What is greater than individuality? A sense of unity; a sense of belonging to a wider community…. The importance of which has been so beautifully described in this verse of Allama Muhammad Iqbal.
The emergence of lucrative T20 leagues across the world has changed the game of cricket during the last decade and a half. It has impacted the game both in a positive and a negative way. On the one hand, it has brought in some much-needed finance to the game of cricket but, on the other, it has given a chance to some players to put their personal interests above the national interests and it is seriously damaging the gentlemen’s game. During the month of December, fans in this cricket mad country experienced this situation first hand when one of the darlings of Pakistan cricket, Muhammad Amir, announced his unexpected retirement from the game. This has come as a shock and quite obviously the fans are divided and well so are the pundits and experts on whether Amir has taken the right decision or not.
In this write-up, we will try to do a post-mortem of the situation from an outsider’s viewpoint. We will analyze the whole scenario and then try to come to a conclusion.
Muhammad Amir burst on to the cricket scene as a teenager who looked all set to conquer the game. Pakistan cricket has produced some great batsmen but the way Pakistani fast bowlers have thrilled the world of cricket has very few parallels.
The likes of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shoaib Akhtar have captured the imagination of cricket fans across the world for a major part of the last four decades. So, when Amir emerged as a 17-year-old, tearing through some of the most formidable batting lineups eleven years back, the future of fast bowling in Pakistan looked safe for the next 12 to 15 years. What unfolded then was arguably the worst episode in Pakistan cricket’s history and there have been some. The spot fixing scandal engulfed Pakistan cricket in 2010 and the two frontline fast bowlers Amir and Asif were banned from cricket along with their captain Salman Butt.
Fans were sympathetic towards Amir and supported him during his time away from cricket in spite of him selling his country on Butt’s instructions. For various reasons, his tender age being one, he was given a reduced ban as compared to the other two. Most importantly, however, fans and the board supported him during this time not because they wanted him to come back and play franchise cricket but it was solely for the benefit of Pakistan cricket that fans wanted to see Amir make a comeback.
He returned after the ban and although he had lost some of that x-factor that a teenage Amir had, he was still good enough to spearhead the national bowling attack. The faith showed in him by the nation was repaid by Muhammad Amir when he singlehandedly crushed the star-studded Indian batting lineup in the all-important Champions Trophy final in 2017. He was not showing the consistency that was expected from him but he was a match winner and a big game player; he showed that not once but on several occasions.
He is still very young and has a lot to offer, but his mind is not in it apparently. I personally was one of the biggest supporters of Amir in spite of what he had done. Cricket fans, like myself, have wanted the best for the national team and that is the only reason why he was - and is - supported by millions still.
The day Muhammad Amir announced his retirement from Test match cricket right before the all-important Australian tour, he lost many of his supporters; myself included. The arguments he has been giving in his interviews lately about his fitness and that his body cannot take the strain of Test match cricket are confusing, to say the least; I chose the word confusing over laughable because he knows his body and how much pressure he can take as a fast bowler and I would be out of place to comment on that. There are, however, some questions that I would like to put here for the readers to think about.
First and foremost, what if there were no global T20 leagues to play in, would Amir still have considered taking retirement from red ball cricket? No. He would have gladly made himself available for national selection deep into his 30s.
Does Amir believe that he will be remembered as a cricketing great by saying farewell to the Pakistan National Team? No. Amir must remember that he is Muhammad Amir because of Pakistan and not because of some franchise team. If he wants his legacy to live long, he needs to make Pakistan his priority. To support this argument, I present the case of Waqar Younis who, at his absolute peak, signed one of the most lucrative contracts in county cricket at that time and won the County Championship in 1997. The question is what was the name of that county cricket club? I challenge the readers to name that club without googling it (the answer is at the end of this article). This shows that what matters in cricket is what you do for your country.
There’s no denying the fact that T20 leagues have their own attraction and it is an easy way to make money for international cricketers, but, there are countless examples where premier fast bowlers have preferred playing for their national team in Tests over playing for a meaningless T20 league team.
When Amir was ready to be reintroduced into the national setup there were several senior players and ex-players who were against having him back into the national team. And when Amir announced his retirement from Test match cricket he gave them an opportunity to really push him against the wall.
His retirement from Test cricket worked against him and those who were against his inclusion from day one took this opportunity to gradually phase him out and bully him to the extent that it all came down to this.
Amir, with the talent that he possesses should have allowed his game to do the talking, it gives an impression that he is either still that immature young man who got banned due to an ill-advised adventure or he is mentally not as tough as he should be. He knows he still has public support but he is using that to ease his way out of the national team and make easy money by playing T20 cricket.
The other side of the story is that he is up against a group of individuals who don’t want to see him there, but by making wrong decisions one after the other he is playing into their hands. He should learn from the likes of Fawad Alam. Agreed, Fawad didn’t have a choice of playing T20 leagues like Amir has, but at least see how the man waited 10 years to get a second bite at top level cricket. Cricket fans in Pakistan support their stars but the stars must also realize that without the fans they are nothing.
The recently concluded Test Series with New Zealand exposed, among other shortcomings, the weakness that the absence of an experienced professional can bring. Pakistan bowling lineup in its current state is mediocre to say the least and that is not because the youngsters do not possess the desired skillset, rather it is the continued absence of a senior figure who can guide them when things aren’t going according to plans.
The mere presence of an experienced skillful fast bowler can put psychological pressure on opposition batsmen. But, when world class batting lineups see young inexperienced bowlers lining up against them it gives them confidence and that is occasionally the difference between winning and losing.
In Amir’s situation, both sides need to understand that this battle of egos is not helping Pakistan cricket. At the moment, whoever stays longer will most likely win this battle. Pakistan team management is under pressure after the New Zealand tour and if performances do not drastically improve, it will not be long before the current management is shown the door. This might eventually give Amir a chance to make a second comeback to the national team, but he should know now that he is not an 18-year-old anymore and time is not on his side this time around.
Waqar Younis was Glamorgan’s overseas player when they won the Championship in 1997.