Australia v Pakistan, 3rd Test, Hobart, 3rd day January 16, 2010

Butt continues to walk a crooked path

Salman Butt has intrinsically the mind to play a Test innings, but most always finds himself needing to secure his spot

The short, interrupted career of Salman Butt tells a great, sad story of Pakistan cricket and its cricketers. It is about the talent of men, not exceptional perhaps but fit enough to succeed globally, existing anywhere in the world in whatever circumstance. It is also about the poor habits that come with unchecked talent. But it is most about not knowing how the talent should be nurtured and not knowing how fragile it can be.

Before the Sydney Test, Butt talked about batting well but not scoring big. Meekly he added that being in and out of the side hadn't helped much. It is such a usual thing for Pakistan players to say that the significance of what they are actually saying is often forgotten. To remind, Butt has already been dropped seven times from the Pakistan team in only 27 Tests. That means he has had to make his way back into the side eight times already by the age of 25 over six years, each time knowing that another edge, a leg-before, a little mistake might be the last, for a while at any rate.

Butt has been dropped when he hasn't been scoring, and dropped when he has been; once, he scored a fifty and a hundred in Australia and was dropped one Test later in India. That will do as much for your self-belief as finding out your spouse has been cheating on you. A therapist might be more useful than a coach.

He is here still after that first trip but he has gone a long, twisted way in five years to get back to where he began. The sadness is that he comes here his career not having gone much further. This series - like that first one - is still about securing his spot.

Partly he must admit the fault is his. For such a player, he has careless ways. The running, as Pakistan again discovered, is far too lazy for someone so young. He doesn't harry nearly enough for runs, content with singles where the more alert sniff out two. Already in his career he has been cautioned a few times for running down the centre of the pitch and in the run-out of Umar Akmal yesterday, he paid for it, running into Nathan Hauritz.

The concentration can also be loose and usually at key moments. At the beginning of an innings, just after he has settled, soon after fifties or hundreds, these are dangerous times for Butt. He has good wrists but not the greatest hands, so keeping up a steady patter of singles - an essential batting discipline now - is difficult. More batting sense is needed. A little more in the field wouldn't be amiss either.

But Pakistan needs to know that the good much outweighs the bad and that these are materials that can be worked with. They should've known it five years ago but he has to be, from here on in, at least one half-answer to the vexing problem of their opening, in Tests and ODIs.

Butt has intrinsically the mind to play a Test innings, to bat long, which is always priceless in Pakistan. He can bat long and doesn't always get fazed by scoreless periods. Once in Multan, a solid England attack played with his head, placing two short covers and drying up his scoring. He held out for a second Test hundred and a fifty, batting nearly eleven hours in the process. Eight ODI hundreds, in a different way, say much the same thing.

His captain reckons he plays better on difficult pitches. Certainly he has prospered enough in Australia now to become a part of that rarest Pakistan fraternity: batsmen who do well in the land of fast, bouncy surfaces.

His third Test hundred has come far too long after his second, nearly half a decade. But it was an important one, for him, for Pakistan. Quite a typical one too: moments of carelessness, but prolonged bouts of beauty, patience and good sense. The leg-side game has sharpened and expanded. The touch on the off remains, as ever, finely measured.

There came one moment, off Mitchell Johnson, when he no more than guided a ball off the bat, to the left of gully, the right of point and the left of a square, deeper gully as well, guided it as delicately as a cat burglar skipping through the infrared alarms at fancy museums; suddenly the Bellerive Oval looked even more beautiful than it already is.

The innings took some nerve. The dressing room cannot have been a fun place to be in after yesterday's run-outs and the night would have been spent uneasily taken with the headlines morning would bring. The sense, all in all, was only how he is not more of a player than he has been so far?

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo