On a rain-interrupted day at Headingley, Ben Jones watched Jos Buttler battle through the conditions to show his side how to bat in Test cricket.
When Jos Buttler returned to the England Test side, on his pedestal at No.7, many were sceptical. Many said that Buttler would need to make some serious changes to his technique in order to succeed in the whites, rather than against the white ball. The accepted verdict was that he would need to become more like a Test cricketer in order to help England succeed.
There were very few voices suggesting that England should bat more like Buttler in order to succeed, but strangely that is what has transpired.
In the entire first Test, no top-order batsman batted further out of his crease than Buttler, his average contact point 2.14m away from his stumps when facing pace. This wasn’t a result of him coming down the track a lot – he did so to just 3% of deliveries from pace. In a match when England were terrorised by the lateral movement of Mohammad Abbas, Buttler showed solid cricketing nous and brought his stance forward, striking the ball before the swing or seam could snare him.
And so, England’s red-ball elite followed the white-ball specialist. Today, England’s average contact point v pace was 1.818m – not once in the last five home summers have England come further forward in a Test match. Malan’s average contact point was 35cm further forward than he did in the first Test, the furthest forward he’s got since his debut last summer. Rather than allowing Pakistan’s seamers to bowl at them, England came at them.
In one over today, both Malan and Dom Bess danced down the wicket to meet Abbas’ deliveries, and whipped them through mid-wicket. It was almost too brazen, flashing the answer at a quiz contestant for a split-second, teasing them. England had found a method which worked for them, and were showing it off.
Of course, Buttler himself received a large slice of luck, when he was dropped by Hasan Ali at short mid-wicket when on four. Yet the broader principle at work, the method Buttler showcased both here and at Lord’s, is sound; and not just for him. Conventional cricketing wisdom suggests that when facing the swinging ball, you should aim to play the ball as late as you can, allowing yourself as much time to watch the ball, and to react to it’s flight. However, as these graphics make clear, there is evidence to suggest the opposite is true.
The earlier the average contact point, the higher the batting average. This goes against the general idea of playing late, and in truth it doesn’t directly contradict that; this isn’t a charter for lunging out in-front of your body. Playing under your eyes is still key. However, these numbers suggest that setting-up further forward, and then playing the ball under your eyes, is the key to negotiating the swinging ball.
Of course, it’s not a foolproof plan. Bouncers which send batsmen scurrying back towards their stumps could quite quickly make the tactic seem foolish. However, to bring it back to this match, Pakistan had neither the inclination nor the ability to bowl a hostile, short-pitched spell. In England over the last five years, 31% of balls from the quicks have been short – today, Pakistan bowled just 21%. Whilst Mickey Arthur’s stance on not selecting Wahab Riaz reflects admirable faith in his younger crop of seamers, the option to force England into taking a backwards step wasn’t really there for Sarfraz.
Whether Buttler will be a success long-term in this England side is up for debate. However, since returning to the side he’s shown a calm, measured batting method which has the potential to work for in Test cricket. Even if he doesn’t survive in the team beyond this summer, he’s left a solid legacy behind already, in showing the red-ball specialists a useful method to survive against the swinging ball.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.