Pakistan's Mohammed Amir is now embroiled in a spot-fixing case that has the potential to end his promising career.
Tucked away from the main, more opulent residential area of Changa Bangial village in Pakistan is an enclave of 18 households belonging to the same extended family. For this clan of modest means and education, an army colonel and a police sub-inspector provided the only living source of familial pride. Then a 17-year-old boy shot to fame with his immense cricketing talent and became the sole identity, not just for the family, but for the whole village, and the nearest city, Gujar Khan.
This young man, Mohammed Amir, is now embroiled in a spot-fixing case that has the potential to end his breathtakingly promising career in its infancy. The people of entire Gujar Khan tehsil see it only as a conspiracy to rob them of their pride. They are united in defending Amir's honour as their own. Hurt not as much by the suspension of Amir (and two teammates) by the International Cricket Council (ICC) ahead of the ODI series against England, as by the “revelations of Amir's ill-gotten riches” by a certain news group in Pakistan, their first line of defence is to bar all media from getting to the family.
I travel 70 km from Islamabad to get to Changa Bangial, where a local, Mirza Munir, has arranged my visit to Dhok Jandaran, the official name of the locality where Amir's family lives. But he tells me straight off that I may not be able to talk to anyone there, not even to kids in the street. Amir's family feels threatened by newsmen and Munir, as a fellow villager, is on the side of the family. We leave the main road for a narrow concrete path that curves around a field and brings us to an intersection where a mud track runs half a kilometre to the cluster of houses on our right that is Dhok Jandaran.
Munir stops at the intersection and points to the ground in the corner: “This is where Amir played cricket in his childhood.” It's not a playground. It is a piece of untended land earmarked for the construction of a girls' high school that was never built. There's wild growth all over and the surface is bumpy. The recent monsoon spell probably.
We take the dirt track and stop in a square that is the entrance to the enclave. Two narrow, winding streets lead off at a right angle. All the houses have low boundary walls and identical name plates stuck to them. The streets are paved and clean. No open sewers and no stench of cow dung. Many of houses are single-storied and all are small but neat and well presented. Amir's house is at the far edge of the enclave with open fields on two sides. A Pakistani flag embellished with golden border is flying on a pole fixed on the rooftop — a symbol of pride for Amir's father, Mohammed Fayyaz, for having served in the Pakistan army. He retired as a sepoy.
The door is opened by Amir's youngest brother, Mohammed Ramzan. He whispers something in Munir's ear and hurriedly walks past me avoiding eye contact. Munir leads me into the house — three rooms built around a courtyard. The baithak — village speak for drawing room — is furnished in traditional style. Two chorpoys covered with brightly coloured bed sheets, a wooden sofa set with floral upholstery, vinyl flooring, dark coloured curtains of coarse material and a wooden rack along the length of a wall, displaying gold-rimmed tea cups and saucers.
There is no one meeting us here though. We are welcome to the house but not to the occupants. Amir is not here anyway. He has a house in Lahore where his parents join him off and on. In their absence, Amir's sister, eldest among the siblings, manages the village house.
It takes me a few minutes of wandering around to find another young man in the street. He is curt and unwilling to talk. Then his father shows up and introduces himself as Amir's paternal uncle, Raja Mehmood Ahmed. I introduce myself as a journalist who only wishes to hear the family talk about Amir, and not the spot-fixing case. I am invited in, and a little later Amir's elder brother and mentor, Mohammed Ijaz also joins us.
Ijaz, 25, runs a jewellery shop in Gujar Khan. He is wearing Pakistan cricket's official track suit. “Is it Amir's?” Yes, he replies with a hint of pride and affection for the kid brother who excelled his older brothers in the game they all love. Amir is the fifth among six brothers and except for the eldest, all have played tennis-ball cricket together in the village and all are left handers. “We had enough boys within the family to make two teams of six or seven players each. Amir used to be among the youngest but he bowled really fast, even for us older batsmen. I don't remember he was ever hit for a six,” says Ijaz, a left arm leg spinner himself.
The youngest, Ramzan, is the only one eyeing professional cricket. He's also a leg spinner “and a decent batsman down the order,” adds Ijaz. Ramzan is shy and lets Ijaz do most of the talking. At 16, Ramzan is following in Amir's footsteps, all the way from the middle school in the village to the boarding school cum cricket academy in Rawalpindi where Amir played with a cricket ball for the first time. “Watching Amir bowl with a tennis ball, I was convinced that he'll make it big if only he can play with [a] hard ball. But we didn't have the means to get the gear. Whenever our mother went out shopping to town, Amir would insist on buying the gear but was always told we couldn't afford it.”
Spotting his talent
A grown-up cricket enthusiast in the village spotted the talent in Amir, took him to the academy in the big city, and bought him his first kit. Now Amir can possibly buy the best gear in the world but his brothers are still using his hand-me-down kits. “None of us has ever bought cricket gear. Ramzan has a full kit that he got from Amir. His bat is the one Amir used for his record score against New Zealand in Abu Dhabi. His pads, gloves, everything is second hand, and he's proud of it,” adds Ijaz.
When Amir is in the village, they still play together. “When he is home, he's not a star, just a cricket loving boy of the village. He even plays with little kids. He adores our sister's only son Mohammed Kaif, 4, and takes him out for games all the time,” says Ijaz, pushing little Kaif to say his salam to the guests. What do you want to be when you grow up? A batsman or bowler? “I want to be like Amir mamoon,” pat comes the reply.
On the way back I ask Munir if he is into cricket at all. “Me,” he laughs, “Never even watched a match in my 50 years.” Still, what does he make of the allegations Amir is facing? “All I know is he is a good boy who's made Changa Bangial proud, and nothing anyone says is going to change that. The young in the village adore him for his game. He is their hero, and that isn't going to change either. Just give it time and his innocence will be proved to the whole world”.