T20 World Cup: Mohammad Amir’s second comeback and Asif Bajwa’s words of wisdom

Pakistan fast bowler Mohammad Amir with his coach-cum-mentor Asif Bajwa. {PC: Asif Bajwa’s personal album)

Asif Bajwa has advice for Mohammad Amir, as the fast bowler is getting ready for the T20 World Cup: “Go flat-out with the new ball. Bowl fast and don’t use slower deliveries and other variations in the Powerplay.” Over a WhatsApp call, Bajwa, Amir’s coach-cum-mentor, explained the reason. “Bowling quick and moving the ball have been his strengths,” he told RevSportz. “And he must stick to his strengths.”

“Life brings us to the points where at times we have to reconsider our decisions,” Amir had posted on social media in March, and he is going through his second comeback. The first one happened in 2016, after he spent three months in prison and served a five-year ban from cricket for spot-fixing. On his first comeback, he wasn’t quite the force he used to be during his early days, when he had burst onto the scene as a teenage prodigy. He was so good that Imran Khan, the legendary former Pakistan captain, opined that he would overtake the great Wasim Akram. Akram also agreed. But then, Amir, a callow 18-year-old and a prisoner of his innocence, agreed to bowl deliberate no-balls during a Test at Lord’s in August 2010. His career came to a grinding halt.

As Amir was serving the ban, Bajwa’s primary task was to take care of his ward’s mental health. “The whole thing was like a hammer blow,” he said. “But it was important to keep the belief going, that he could come back and play again. The Pakistan Cricket Board facilities were not available. Still, I took him to training on and off, at different places. From Day 1 throughout those five years, I kept telling him, ‘you have to make a comeback.’”

And Amir did come roaring back, running through India’s top order in the 2017 Champions Trophy final. Fakhar Zaman scored a century for Pakistan in that game, but Amir’s first spell that accounted for Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan proved to be the difference. Gradually, though, Amir became inconsistent. Burdened by serious workload, he started to lose his sharpness. He decided to quit red-ball cricket and play the shorter formats only. But the PCB insisted that he be available for all formats. Aghast, Amir decided to hang up his international boots in December 2020.

Amir with his mentor Asif Bajwa. (PC: Asif Bajwa’s personal album)

So, when he came out of retirement and made himself available for selection for the T20 World Cup in the United States and the Caribbean, it threw up a surprise. Amir faced resistance from within the Pakistan team during his first comeback. Certain players refused to share the dressing room with him.

Response to his second comeback wasn’t unanimously positive either. Ramiz Raja, former Pakistan captain and ex-PCB chairman, openly voiced his disapproval. “Wherever tainted cricketers exist in the world, they are usually expelled,” Raja told a TV channel in Pakistan. “While I sympathise with them, forgiveness isn’t in my book. If, God forbid, my son had done such a thing, I would disown him.”

Bajwa naturally takes strong exception to such comments. “Such things happen in Pakistan cricket only,” he said. “The PCB requested him to reconsider his retirement decision and accordingly, Amir decided to make a comeback. He always wants to contribute to Pakistan cricket. Amir was away from the national team for nine years, and in those nine years, Pakistan cricket couldn’t produce a fast bowler of his quality. That’s why they turned to Amir. It’s a failure of the system.”

Since coming back to the international fold, Amir has featured in seven completed T20Is, claiming five wickets. Is he ready for the T20 World Cup? “He has been playing in different leagues,” said Bajwa. “He bowled well in the Pakistan Super League also this year – 10 wickets from nine matches at an economy rate of 8.41. He bowled well in patches in the series against England. He is still bowling at 140kmph-plus. He is super fit. I think he will form a formidable partnership with Shaheen Shah Afridi at the World Cup.”

Going along, it would be interesting to see the chemistry between Amir and skipper Babar Azam. He had severely criticised Babar’s captaincy during the last year’s 50-over World Cup and there could be a carry-over. Bajwa begs to differ. “The criticism was never personal,” he said. “It was about cricket. Both are grown-up men and will join hands for the good of Pakistan cricket.”

Conversation moves to Kohli and Amir’s respect for the Indian superstar. “He treasures the bat that Kohli gifted him,” said Bajwa. “On the field, they are rivals, but off it, Amir has a lot of respect for Kohli.”
Make no mistake, no quarter will be given and none will be asked for, when India face Pakistan in New York on June 9. Bajwa is hopeful that Amir will be at his best, helping Pakistan to a rare win against India on the global stage.