Exclusive: The kid in the eye of a storm
Mohammad Aamer looked set to take the cricket world by storm but his rapid rise to the top almost never happened after a brush with death
Sunday 29 August 2010
Nobody has illuminated the cricketing summer more than Pakistan's 18-year-old left-arm paceman Mohammad Aamer. Beneath glowering clouds at Lord's on Friday morning the teenage tyro dispatched four of England's middle-order batsmen in the space of eight balls for no runs. But those clouds were as nothing compared to the gathering storm over match-fixing which is engulfing his team and its latest fast-bowling sensation.
In the latest chapter of a depressing saga which has become all too familiar in the recent cricket history of his country, allegations relating to gambling centre on the delivery of no-balls later on that same momentous day – at least one of them by him. The illegal deliveries were to be sent down at specific times of the day. The massive no-ball that Aamer bowled to Jonathan Trott looks set to go down in cricket lore.
But as well as controversy, Aamer has faced poverty, career-threatening injury and even death in his short life so far. Three years ago, it seemed the boy from the Rawalpindi city of Gujar Khan would never have the chance to play for his country. "I got ill with the dengue virus in Malaysia before the 2008 Under-19 World Cup when I was 15," he said. "I was in a very bad condition, it was a death situation, the doctors thought I was going to die – it was very bad. I was in hospital for one week and was on 24 drips a day.
"The doctors were surprised when I came round. When they sent me home they said that for one month I couldn't do anything and just to rest. That time was very bad for me and for my future. I was really scared."
Astonishingly, he was playing just a month later, despite not having played or trained since being bedridden. He even won the man-of-the-match award as he played a domestic one-day game for the Rawalpindi Rams in Karachi.
Shortly after this, Aamer suffered another setback, this time in the form of a persistent back injury that threatened to end his career before it had begun. "In Zimbabwe when I was on tour with the Pakistan Academy I could only play the one-day matches, not the four-day games, because of my back," he said. "The same problems continued in Kenya but this time it was the other side of my back I injured. At that point I was really upset because I thought my future was finished.
"My teacher said to me, 'Don't worry, you have an option to do studies'. But I had a contract with the National Bank at the time and they asked me, 'Are you fit to play first-class cricket?', and I said I was even though I wasn't.
"Most people were saying that my career was finished but I always said that I could come through. The coach spoke with me and said I had one last chance and if I was unfit again then my career was over. Thankfully I have come through it and am now playing at the highest level."
Aamer burst on to the international scene during Pakistan's triumphant run in the World Twenty20 in 2008, claiming the wicket of the player of the tournament, Tillakaratne Dilshan, in the final. And he has proved equally adept in the longer form of the game, taking almost 30 wickets in six Tests against Australia and England this summer.
"I am really pleased the way the tour has gone but I think in England every bowler enjoys it because of the conditions," Aamer said before the match-fixing scandal broke. "It was great to get a five-wicket haul at The Oval. But the team support has been great for me, especially when we have been losing a match because your mindset is perhaps not right. So the main thing is to stay focused, which I've done."
Aamer's incredible journey began a few years ago with murmurings from the former Pakistan bowler and now Pakistan Cricket Academy coach Aaqib Javed, about a young boy from the village of Changa Bangyaal who was set to become something very special. For Aamer, though, nothing was ever certain, especially in childhood.
"I lived in Bajwa Boys hostel, which was part of the local cricket club, from the age of 14 with around 30 other boys. My family couldn't afford to support my education and cricket, whereas there I was educated and given food. It was hard for me to be away from my family because I was still a kid but that's where I learnt to play cricket.
"My coach, Asif Bajwa, used to tell me, 'Just bowl length areas, no bouncers, no yorkers, no slower deliveries – just length balls.' He used to joke with me, 'If you try a bouncer I will slap you' – he was very strict with me. That's why I'm very disciplined now in my line and length and can bowl inswing and outswing."
Aamer's all-round ability was obvious at school. In one match he made 104 not out with the bat and took a staggering nine wickets for eight runs, leading the opposition to claim that he wasn't a schoolboy. Aamer says: "After the game the other team were saying, 'Which classes do you study?' and 'You're not a schoolboy – they didn't believe I was a schoolkid. I said, 'OK, fine, if you don't believe me you can come to school and you can see me.' Once they realised they were wrong they were saying to me that I was really good and I could one day play for Pakistan, that's when I first thought maybe I could make it."
The former Pakistan player Mudassar Nazar spotted Aamer playing in a local game at 14 and took him to the National Academy in Lahore. But it was his hero Wasim Akram who recommended him to the Pakistan selectors. "I met Wasim for the first time in a camp in Lahore in 2007, and Mudassar said, 'Can you check this guy out and give him some comments?' When he saw me he said, 'He is outstanding and is ready to play for Pakistan.' This was like a dream for me when he said it because he is my idol.
"Wasim is a legend. You give him a new ball, or you give him an old one, and he is very good – he has all the qualities. Like in the 1992 World Cup final [against England] when he took three wickets by coming around the wicket – just brilliant, amazing deliveries. This is what I want to develop in myself," says Aamer.
What the future holds for this fiercely bright prospect has been thrown into doubt. But right now the clouds are gathering over him again.
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