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Cricket news - Amir's timely return to form a good omen for Pakistan

Since Pakistan's final group-stage match against Sri Lanka at Cardiff in the 2017 Champions Trophy on June 12, not once had Amir completed the quota of his 10 overs.

It is one of those bouncers that makes you sit up in your couches and put your hands on your head. Joe Root, one of the best one-day batsmen, sways away from the one heading towards his head with impeccable precision. It seems to have unnerved the batsman. Such deliveries have the tendency of doing that. And, the impact of such mean deliveries manifolds if a batsman has marked his guard some instances ago like Root had - that was his sixth delivery.

The next ball is a snorter. Amir bangs the ball short again and this time makes it nibble into the right-handed batsman from the over-the-wicket angle. Root goes on the backfoot to punch it to the cover. He manages a boundary off it. But, off an inside edge. It grants Amir the moral victory that bowlers - in a day and age of bat's dominance over the ball - so relish. But, the battle's far from over.

The match six of the ICC Cricket World Cup is in full swing. The Pakistani contingent in the crowd, which is rather large in number, is pepping up every delivery. And why shouldn't they? All of a sudden their team has breathed life into a World Cup, which has been rather dull thus far, by putting a score which demand a world-record effort. If England chase it down, they would set the record for the highest run-chase in World Cup history. At the moment, Pakistan are leading the game. They have the world No.1 side at 32 for 1 in 5.2 overs at a venue where they are feared the most.

Another wicket here and Pakistan's chances of banishing their 11-match losing streak would see a drastic rise. Amir steams in. Drags his length forward and line a bit far from the batsman. It's a perfect trap - asking the batsman to drive after unsettling him on the backfoot. Root falls for it. He plants his front foot and swings his blade. The ball takes a leading edge of his bat and flies towards the unusually large gap between the only slip fielder and the keeper. Babar Azam dives to his left only to grass it. He was late to react.

Amir stands in the middle of the pitch in disbelief. He stares at the fielder but doesn't show much emotions - unlike the time when Azhar Ali put down Virat Kohli in that final two years ago. Root takes a single. Amir walks back to his bowling marker.

***

As Pakistan entered the 2019 World Cup, astonishingly, it was their pace bowling department that looked the most fragile. A great deal of it had to do with the grim bowling figures that Amir had put up in the last two years. He had been so poor in ODIs over the last year that he was dropped for the whole of Pakistan's home season after a below-par Asia Cup - where he remained wicket-less across 18 overs he bowled in three matches, stretching his wicket-drought to five matches, of which the first two were against Zimbabwe.

In his search to regain his mojo, Amir returned to his domestic team, Sui Southern Gas Corporation, after a gap of almost three years, but to no avail. Called back in the national squad for an away series against South Africa, Amir, in three ODIs, took only two wickets and got dropped to being a first-change bowler that series.

He would turnout only once, before being parachuted into Pakistan's World Cup squad in the first of the five ODIs against Australia in the UAE. And, the outing was no different. Nine overs, zero maidens, none for 59.

Since Pakistan's final group-stage match against Sri Lanka at Cardiff in the 2017 Champions Trophy on June 12, not once had Amir completed the quota of his 10 overs. And, since January 2018, he hadn't picked up a wicket inside the first powerplay. So, eyebrows were raised when the national selection committee announced that Amir will be sent to England, for the limited-overs series, as a part of a group from which the final cut of 15 players will be selected. And, it was preposterous that he had made it despite not having bowled once across those six games against England.

Considering the stature that he enjoys of being a 'big-match bowler', the team management and the selection committee did not want to risk to not have him at their disposal in the showpiece event. That despite the other pacers - primarily in Junaid Khan and Usman Shinwari - delivering during the window in which Amir's form went downhill.

So last week, Amir, purely on the basis of his reputation, was opening the bowling for Pakistan in their World Cup opener. All eyes were set on him as Pakistan defended a paltry score after their batsmen humiliated themselves for their inability to cope with the barrage of bouncers. It was not the first time that there was a sense of anticipating for this guy to deliver. There always is whenever he has the ball in hand. There's always that belief that today might be the day that the cricket fraternity will have a glimpse of that long-haired Amir.

And, it is not like he hasn't given any. Remember the 2016 Asia Cup match against India when he tore apart the top-order in a span of merely two deliveries of the innings' first over and picked up Suresh Raina in the third to leave India reeling at 8 for 3 after his side's similar batting display to the one on Friday at Trent Bridge? And, of course, that Champions Trophy final's opening spell.

So when Amir stood on his marker with Chris Gayle on strike, there was an anticipation despite a striking dip in his pace and ability to move the ball laterally. Nonetheless, by the start of the seventh over, the crowd was chanting his name with the roars becoming much, much louder with every step as he was taking in his run-up.

In his last over, he, after angling numerous deliveries away from Shai Hope, had gotten rid of the batsman with a short-of-the-length delivery, which again angled away. The cheers grew even louder two balls into the over as he had taken aback one of the most technically proficient batsmen in the West Indies side, Darren Bravo, with a length delivery which he edged to the second slip while contemplating whether to play it on the front or the backfoot. Before the start of this contest, Amir had not taken a wicket in the first 10 overs for 18 months. Now he had two.

He finished the match with three by outdoing Gayle on a short ball. But by his third wicket, the match had been settled as while he was keeping a lid on the flow of runs, bowlers from the other end conceded boundaries at regular intervals - thanks to Pakistan's dodgy tactics of employing middle-overs bowlers with the new ball.

Pakistan, as it seems, never set plans prior to the tournaments. So, it was no surprise that they looked completely off-colour with their bowling plans against the West Indies. Not that they did not play their another new-ball specialist, Shaheen Afridi, but also never deployed Mohammad Hafeez, whose off-spin has been considered as panacea by the previous captains for all the troubles the left-handed batsmen have given them, despite the opposition playing four left-handers in top five numbers.

With Amir picking up form - that the Pakistan management has long longed - it's about time that he is settled with a specialist. Granted that the gamble of deploying Shadab Khan against England paid dividends. But, considering the longevity of the tournament how long can Pakistan persist like this?

***

Pakistan are in a desperate need of a breakthrough as Jos Buttler's brilliance continues to power the home side towards the finishing line. In the last six overs, England require 65 runs with Moeen Ali at the other end. Sarfraz Ahmed introduce Amir into the attack once again. His first ball zips across Buttler, who is on 99 off just 73 balls. The destructive batsman enters the triple digits with a thumping shot through mid-off on the next ball.

It sends down jitters in the Pakistan camp. After all, that's the class of this batsman. Just three years ago at the same venue, he had scored an unbeaten 90 at a strike rate of almost 180 in that 444/3 contest. That he has carried the side from four down for 118 in the 22nd over till here in this contest speaks volume of the threat his presence poses.

Amir runs in for the third ball of the 45th over and rolls his fingers over the seam upon the release. It's a length ball across and Buttler flashes it hard. The change in pace makes him induce a thick leading edge and Wahab Riaz, stationed at short third-man, completes an easy catch. The crowd erupts and so does the Pakistan camp. They have the most prized wicket in the bag.

With the pressure amplified on the hosts, Riaz knocks over Ali and Chris Woakes, from the other end, to seal the win. With another off-cutter, Amir removes Jofra Archer, his second wicket of the match, in the penultimate over of the match. By the end of Pakistan's remarkable 14-run victory, Amir now has five wickets in two matches. He had this many since the Champions Trophy final prior to the start of the tournament.

But, what's extraordinary for him is that his captain has bowled him for complete 10 overs for the first time since June 2017. This along with the regeneration of the faith brings Amir to the fore as a spearhead of Pakistan's bowling attack once again - which with the World Cup just beginning, is a good omen for the side.

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