Pakistan v India, 3rd Test, Karachi, 2nd day January 30, 2006

Opening gambits and butter fingers

Salman Butt and Imran Farhat propelled Pakistan to a strong position with a century opening stand © AFP

It's been 21 innings and over a year since a Pakistani opening pair put on a stand of over a hundred. On several occasions they have come close, most notably against England but possibly when they have needed it most, one pair came through today.

Incidentally, the last one - 102 runs between Yasir Hameed and Salman Butt at Sydney - was also made with two specialist openers, or at least, in Hameed, a specialist top-order batsman. The partnership between Butt and Imran Farhat ensured Pakistan stretched away from India on the second day, but further complicated the debate about the makeshift opening option of Shoaib Malik.

Farhat's contributions in this match, in a sense, are emblematic of this uncertainty. He looked wonderfully fluent on his way to a fifth fifty in 16 Tests. Though in approach and stature they are similar, Farhat is often flashier than Butt, just less reliant on wrists. Both are inclined towards the off-side, but where Butt flicks, clips or scoops and times, Farhat leaps, body and mind whole, into his shots; his pulls are emphatic, his forces square and his drives more extravagant in their physicality. At the crease, they presented a subtle but pleasing (and eventually successful) contrast; Farhat's aggression was bullying in nature and Butt's more velvet. Both, however, were relentless in punishing anything loose and combined, they ensured that whatever momentum Irfan Pathan and company had seized was yanked back in the afternoon.

Possibly though - and herein lies the problem - Butt has become the more judicious of the two, more choosy about which balls to attack and which to leave. Both of Farhat's dismissals were little short of awful, first chasing wide and then top-edging a pull. It is a trait that has branded him and it is one that continues to leave the question of Pakistan's openers unanswered. Farhat's irascible batting or Malik's gradually increasing composure? Or another option altogether? For now, with a healthy lead already in place and wickets in hand, the question can be deferred.

Salman Butt finally produced an innings of substance in the series © AFP

Another question, about Pakistan's continuing laxness in the field, however, may not be delayed for much longer. On each of the last 15 occasions Pakistan have stepped on to the field, in a Test match, they have done so in the knowledge that they are playing against an extra player. He's generally a handy little player too; 701 runs from lower down the order is useful and so too is the average of just over 24. In that run are three neat forties (most recently 44 at Faisalabad) and here, he chipped in with another crucial 28 precisely when his team was most in need.

Extras: It's difficult to remember a time when Pakistan hasn't been so generous with dishing them out. Even if you take leg-byes out of the equation - as a transgression it is a trifle unfair to attribute it to the fielding side - Pakistan have conceded, on average, nearly 17 runs per innings in their last 15 matches. Twelve times they overstepped the mark in this innings and over that period they have done it 21 times per match.

How much a coach can do about it is open to question, which is why the sample of 15 Tests is a useful one; that is the time Bob Woolmer has been in charge. In 12 Tests before that Pakistan were also conceding over 18 no-balls per match and roughly 22 extra runs per innings. For all the aspects that have improved within the side, basic bowling and fielding disciplines have ostensibly not done so. In any situation, such indiscipline is ill-affordable but in one as taut and initially low-scoring as this, the profligacy is inexcusable and potentially fatal.

Dropping catches doesn't help much either; Pakistan dropped four today, including Irfan Pathan twice before he was on double figures. One chance went yesterday, a few more went in Lahore and Faisalabad, seven went in one innings against England in Faisalabad recently and several have gone in the past year. As a habit, it isn't the brightest one, especially when you're looking a bowler short as they did against the Indian tail and your spearhead is, for reasons best known to nobody, insisting on pitching the ball short on a pitch offering help to those who pitch it up.

When these questions will be raised depends on what happens over the next three days. If Pakistan turn their position of strength into a win, Farhat's bravado might herald the first one sooner rather than later. Anything else and their wastefulness will come under increasing scrutiny.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo