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Playing favourites

An average of 24.60 with four half-centuries would, in most cases, end an opener's career. It's his three hundreds against India that had given Salman Butt's numbers (an overall average of 33) some credibility and justified his selection for this series. On Sunday Butt improved those figures with his fourth hundred against India - a career best score of 129, an innings built upon breathtaking strokeplay, sensible consolidation and a final charge.

The supple wrists were at their rubbery best, the elbow always high, the signature punch at the time of contact crunchy. There was no rash batting, no need for aerial shots and, barring the two edges off Irfan Pathan that eluded the slips, this could have passed off as a Test innings.

It is when the field spreads and the boundaries run out that Butt's problems begin. India soaked up the runs today when Zaheer Khan came from round the stumps with a short mid-off and four fielders patrolling the 30-yard circle. The ball angled away and Butt timed the shots straight to the fielders on the ring. He had to play out two maiden overs from Zaheer - the 10th and 14th of the innings - which came right in the middle of his charge.

A familiar throwing away of the wicket seemed just round the corner but that didn't happen for he found ways of taking singles through the leg side and, though he scored only 19 runs off 35 Zaheer deliveries, he attacked the other bowlers.

His three earlier hundreds against India had set up wins for Pakistan but this one, chasing a huge total on a crumbling track, did not. That was largely because two Indian batsmen - Yuvraj Singh and Mahendra Dhoni - had got stuck into their favourite bowling attack.

Their hundred-run partnership today was their fourth century stand against Pakistan, at an average of 99.8. The three earlier century stands had set up victories for India - two big chases in Lahore and Karachi, and a tricky one in Guwahati.

Dhoni said batting with Yuvraj has always helped him ease into his own innings. He would know for has seen Yuvraj's six sixes from the other end of the pitch. "It really helps when I play with Yuvi. If I do not get boundary for a couple of overs, he gets that boundary. So we are really never under pressure even if we are chasing eight or nine runs per over," Dhoni said.

This partnership came about after the two had struggled against the Pakistan spinners for a while. Somewhere around that time Dhoni, at the non-strikers' end, came in the way of a Yuvraj shot that would have been a sure boundary.

The bonhomie and the banter the two of them share was there to be seen and perhaps a pact had been signed and a challenge issued. Because in the next over Yuvraj picked his bowler - the left-arm spinner Abdur Rehman - and hit him for two sixes. Dhoni is not one to stay behind and chose Shoaib Malik for similar treatment in the over that followed. From then on, it was a contest - not so much against Pakistan bowlers as between the batsmen. Yuvraj caressed, Dhoni bludgeoned, and the runs flowed. From the start of the 34th over till Dhoni got out in the 44th, they scored 87 runs, proving to be the difference between 260, which Malik hoped to restrict India to, and 294.

Although Dhoni maintained there was no special liking for the Pakistan attack, he did mention that the flat subcontinent tracks that the two sides have met each other on have played their role.