“The new Buttler has become an asset for England. It may be prudent to allow him to continue in his role as the game changer lower down the order”
For one and a half years, Jos Buttler wandered about in white-ball wilderness, away from the serious business of Test cricket.
He had been categorised as someone who could hit the ball seriously hard and do so frequently, who scored at a strike rate of around 120 in the 50-over game. He could bat in any position as well, including at the top of the order. Additionally, he kept wickets and did a commendable job with the bigger gloves.
Yet, till the end of 2016, he had played 18 Tests with less than remarkable success. He had started off at this very Ageas Bowl, with a hard-hitting 85 against India. But he had not been able to better that career-best score. His 30 innings had seen him get 784 runs at a decent, but less than brilliant, average of 31.36, and in only 6 of the innings had he gone past 50.
He was not a success in the longest format. With Johnny Bairstow going from strength to strength as a batsman-keeper, he lost his place in the side.
He raised several eyebrows when he came back to the Test team riding on his success as a limited overs specialist. However, with the England batting line-up largely in shambles, there were not too many options.
To add to the surprise, with Ben Stokes going through the curious non-cricketing problems, it was Buttler who was chosen to be the deputy of Joe Root.
There are plenty who still look askance at players smoothly riding success in one format to induce selection in another. For them, this promotion was not really the ideal way of going about things.
But for the ones who subscribe to this changing face of the modern game, there is no more striking example than Buttler. Perhaps Jasprit Bumrah is another. It is sometimes downright silly to brand someone as a white-ball specialist.
Since his return into the top league, till his dismissal in the second innings of the Southampton Test, Buttler has scored 421 runs at 46.77, with a fighting back-to-the-wall century and three fifties. The rate of scoring 50-plus knocks, an indicator that differentiates between the specialist batsmen and all-rounders, has gone up to 40% since his return, from 20% when he was sent packing from the team.
In fact he is the highest run-getter in the England side this summer, and that too by quite some distance. Root comes second, with 311, but the England captain has managed an average of just 31.10 this season.
The second innings knocks at both Trent Bridge and Ageas Bowl underline the solidity of his approach. Buttler has recognised that he is expected to deliver as a batsman. He is, therefore, thinking in those terms and is prepared to invest time into building a proper innings.
At Nottingham, his hundred was a splendid example of scoring under pressure, of playing time with authority, assurance and fluency. The Southampton innings was a crucial knock in critical circumstances and is set to have a huge effect on the outcome of the match and the series.
Let me pause here to point out another significant statistic.
Since his return, Buttler has been played 79 balls for every dismissal. Which is a huge improvement on the 56 per dismissal in the first 18 Tests of his career.
Strangely … or not so strangely if one reflects about the nature of the multi-formatted evolving game … Buttler also scores a lot quicker since his Test comeback. While his strike rate was an impressive 55.52 before the hiatus, after his return he makes runs at 66.40 per hundred balls.
It underlines that Buttler is increasingly resembling a finished product. He has worked on his batting, especially the thought process behind his willow, to adapt himself to the longest format. He can now build his innings with calm authority, and can bat for long durations of time.
At the same time, he has not done all that at the expense of his stroke-making ability, which is indeed his major strength. He keeps himself busy at the crease and backs himself to score quickly when the situation is favourable.
In this Test, Johnny Bairstow was tried out up the order, a decision induced by the injury to England’s regular Test wicketkeeper. Bairstow had been scoring runs with consistency, but the experiment has backfired. He failed in both the innings. And especially the manner the casual drive which led to his second innings golden duck seems to indicate that he is better off batting in the lower middle-order, leaving the top four spots to specialists. (He batted at No 5 in the second innings, but mainly because Moeen Ali was the surprise ploy at No 3)
I am not suggesting that Buttler should be the one to be sent up the order in place of Bairstow. If anything, I recommend exactly the opposite.
Bairstow’s example should be a lesson to the England team management. The men in the side with multiple capabilities are too often used as floaters in the batting order. It can be unsettling to the side and to the individual.
Buttler has not batted above No 6 but for one solitary innings as a makeshift opener in Abu Dhabi, when Alastair Cook was absent. It is quite important that the English team management realises that he has settled into a groove at Nos 6 and 7. It may not be such a good idea to try and cash in on his consistency by trying him out up the order too quickly, in a desperate attempt to plug the glaring holes that are there.
The new Buttler has become an asset for England. It may be prudent to allow him to continue in his role as the game changer lower down the order.