London (AFP) – The floppy hair he had as a teenager may have been replaced by a shorter cut and the once clean-shaven face is now home to a goatee beard.
But there was no mistaking the whippy left-arm action as Mohammad Amir ran into bowl against Somerset at Taunton last week or the “airplane” celebration that greeted his three first-innings wickets.
It was a sight many fans would have been forgiven for thinking they would ever see again on an English field after Amir’s career came to a dramatic and possibly terminal halt at Lord’s in 2010.
During that year’s Test against England, Amir and Pakistan new-ball partner Mohammad Asif bowled no-balls to order on the instructions of their captain Salman Butt as part of a sting operation carried out by a tabloid newspaper.
All three received five-year bans from cricket and, together with sports agent Mazhar Majeed, jail terms.
There was a sense of shock and anger among cricket fans, although in Amir’s case there was also an overwhelming sense of sadness that an 18-year-old should have become caught up in such a scandal.
Former West Indies fast bowler Michael Holding is not given to excessive displays of emotion in his work as a television commentator and pundit.
Yet he was in tears as he discussed Amir’s plight live on air the morning after the night the story broke during the Lord’s Test.
For Amir was — and on the evidence of the Somerset match still is — a superbly skilled bowler, with the rare ability to make the ball swing late at sharp pace off a good length, one of the most difficult types of bowling for even the best batsmen to face.
It helped him earn him the Pakistan man of the series award against England after he had taken 19 wickets at under 19 apiece in four Tests.
Amir, Asif and Butt were all given five-year bans by the International Cricket Council and the trio were all jailed by an English court.
Yet the talent Amir had shown created a certain sympathy among cricket fans amid a widespread belief that he had been led astray by more experienced team-mates.
– ‘Second chance’ –
Nevertheless there were plenty of calls at the time and since for the three players to all be given life bans.
Former England captain Nasser Hussain, speaking soon after the scandal broke, saw both points of view.
“Part of me says you’ve got to make a statement, and say: ‘Right, ban for life’….But another part of me says, ‘Should you give a person another chance?’.”
Amir who served three months in an English young offenders’ institute, now has that chance.
He has only played limited overs internationals for Pakistan since his return, but his career could come full circle when the first of a four-Test series against England starts at Lord’s on Thursday.
Interestingly, Amir himself is now in favour of life bans, telling AFP in an interview in Karachi last month: “If fixing is still happening then it’s really alarming. I fully back that fixers should be banned for life.”
With Amir’s talent undimmed, Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq was in no doubt of his potential.
“If you look at his bowling speed, swing and control –- it’s there,” said Misbah ahead of the Somerset match.
“He can still be the best bowler in the world.”
England captain Alastair Cook, who played in the 2010 match, suggested Amir might get a rough ride from the Lord’s crowd.
But there were no boos at Taunton and he could well get a polite reception at the “home of cricket”.
“You don’t see many 18-year-old’s bowl like he did, he is an exceptional talent,” said Cook at Lord’s last week.
“It will be difficult for us.”
Meanwhile Amir is well aware of his good fortune.
“I still can’t believe that this is happening,” he said.
“You call it a coincidence or whatever but for me it’s a blessing that I am restarting (Tests) right at Lord’s from where I stopped in 2010.”