The return of The Natural

Pakistan's Mohammad Amir walks onto the field to warm up with teammates before day one of the tour match at the County Ground, Taunton, south western England, Sunday July 3, 2016. (Simon Galloway/PA via AP)

The natural in this case is Mohammad Amir, a freakishly talented fast bowler from Pakistan who burst onto the cricket world scene in 2009 and who had, at 18, become the youngest bowler in the history of cricket to take 50 test wickets.Amir’s particular genius lies in his ability to swing the ball very late in his delivery, bamboozling batsman with a wicked equivalent of a late-breaking slider.But Amir’s rise to glory came crashing down in 2010 during a test series against England. Amir’s bowling prowess had already had him declared the man of the four-match test series when sensational news broke: he and two other Pakistan players had been trapped by an undercover British newspaper sting, in which they took money as part of a cricket “spot-fixing” scam.The scheme targeted people who bet on ‘spot’ events during a cricket match. In Amir’s case he and another bowler deliberately bowled ’no-balls’ at certain points during the match, allowing those who had bet on such an event to rake in the dough at the expense of the bookies. The on-field scam was orchestrated by Pakistan’s crooked captain Sabir Butt.But the man who funnelled the money to the three players had himself been fooled by an undercover News of the World journalist who had paid the equivalent of $250,000 in marked bills for the fixes. The exchange was caught by a hidden camera.When the story broke the three players were among those charged and convicted in Britain of conspiracy to cheat at gambling and conspiracy to accept corrupt payments. They all served time in prison and were given five-year bans from cricket.But in the case of Amir, many thought this was a young, naive bowler being led astray by older, more venal players. He was deemed unsophisticated, a son with a humble background,from a large family living in a remote village. The ban effectively ended the careers of Butt and Mohammad Asif, the other bowler caught, but there was hope that Amir and his astonishing talent could one day be redeemed.Pakistan’s Mohammad Amir bowling during day two of the Somerset versus Pakistan tour match at the County Ground, Taunton, south western England, Monday July 4, 2016. (Simon Galloway/PA via AP) ORG XMIT: LON808Pakistan’s Mohammad Amir has shown he can still swing the ball prodigiously.Others in the cricket world were less forgiving. Spot-fixing corruption is a blight on the cricketing world and there were those who believed an example should be made of the Pakistan players with none ever being allowed back on a cricket pitch.Amir exile ended last year, and this week Pakistan will again play England. It will be Amir’s first test match and ironically he will suit up at Lords, the spiritual home of cricket and the scene of the players’ 2010 disgrace.Pakistan won the toss and batted on Thursday. At some point on Friday it will be Amir’s turn to bowl, and he will take his first test-match run-up in six years. England’s batsmen will be nervous as Amir has already shown in warm-up matches that he hasn’t lost his knack of generating prodigious swing.Amir is contrite. He says he has learned his lesson and wants to get on with his life playing the game he loves.In the Hollywood version of The Natural, Robert Redford’s character Roy Hobbs swings at the final pitch and scores the winning home run. In Bernard Malamud’s book, Hobbs strikes out at the end of the game and lapses into a life of anonymity and bitterness. It remains to be seen if Amir’s story of redemption will end like the movie or the book.

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