Jos Buttler played another vital knock to set Sri Lanka an unlikely 327 to win on Day 3 in Colombo. Patrick Noone reflects on the chameleon-like abilities of England’s most versatile batsman.
It seems bizarre now to think that there were calls of discontent when Jos Buttler was recalled to the England Test team back in May. Suggestions that his inclusion was a ‘slap in the face for county cricket’ always seemed hyperbolic, but there was nonetheless reasonable doubt based his previous performances in red ball cricket that, while his talent was obvious, Buttler did not have the game to make it as a Test batsman.
Those doubters must surely have been silenced now, after a year in which Buttler has scored 760 runs at an average of 44.70. Joe Root is the only England batsman to have scored more runs than Buttler in 2018, though the captain’s 948 runs have come from 24 innings compared to Buttler’s 18. Even those who were in favour of Buttler’s recall cannot have predicted a return as emphatic as that, but Ed Smith’s recognition that Buttler was simply too talented to be left out of the England lineup has been vindicated.
Talent in sport is one thing though, how it’s applied is often the difference between the good and the great. Buttler’s first stint in the Test team was defined by a seeming inability to decide whether to stick or twist. A reticence to play in the free-flowing style of his white ball batting, coupled with an uncertainty when playing defensively resulted in a batting average of just 30.00 from 15 Tests and, ultimately, a spell out of the side.
In hindsight, it is tempting to ask how much of Buttler’s troubles during his first incarnation as a Test batsman came from him trying to play in a way he felt he should play, rather than the way he felt most comfortable playing. Buttler is never going to be a traditional Test batsman, so he should never have been expected to play like one. Instead, since his recall – initially as a specialist batsman at number seven – Buttler has been given more licence to play the way he sees fit and has responded in style.
That is not to say that Buttler merely swings from the hip and treats Tests as though they are ODIs, nor is he expected to. Yes, his attacking shot percentage in Tests is 29% this year, higher than every England batsman besides Jonny Bairstow (30%), but that is still significantly lower than his ODI figure of 52%. The difference is that Buttler now has faith in his own method and the capability to adjust that method based on what the team needs him to do.
That adaptability has been the key feature of his batting in this series. In the first innings of the Pallekele Test, Buttler played 31 sweeps that made up 51 of his 63 runs in that innings. The rest of the England team followed suit in the second innings, sweeping 86 times for 122 runs. The word from the England camp after the match was that the sweep tactic was not a pre-conceived plan, rather one that developed through the course of the match. Therefore, it’s a fair assumption that it was Buttler who first realised that sweeping was the way to go, and the rest of the team mimicked his approach to great effect.
Fast forward to Colombo and Buttler has played another crucial innings to put England on the cusp of another victory. This time though, he’s played in a completely different way, with only 11 runs coming from the eight sweep shots he played. In fact, that Pallekele innings featured more sweep shots than Buttler has played in all the other innings he’s batted in this series and he’d only played 49 sweeps in his entire career before that innings. It was not a case of ‘play your natural game’, rather ‘play the game that the conditions and the situation call for’. It’s might not be quite as pithy, but it’s a damn sight more effective.
Today Buttler decided that coming out of crease against the spinners was the way to succeed, doing so 44 times in his 79-ball innings. That’s 56% of the time, far higher than the 11% that he typically comes down the pitch against slower bowlers. Buttler himself admitted in a post-match interview that he wasn’t sure exactly why he’d chosen this particular strategy, noting only that he’d seen footage of Michael Clarke doing likewise to Graeme Swann and thought it could work. Whatever the reason for the tactic, he quickly settled on it as the best way to play and reaped the rewards by finishing as England’s highest scorer in the innings for the sixth time in 18 innings since his recall.
It was almost fitting that Buttler would ultimately lose his wicket through a stumping off Lakshan Sandakan. It was one charge too many, but such is the way that this England team go about their business, few in the camp will be overly bothered. The sweep tactic in Pallekele was all about risk and reward – nine wickets fell to the shot despite the 220 runs that England added – and Buttler’s approach in this innings was no different.
That ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’ ethos is one that suits this England team and one that needs to be preserved if they are to get the best out of a batsman like Buttler. His cricketing instinct is sharp enough to read the conditions and determine how to play, and his talent is rich enough to pull off innings of differing style that are equally effective. It might have taken a few years and a couple of attempts to make it right, but England finally seem to appreciate what they have in Buttler and they’ll surely win more games than they lose with him in this kind of form.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.