An opening partnership with promise
Pakistan's travels around Australasia this season have been unusually productive. They've won only one Test so far but there are more gains. Mohammad Aamer has come along beautifully; Mohammad Asif has been magnificent; Umar Akmal has added new impetus to a flimsy middle order. Quietly slipping by unnoticed have been Pakistan's opening pair.
There is never a final word as far as Pakistan's opening is concerned but the century stand Imran Farhat and Salman Butt put on this morning was their second in three Tests; like the one that began Pakistan's quest to bat for two days to save the Napier Test against New Zealand recently, this one was also critical. They've only opened in nine Tests together, over many years, and the third century stand they constructed was another important one, against India in Karachi in 2006 which took the Test decisively away from them. Somewhere in there are two fifty stands as well.
Probably for numbers it is Pakistan's most productive opening pair in recent times. They have probably deserved more together, especially considering some of the opening pairs that have turned up over the last few years. And yet it is still difficult to believe that there is real solidity to them. That has much to do with Farhat's enduring flakiness and that of Pakistan's selectors. Mohammad Yousuf, the captain, feels the pair play surprisingly well on tough pitches and it has worked over the last few Tests, remarkably well.
"There's not much time spent together to say much about it but I think sometimes things come together and work for you," Butt said. "I think we have good communication. On the pitch, if he does something wrong, I try to tell him and, if I do something silly, he comes to talk to me. The last seven times we have opened I think five times we have passed fifty and twice passed hundred so I think it's a good sign for Pakistan."
They played two crucial sessions extremely well here, one last evening of four overs and then the entire morning session today. Where they had probably been too shelled in in Melbourne they were now sensible, taking what runs came readily and never unafraid to drive. They played and missed at a few and edged another few, but on this surface, on balance, it is better to have a go than not.
"The main thing was to play inside and close to yourself and avoid anything that was flashy or rash," Butt said. "We played a few flashy strokes but thank God we didn't edge them. It's one of those [pitches] where you are never settled, you are never in. The time that you think you are in, suddenly the ball does something. I think you can have a good laugh about it and relax because it's not in your control."
Butt especially looked solid and coming back to score in Sydney marks a nice return. His first Test hundred came here four years ago, against a greater attack and on a surface he said had "one percent" in common with this one. When he plays innings such as this, sensible and pleasant, you really wonder why he hasn't done more with his career. He looks an opener still more than any other Pakistan has tried.
He said before the Test that it helped to get a run in the Test side and it is true enough, especially with the lack of Test cricket Pakistan had. "We are trying to adapt to it because we have been lacking Test cricket in the last year and a half," he said. "We are trying to do that quickly because the opposition plays a lot of Test cricket. Clarke and I made our debuts in the same year and I think I have played only half the games he has so you can well imagine how many games we get."
Perhaps it is that lack of Test cricket that allowed Pakistan to not put the game beyond Australia's reach. A rash of poor strokes - the captain was later most annoyed with his own - saw them slip from 237 for 3, to their closing 331-9; a lead that could've been 300 is now just over 200 and though substantial still, you cannot rule Australia out entirely. Especially if you've lost your last ten Tests to them.
"I think we could have been a bit better off without the last three or four wickets falling but then again this wicket is like that, falling in heaps because the ball seams here," Butt said. "This pitch is not going to change completely. It's not going to become a batter's paradise. There will always be something for the seamers and if Danish [Kaneria] can do what he's capable of….we could have been better off had we only been four or five down today but that's the way the game is, you know."
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo