KARACHI: Mohammad Amir made a scintillating comeback to first-class cricket in England with a match haul of four wickets against Somerset in Pakistan’s first tour game last week.

It was a performance that brought joy to former Pakistan Test wicket-keeper Atiq-uz-Zaman, Amir’s coach at Sui Southern Gas Corporation (SSGC) who played a crucial role in his reintegration into the competitive cricket.

The 24-year-old’s sharp pace, laced with steep swing, kept the county batsmen on their feet, especially in Somerset’s first innings that saw the left-arm paceman bag three scalps for just 36 runs in his 11 overs.

After six years, Amir is likely to don whites for Pakistan this Thursday at Lord’s — the iconic venue where his cricketing career came to a gruesome halt after the infamous spot-fixing scandal — when Misbah-ul-Haq’s side will take on England in the first Test.

His return to Test cricket comes barely eight months after he made his first-class return for SSGC, returning figures of 5-71 in 34 overs against Lahore Blues in Quaid-e-Azam Trophy’s Pool ‘A’ contest at Lahore in November last year.

“I thought he never went away because of the manner in which he pitched the ball,” Atiq told Dawn from the United Kingdom on Sunday. “His physical ability was a concern because he had been out of the competitive cricket for five years but he was terrific on his comeback.”

However, there was some resentment in SSGC’s camp with regard to the tainted bowler’s comeback.

“Obviously the players expressed their concerns but we handled the situation well,” Atiq recalled. “We told the players that it was his right to play as he had served his punishment due to which the players embraced Amir. Just like the Pakistan Cricket Board did when some players refused to play alongside Amir.”

While Amir strived for acceptance into cricketing fold during the Quaid-e-Azam trophy’s qualifying round, he found himself in an altercation with former Pakistan batsman Faisal Iqbal, who revisited the spot-fixing incident during one of his spells.

The two were slapped heavy fines for the unwarranted verbal exchange.

“The incident made Amir nervous,” said Atiq. “There is personal liking and disliking, but it was childish to say him those words. Instead, he should have left him alone.”

But this was the start of the agonising tale of jeers that Amir would endure.

He was at the receiving end of slurs from the crowds during the National T20 Cup in September 2015. During the third Twenty20 International of his first international tour — against New Zealand — after serving the ban, the Wellington stadium anno­uncer played cash register sound to taunt Amir for which he was duly reprimanded.

If that was not enough, Amir was called a ‘convicted spot-fixer’ by a leading British media organisation for his extraordinary first innings spell against Somerset.

“It was in bad taste,” Atiq said. “They [British media] are trying to play mind games to put him off. But Amir is mentally strong and he received the same treatment from the Pakistani media during his first-class return. It tried to defame him, but he kept his focus.”

In the wake of the spot-fixing incident, Amir’s attitude came under media scrutiny and he was criticised for his chutzpah.

“He had cockiness just like Wasim [Akram] and Shoaib [Akhtar] did and that is a necessity for a fast-bowler. People started to notice it after the spot-fixing scene unfolded,” said Atiq. “Amir was not a bad kid at all, he is doing quite well and should be treated as a normal person.”

Atiq is hopeful that Amir will be quick to leave a mark in the Test arena, but expressed concern about the fast bowler’s fitness.

“He is coming back to Test cricket after a long time,” he said. “When he made a comeback for SSGC, he was eager to play but we rested him to ensure he does not injure himself. Though he has bowled well against Somerset, he should be taken care of by the captain and team management during the tour.”

Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2016

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