Love, is a losing game.
Pakistan didn’t win today, in case you didn’t notice. They suffered a narrow defeat, in a tight game where they never really felt on top. They were in it only for brief passages, fleeting moments where they seemed to incite a particular kind of optimism in the Pakistan-dominated crowd and the neutral alike. The death overs with the ball; the Imam-Hafeez partnership. The Wahab-Sarfaraz partnership. Throughout those moments, Pakistan were in the game, fighting, hoping. They gave themselves glimpses of victory, but couldn’t quite get over the line. Australia, flawed but able to win those moments, came through.
One man can take credit for the fact it was this close. Mohammad Amir, in the midst of one of the more frustrating missed opportunities Pakistan cricket has suffered in the modern era, was immaculate.
Experience is often overrated. The fact that someone has already burned Christmas dinner is too often used as evidence to say they won’t burn another one. Yet in this case, you could see Amir’s considerable experience in play, in contrast to the raw efforts of Shaheen Shah Afridi. The latter is a bowler of immense talent, who you would bank on taking a considerable haul of wickets across his career. Today was never likely to contribute to that haul. He bowled too short, on too many occasions letting Warner and Finch avoid the misty nip of the Taunton pitch, the former in particular taking the chance to rock back and whip the whippersnapper through midwicket far too many times.
That opening spell, a colossal effort in the circumstances, could easily be forgotten. A wicketless 10 overs could easily see people ignore the fact that Amir was beating the batsmen one in three deliveries, and the fact that those batsmen were arguably the two best ODI openers in the world only added to the drama.
Taunton is a curious town. Small, slightly run down, but ultimately rather pretty, it’s like much of England. Like many small towns, it gives off the air that any mistake anyone makes will be communicated to every inhabitant within an hour, through a grapevine of gossip. Amir bowled as if he had this in mind. He bowled as if he knew any mistake would be focused on, zoomed in on, blown up.
Amir got it. He understood what was needed, given the situation, given the men at the crease: two hulking ball-strikers who want to get things moving now, not later. His control of length, throughout the match, was magnificent, and he played a tune on the Australians’ patience. No other seamer in the match found a good length – between six metres and eight metres from the batsman’s stumps – more often. It was a day to throw things over to the batsman and ask them to make the mistake.
Of course, that opening spell brought no wickets, and Australia were completely in gear when Amir collected his cap and went to graze in the outfield. He had bowled brilliantly, but had left no imprint on the scorecard.
The second spell was different. That brought the wicket of Finch, deserved after all those plays-and-misses. The third spell was even better, bringing two wickets this time. The ball that dismissed Usman Khawaja was a slower ball, 11kph slower than the previous ball Amir had bowled; the ball that dismissed Shaun Marsh was a quicker ball. What we saw today was Amir clicking, able to deploy his variations with maximum effectiveness. It was a man, defined by a mistake he made at 18, coming of age.
Amir’s delivery to dismiss Alex Carey was a disgracefully joyful burst of skill. CricViz’s Wicket Probability Model uses historical ball-tracking data, along with plenty of other metrics, to assess the likelihood that any delivery will take a wicket. The base rate is surprisingly low, compared to what you’d imagine; the average delivery has just an 1.6% chance of taking a wicket. Amir’s ball to Carey had a 13.5% chance. It was a delivery dipped in venom, sent down with calm assurance that yeah, this will do it.
The 10 overs that Amir bowled today, for just 30 runs, is the most economical ten-over spell by a Pakistan pacer in four years. Only one boundary came from the deliveries he sent down. It shouldn’t be surprising; the one thing that Amir has been consistently good at since the Champions Trophy miracle has been keeping the runs down. It’s perverse for a man so associated with attacking spells of incisive bowling, but Amir has been extremely good at keeping his economy rate low. Since that fateful day in South London, 40 seamers have bowled as many balls as Amir in ODI cricket; while he has the second worst strike rate, only four have a better economy than Amir. He has struggled to remove batsmen, but he has built pressure. He has been dormant, not inert. He has been waiting for the right day to explode.
It was a remarkable performance, all told. Bowling Impact is a white ball performance metric used to show how many runs any given player has contributed or cost above or below what we’d expect from the average player. Despite inconsistent form, Amir has recorded three of the top ten bowling Impact scores in a match for Pakistan since the last World Cup. He is a man who doesn’t necessarily contribute every game, but when he does, it’s match-defining. Today, it should have been.
But of course, it wasn’t. An ill-judged pull shot from Imam-ul-Haq, a misjudgement from Mohammad Hafeez, an end to good fortune for Wahab Riaz; each cost Sarfaraz’s men the competitive edge they needed in the end. Pakistan lost.
They are now in a battle to qualify that, in all likelihood, they will lose. Divorced from the situation, devoid of the engagement that being a fan brings, it was easy to enjoy Amir’s spell. It didn’t matter, a beautiful aesthetic spectacle which delighted in its own restraint.
The idea of cricket as an “individual sport, played in a team” is often brought up in the context of a player on a different wavelength to the other 10 around him. It’s often used negatively. Today, we were reminded that the opposite can be true, that a man can be so at odds with the form and performances of those around him, and still stand tall, and draw the eye.
We’re never going to escape Amir’s past. It is what it is, and it will always be. It’s the unspoken phrase between every line, the words under your breath as you exclaim at another spell. The only thing he can do is offer these sorts of performances, and the only thing we can do is love them.
Love is a losing game, and it’s one we should be glad Amir’s still playing.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.