Jos Buttler is in the form of his life – but how good can he get? Ben Jones examines Buttler’s data, to see if the England star can reach the level of his South African idol.
Earlier this summer, AB de Villiers announced his retirement from international cricket. After 114 Tests, 228 ODIs and 78 IT20s, the greatest batsman of his generation called it a day. Three days later, Jos Buttler walked out to bat at Lord’s against Pakistan, returning to Test cricket after an 18 month hiatus during which he played just four red-ball matches. As De Villiers exited, Buttler made his way to the stage.
It was an apt dovetailing of careers. More than any other, De Villiers refined the innovation and aggression in batting which became the hallmark of the subsequent generation, none of whom resemble the South African quite as much as Buttler. There is an essential similarity between Buttler and De Villiers’ batting which is almost familial.
Indeed, Buttler has spoken publicly of De Villiers as an inspiration for his batting, and has made his ambitions clear: “That’s the role I want to play in English cricket”.
It shows in his set-up, given that him and De Villiers both work from the same technical base. Buttler plays off the back foot against pace 29% of the time, compared to De Villiers’ 31%. They both score all around the ground, no area off limits given their spectacular array of shots.
There are broader parallels. The ‘scoop’ may have been playfully named after Tillakaratne Dilshan, but it was arguably popularised by De Villiers. As a shot, it encapsulates an approach to batsmanship which is inseparable from De Villiers, but it has also become Buttler’s trademark – nobody has scored more runs in ODIs with the scoop.
Yet it’s at the death where Buttler and De Villiers stand out. Since the Englishman’s ODI debut, De Villiers is the only man to score faster than Buttler at the death.
As we can see on the graph above, the gulf between De Villiers and the chasing pack is remarkable, but Buttler is still leading that group. He is the closest thing De Villiers has had to a competitor in recent times, and his superior dismissal rate suggests that whilst the South African may be more destructive, Buttler is harder to stop.
So, for English fans approaching a World Cup in need of a talisman – how close to De Villiers’ level can Buttler get?
Well, the first thing to recognise is that De Villiers didn’t arrive fully formed. There may have been something like genius in his hand-eye coordination, his agility and balance at the crease, but even genius takes time to blossom. De Villiers’ finest period didn’t come in the flush of youth, but was instead skewed towards the end of his career; his most successful years in terms of run-scoring and scoring rate came after a bedding-in period of roughly five years. Once his apprenticeship was served, he soared.Could Buttler mirror that trajectory? For those who buy into this idea, England’s starlet is in an exciting moment. Entering the summer of 2018, he’s just reached the end of that five year ‘apprenticeship’ which De Villiers undertook before reaching a new level of performance. If Buttler’s particular brand of genius is genuinely comparable to De Villiers’, now is the time that things kick into gear.
The early signs are promising; this calendar year he is averaging more than he ever has before in ODIs. He’s looked imperious in the IPL, and gloriously competent in Test cricket.
So with all this in mind, what does Jos Buttler need to do give himself the best chance of truly flourishing into one of the best ever white ball batsmen? With De Villiers as the model, and using CricViz data as a guide, here are the key areas in which Buttler can take his game to the next level?
Lose the Gloves
Firstly, Buttler needs to stop wicket-keeping. The strain of keeping, even in a 50 over match, is detrimental to batting performance. When keeping in ODIs, De Villiers’ batting average was a strong 48.89; when not keeping, it leapt to a stratospheric 69.00. Buttler’s numbers to date suggest this relationship could be the same for the Englishman. In List A cricket, Buttler averages 43.08 when he keeps wicket, and 57.42 when he doesn’t, also scoring marginally faster without the gloves than with them.
If England are serious about removing all obstacles between Buttler and ODI greatness, then Jonny Bairstow needs to take the gloves. The Yorkshireman is in electrifying form with the bat, and many may be wary of disrupting a player who cares substantially about whether or not he keeps wicket. However, Bairstow is a streaky player, as shown by his diminished Test returns of recent, and his ceiling as an ODI batsman is lower than Buttler’s. By having Bairstow take the gloves in this format of the game, England could be maximising Buttler’s effectiveness for years to come.
Move Up the Order
Despite the aesthetic and technical similarities between De Villiers and Buttler, they have rarely performed the same role. 131 of De Villiers’ ODI innings have come at No.4, more than in any other position, whilst most of Buttler’s innings have come at No.6. England may have revolutionised their ODI batting, but Buttler has been consistently used as a finisher – albeit a floating finisher in recent times.
Yet on those occasions when Buttler has batted at No.4, he’s averaged 56.33. AB averages 53.11 batting there.
Of course, Buttler has only batted there on eight occasions, generally when England are plundering the opposition on a road, and that’s reflected in his scoring rate of 9.94rpo. However, it suggests that Buttler can bat at full throttle without necessarily compromising his contribution in terms of runs. A useful trait.
Therefore, England can afford to bat Buttler higher. Getting him in the top four would see him exert more influence on the innings, given that currently on average, he enters the crease with 29.3 overs already having been bowled. Since Buttler debuted, De Villiers, for all his destructive powers, arrived at the crease on average after just 12.5 overs, giving him almost 20 overs more to play with.
Moving Buttler up could also have the effect of bringing the best out of Eoin Morgan. Since the start of 2017, only Rohit Sharma scores more quickly than Morgan at the death in ODIs (min 50 balls). England’s captain is an elite finisher, and should embrace this role, particularly given that moving Buttler up the order supports his all-out-attack philosophy.
Adjust his Pacing
One of Buttler’s most thrilling qualities is his acceleration, as illustrated by the minimal time he takes in an innings to get his strike rate up above 100. Across his career, Buttler takes an average of just 19 deliveries before he’s scoring at over a-run-a-ball; by comparison, since Buttler debuted, De Villiers took 92 deliveries. Considering that De Villiers himself is above the average acceleration, this shows quite how rapidly Buttler begins an innings.
The downside is that Buttler is dismissed early far more than the average player. As this chart shows, for the first 20 balls of his innings he’s far more likely to be dismissed than most.
Both these patterns can be explained by Buttler’s role – finishers obviously start quickly with less regard for their wicket – but if he’s going to successfully move up the order he’ll need to adapt this pacing. His recent match-winning century against Australia at Old Trafford should be the template. After 30 balls on that day, he was on 27, well below his usual strike rate of 111 at that point in an innings – but he hadn’t played and missed at a single delivery. Subsequently, the Australia bowlers didn’t find the edge of Buttler’s bat for his last 66 deliveries, further showing that once set, Buttler can be just as controlled as most ODI players.
Improve the Basics
Just like a virtuoso musician who still practices their scales, De Villiers backed up his invention with a straightforward grasp of the basics. His trusted “box theory” meant he was borderline impenetrable outside off-stump; against balls from seamers on a good line-and-length, he averaged 60.57. By comparison, Buttler averages 30.66, and all top six batsmen over the last decade average just 29.83. Regardless of the pyrotechnics, De Villiers’ fireworks were taking off from a solid base.
However, Buttler scores at 5.23rpo to those good line-and-length deliveries compared to AB’s 4.19rpo, the Englishman still the superior of the two at scoring off those good balls – a skill which can’t be underestimated – and it has little to do with intent. Buttler attacks 23% of those good line and length deliveries, with De Villiers attacking 20%, a difference which doesn’t explain the substantial difference in scoring rate. Seemingly it’s not his intent, but execution, which allows Buttler to dispatch good deliveries, and that suggests that his ability to score wouldn’t be hindered by a modicum more restraint, restraint which would be necessary if moving up the order.
Sweep More Effectively, With Greater Flexibility
The sweep and the reverse-sweep are staples in the modern batsman’s repertoire. Versatility with these strokes is a fundamental part of being a 360° player, and yet remarkably, it’s an area where Buttler slightly struggles. As shown below, Buttler only really plays the conventional sweep shot when the ball is straight, and plays the reverse-sweep mainly to balls outside off-stump, his choice of conventional sweep or reverse-sweep dictated by the line of the ball. By contrast, De Villiers was happy to shimmy around the crease a lot more, hitting similar balls in opposing directions.
Bizarrely, given the original inventiveness of the reverse-sweep, this makes Buttler a touch predictable. Captains can instruct their more accurate bowlers to bowl on one side of the wicket, knowing that Buttler is unlikely to move across and sweep from outside off into the leg-side. Increased flexibility brings increased reward; De Villiers scored at 9.36rpo with his sweeps against spin, whilst Buttler only manages 7.82rpo.
Of course, Buttler has a good record when facing spin, averaging 53.26 and scoring at 6.31rpo, faster than De Villiers. Spin is not a weak area for him. However, whilst the South African might not score as quickly, he is harder to tie down, as shown by a notably lower dot-ball percentage. In order to bat up the order, Buttler will need to resist being stymied by the slower bowlers; being able to sweep the same delivery to either the leg-side, or the off-side, would be an excellent addition to his considerable bag of tricks.
Of course, all these suggestions are built on the back of trust in Buttler’s talents. There is considerable collective faith in the idea that he’ll always be capable of more – in the face of ability like Buttler’s, it’s impossible to not see the sky as the limit.
Is it that hard to imagine, particularly with that Old Trafford knock so fresh in the memory, that Buttler can reach those levels time and time again? That Buttler could score an ODI double-century if he arrived at the crease in the 13th over? That Buttler could be the best No.4 in the world?
For most, these questions can each be answered in the negative, but England need to do their bit. With the right strategic and technical tweaks, outlined here, Morgan and Bayliss have a colossus on their hands. A year out from a World Cup, England should be making high-end refinements, and there is nobody more high end than Jos Buttler.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz. @benjonescricket