Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

A second chance for Mohammad Amir

Deserving or otherwise, second chances in sport seem rather arbitrary; here's hoping the young Pakistani cricketer makes full use of this one

I remember the reactions on TV. While bowling against England in a Test in 2010, Pakistan’s Mohammad Amir overstepped a long way—and I mean a LONG way. Michael Holding, the great West Indian fast bowler, was delivering TV commentary, and when he saw the replay, he exclaimed, in that rounded West Indian accent: “How far was that? Wow!" His partner, Ian Botham, chipped in with “That’s like net bowling!"

Discussing what had happened, Holding later actually wept.

It’s likely every cricket fan knows the rest. It turned out that Amir’s gross no-ball was part of an elaborate sting operation set up to expose the racket of spot-fixing in cricket. He, his pace-bowling teammate Mohammed Asif and their captain Salman Butt were suspended from cricket for several years, and also served time in prison.

It was a disgraceful blot on the game. For fans like me, it’s an article of faith that the flow of any sport depends purely on skill and effort. That implicit belief is the reason we watch, why we feel the thrill of the game almost viscerally. That some players would take money to influence that flow in some way is not just profoundly dismaying, it is despicable.

Even so, the Amir/Asif/Butt episode was also a terrible pity. Eighteen-year-old Amir’s tremendous skill with the ball had lit up that English summer—he had taken six wickets in that very Test, before his infamous no-ball. The older Asif had been a magnificent bowler for several years as well, and was in the prime of his career. That these talents were lost to cricket, even if because of their own idiotic greed, was a tragedy.

I can’t be the only cricket fan who delights in the charms of thoroughbred fast bowling; to me, there’s no better sight in cricket than a superb paceman bamboozling a top-class batsman and destroying the stumps behind him. Yet here, two of the art’s best exponents had stupidly—if deservedly—ruled themselves out of the game.

Six years later, Amir is back in the Pakistan team. He played a few one-day matches some months ago, including against India. In those and in other games since, he showed that he has lost nothing in his time away. And this week, he played in his first Test since 2010; as it happens, at the same ground, Lord’s, where he reduced Holding to tears.

Still just 24, Amir has time on his side to fulfil his great potential. There are four Tests this summer, in all of which I look forward to seeing him make a mark to match his overflowing talent.

Yet his return is not without controversy. There were reports of dissent from within the Pakistan team, and other cricketers around the world have also pronounced that Amir should have been banned from the game for life.

“Once a cheat, always a cheat", said Balwinder Singh Sandhu, part of India’s 1983 World Cup champion team, to the Hindustan Times. Plenty of cricket watchers, writers and fans have similar reactions.

Equally, there are those who think he’s paid enough for his crime: the jail term, the long break from so much as touching a ball in any form of competitive cricket. He has learned his lesson, goes this line of thinking, time to let him back into the game.

“I believe that Amir absolutely deserves to get another chance," said Maninder Singh, who bowled offspin for India in the 1980s. “Doesn’t everybody?"

Though actually, the answer to that possibly rhetorical Maninder Singh question isn’t particularly clear.

Lance Armstrong didn’t get a second chance—though you could argue that his lies gave him chances aplenty, until he was finally found out. Oscar Pistorius likely won’t get a second chance. Ben Johnson (sprints), Umakant Sharma (chess), Marion Jones (sprints), Mohammed Azharuddin (cricket), Tonya Harding (skating), S. Sreesanth (cricket) and Petr Korda (tennis)—none of them got second chances.

But Maria Sharapova may yet get hers, as Martina Hingis has, as Tom Brady and his New England Patriots have.

Or take the curious and long-running case of Mike Tyson: he swept all of boxing before him for several years, then served a prison term for rape, then returned to the sport and actually regained his world titles, then lost to Evander Holyfield, then bit off part of Holyfield’s ear during their rematch—an act, it seemed to me, that should have disqualified Tyson from the sport immediately and permanently—but he kept boxing professionally for nine years after that.

Speaking of which, there’s Luis Suarez, still playing professional football after three separate times that he has bitten opponents during games.

And there are several more names I could add to both lists. Deserving or otherwise, second chances in sport seem to come about rather arbitrarily.

It’s with all this on my mind that I will follow Mohammad Amir’s career from here on out. Like every sports fan I know, I’d like to see cheating punished severely (though drugs make for a debate worth pursuing—but that’s for another time). But I’m also a firm believer in second chances. Without meaning to get philosophical, I believe that’s a marker of some essential humanity in us all.

So just focus on your bowling now, Amir. May you make those English batters dance and bob and weave. May you enthrall and captivate us fans, as fast bowlers are meant to.

And for different reasons altogether this time, may you make Michael Holding exclaim again, in that same soft rounded accent, “Wow!"

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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