Dil Pakistan” blared out of the stand’s PA system for the first time in the match, though you could scarcely hear it over the noise of the crowd. What a start for Pakistan, and what a start for Mohammad Amir!

Abdul Razzaq then picked up three wickets, before Shahid Afridi stole the show with a tight spell of leg-spin and a mature, match-winning fifty. Amir finished with the unremarkable figures of 1 for 30 from 4 overs, but his opening over – a wicket maiden – was anything but unremarkable and played a big role in putting Pakistan on course for victory.

A few days ago, I was watching from the less atmospheric but rather more comfortable vantage point of my parents’ couch as Amir ripped through the Australian middle order in the Boxing Day Test. On the fourth successive day of hot sunny weather at the MCG, he was generating 90mph pace from his 75kg frame and getting the ball to reverse swing in both directions. Michael Clarke groped around for a little while before being caught behind. Marcus North was castled a few overs later, bringing Brad Haddin to the crease. Coming round the wicket to the right-hander, Amir nearly forced a big inswinger through his defences. The next ball swung away, found the outside edge of Haddin’s bat on the way through to Kamran Akmal’s gloves, and made Amir – still 17 – the youngest fast bowler to take a 5-wicket haul in Test cricket.

The best bit, however, came a couple of minutes after that, as Amir turned to walk towards the umpire at the end of the over. Facing him stood Shane Watson. The previous day, the Pakistani had blown the burly Queenslander a mock kiss after one particularly tasty bouncer. Now, exhausted but elated, Amir broke out into a massive, toothy, teenage grin. Watson tried his best to maintain his frown but couldn’t – he too broke into a smile as he looked down at his bat.

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