King’s Cross Station in London is about a half an hour ride by the tube to The Oval. King’s Cross, the home to Platform 9 ¾; gateway to Hogwarts.
Hogwarts, where you spend seven years studying magic, achieving your N.E.W.Ts, or Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests, as every Harry Potter reader knows.
Mohammad Amir did not arrive at The Oval on Sunday from King’s Cross. He sat in the team bus. But his journey also spanned seven years. And it was nastily exhausting, it was a test. But seven years on, in the same city where he seemed to have lost it all in 2010, Amir did bring some wizardry with him.
Until the ICC Champions Trophy 2017 final, India’s top-order trio of Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli had scored a total of 874 out of the 1074 runs scored by the Indian batsmen. They had faced 909 balls, while the other batsmen combined had faced only 151.
In the final, Amir sent those three back for a combined 26 runs. Collectively, they lasted only 34 balls.
India’s profligate bowling had played its part in Pakistan racking up 338 for 4, but given India’s batting might, it was not unfeasible that a serious charge could be mounted. Within nine overs, the score was 33 for 3. Avada Kedavra, India’s chances.
Amir had set Rohit up beautifully, with skill out of the hand and of the mind. “My plan was to slant the ball away from him for two or three deliveries, and have him think that the ball is not swinging. And then I would bring one back in,” he told ICC.
Imperio ball. “And that plan was successful.” Of course it was.
Kohli was dropped in the third over. It could have been a crushing blow. But the next moment, Amir was streaking across the Oval turf, sliding on it like Bjorn Borg once did on the lawns of Wimbledon – creating his own magic also a few miles away. Amir had troubled Kohli from the first over with line and pace, then by mixing it up. The ball that should have got him was angled across, moving away and opening the batsman up while kissing the edge. Perhaps rattled by the near-miss, Kohli seemed to want to re-establish some authority, and the next ball he moved across to play one of his trademark flicks to mid-wicket, a shot that has brought him runs by the bucketful. Except, the Amir angle and possibly a momentary lapse by Kohli meant he had not covered the line fully. The bat face closed early, the leading edge was into play, and Amir had his man.
On most days, dropping Kohli would leave the fielding team Sectumsempra-ed. For a team like Pakistan, which had comfortably outstripped British weather in the ‘most unpredictable’ race, it could have meant even more misery. Pakistan was not supposed to string together so many wins after a first-match battering and an ODI ranking of eight. They weren’t the kinds who could follow one moment of brilliance that was wasted with another.
But for the best part of the last seven years, Pakistan didn’t have Amir.
Seven years ago, a few miles from The Oval, Amir had similarly wowed people with his then teenaged talent, and then ended a Test in spot-fixing disgrace. Five years in the wilderness followed, and the path back was thorny, but Amir walked it. And in the city where he found disgrace, he found redemption. True, he had bowled in a Test at Lord’s subsequently, but when you have sunk to the depths, merely coming back isn’t enough. You have to rise to the highs.
“Oh, look, it says a lot about his personality,” said Mickey Arthur, the Pakistan coach. “What I do know is that Mohammad Amir, he's a big-match player. The bigger the game, the more he performs, the more amped up he gets. He doesn't shy away from pressure situations. He's got proper big-match temperament, and he showed that today on the biggest stage.”
Fellow quicks Junaid Khan and Hasan Ali couldn’t stop gushing about him. “Turning point,” said Hasan. “We both got wickets, but his spell was outstanding,” was Junaid’s take.
Arthur had spoken on match eve of breaking open India’s top order to get at its undercooked middle. On the big stage, at the moment that counted most, his strike bowler gave him his Alohomora moment.
“I said it yesterday, if we could get amongst the Indian top order early we could probably expose the middle order that hadn't batted a fair amount, and Amir was the guy that could do that for us,” said Arthur. “Guys were talking in the first two games, he didn't get a wicket but he had bowled particularly well. We were always thinking it was one spell in somewhere, and the spell came thankfully today at the start of a final.”
Azhar Ali, the man who shelled the Kohli chance, described himself as the most relieved man once Amir got him next ball. “Virat Kohli, a guy who could probably chase the runs for fun. He does it best in the world, so dropping him was a really big disappointment,” said Azhar. “But I was the most relieved man after he got out the next ball. That kind of batsman never gives you the sight of getting out twice in two balls.”
Azhar was almost right. Relief would be a poor way of describing it, but it was part of what Amir must have felt with the wicket that he knew had given Pakistan a vice-like grip on a world title after a generation. And even Kohli can get out twice in two balls – it just needs someone with the sorcery of Amir to do it. He got the ball to move in a tournament where it has not obeyed the dictats of some of the finest swing merchants in the game. He broke through batsmen who had pummelled, among others, his own team's attack just two weeks ago. He found zip, and hiss, and control.
He found a moment that might have been his long ago if he hadn't lost those years. But if seven years is what it takes to return a wizard, the cricket world will gladly take it.
Expelliarmus the past. Accio the future.