Ben Jones looks at how England’s ODI juggernaut has reached new heights.
Virat Kohi is the best ODI batsman in the world, and has been for some time now. That isn’t in question. But ever since he got the Test captaincy, Kohli has also been consistently labelled the most ‘important’ cricketer in the world. So the story goes – as long as this handsome, chiselled genius takes Test cricket seriously, he will keep people interested in the oldest form of the game. Such is the power of Indian cricket, that anyone who can hold its attention is the most important in the game. Matches are won, matches are lost, but Kohli runs this joint.
Well, for the first time in a long time, that crown might be on the move. A World Cup and an Ashes in England this summer, a once in a lifetime occurrence, and there is a core of around five players likely to play a substantial role in both: Ben Stokes, Joe Root, Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow, and Jos Buttler. These men are the core of the England’s cricketing summer. Yet within that group, one man stands out. Buttler is the most talented player of that five, the core of the core, the most thrilling. And right now, he is arguably the most important cricketer in the world.
On Saturday, in the aftermath of yet another destructive century from his wicket-keeper, Eoin Morgan spoke of Buttler having “a gear that not many of us have”. It’s true; even amongst this crop of explosive English batsmen, Buttler seems capable of going further, hitting harder, and scoring more quickly than his peers. When trying to hit a boundary, Buttler scores at 10.75rpo, faster than any other established England batsman; Buttler’s top gear is just faster than anyone else’s.
Then again, this isn’t anything new. Buttler has always had that gear. Even back in the day when England were much, much worse at ODI cricket than they are now, Buttler could always come in and raise spirits, hammering the ball about to lift England’s score to only slightly sub-par. Back then though, he always had flaws; target him with the ball spinning away, either from a leg-spinner or a slow left-armer, and he would struggle, both to score and to survive. He was always susceptible to a Mankad, though that rather more charming flaw still remains.
What Buttler has added to his game now is a level of consistency, to go with his ferocity. At this moment in time, he has no weaknesses. Since the last World Cup, he averages over 40 against every one of the five main bowling types, and matches this with a scoring rate of better than a-run-a-ball against each of them. As a captain you might have a bowler of great quality that you fancy to limit Buttler’s scoring, or dismiss him, but there isn’t an obvious kind of bowler to turn to. The much talked-up use of ‘match-ups’ doesn’t really work against Buttler.
Of course, he’s better against some deliveries than others. Imagine a team purely of Jos Buttlers; if you were bowling at that team in an ODI, a team of only Buttlers in the form he’s been in for the last four years, you would concede 376-7. Not bad, you’d have to say. However, such is his brilliance at dispatching full pitched deliveries, that if you played a team of Buttlers facing nothing but full balls, you’d have them seven down again by the end of the innings, but in the meantime, they’d have wracked up 531.
There’s only one Jos Buttler – for bowlers, that’s probably a good job.
What Buttler – and the people around him – have started to perfect, is the application of his talent. He’s always had all the shots, but improving his shot selection, and thus his shot success, has been crucial. Since the World Cup, Buttler scores at 10.75rpo with attacking shots. The only batsman in the world who can better that is Rohit Sharma, but whilst the Indian’s strokes score more quickly, they’re less secure. Buttler is dismissed every 41 attacking shots; Rohit, 36.
This new-found breadth to his game, and the way he’s refined his attacking skills, mean that Buttler is easily utilised in all areas of the innings, his ability straining against that more traditional idea of ODI batsmanship. His role in this England side isn’t just that of the archetypal finisher. England have identified that he can move up the order, off the back of a bright start by Roy, Bairstow and Root, allowing Buttler more time to just tee off with limited downside if he fails.
Since the last World Cup, Buttler has batted 74 times in one-day internationals; 57 of those innings have been at No.6, his normal position, the one on the teamsheet before a ball is bowled. Yet when he receives a promotion into the top five, his numbers soar. His average rises from 44.59 to 71.81, his scoring rate from 6.85rpo to 9.15rpo, and he makes a century every 4.25 innings. England deserve considerable credit for judging when to promote him, because his success rate in such a high-risk, high-octane role is remarkable. Trevor Bayliss, the support staff, and Eoin Morgan, have repeatedly got the call right about when to send Buttler in early.
Of course, from another angle, giving Buttler the most time possible to express himself does make very straightforward sense. You can see in his recent record that one of the primary limits placed on what Buttler can achieve, is what the other team can achieve. In the last four years almost exactly the same whether batting first or batting second, the difference between the two is not his input, but his scoring rate. Yet what a difference it is.
Given the blank canvas of setting a total, unencumbered by the other team’s effort, Buttler shoots for the moon and, more often than seems possible, he finds the target. Six of his seven centuries have come in the first innings of matches, showing that if his efforts aren’t cut off by England having reached the target, then he’s going to town.
Yet even with this new breadth to his game, Buttler is a finisher at heart – the death is where he comes alive. From the 41st over onwards, Buttler scores at almost 11rpo. Since the World Cup, that is 2rpo faster than the next quickest death overs hitter. Sure, he’s jumping from a more solid base than many others on that list – England rarely fail to give him a platform to work from – but he has no right to be that much better than everybody else. The rate at which he accelerates in those final overs is stunning, lifting England’s totals above 350, above 400, above what any others have achieved before them.
In those last 10 overs, you can see the effect that Buttler has on opposition teams. You can see, in the bowler’s eyes, in the captains’ floundering, that trying to limit Buttler in this period is a fool’s errand, because when Buttler is in that zone, there is nowhere you can bowl to him. He scores at frightening rates all around the field, his technical excellence such that even his slowest scoring area – cover – still sees him score at 9rpo.
Typically, this sort of analysis would now show a graphic, with high strike rates against all deliveries, apart from a lower scoring spot against the well-executed yorker. It would reaffirm that even though yorkers are tough to get right, and go the distance if they go wrong, they are still the best option to this explosive player if you get them right. For most batsmen, the perfect ball stops them in their tracks. It does not stop Jos Buttler. When he hits full speed, the only option is to get out of the way.
All of the above is explanation for why Jos Buttler is, right now, the best ODI batsman in the world not named Virat. The destructiveness he achieves with such startling regularity is not something we have seen from an Englishman before, and it’s not something we’ve often seen from anyone. He has, Since the World Cup, 19 men have made more runs than Buttler; eight men have made more runs at a better average than Buttler; nobody has made more runs, at a better average, quicker than Buttler.
However, it’s not an explanation for why he has so rapidly become the most important cricketer about. To understand that, you need to watch him bat. You need to see the way he transforms, as the bowler releases the ball, from a tousle-haired heartthrob into a ruthless agent of chaos. You need to see how different he is to everyone else.
Joe Root is a gorgeous ODI batsman, playing chanceless knocks with a calm assuredness that few in the world can match. Jonny Bairstow is arguably the finest opener in the world right now. Ben Stokes is, well, Ben Stokes. The point of difference with Buttler is that, for all the practice hours, all the training that he’s put in, you still get the sense that Buttler is discovering new things he can do. When he backed away at Southampton at the weekend, and tennis-shot flat-batted a bouncer to the rope, he looked a little shocked. We all did too, of course, but Buttler was as surprised as the rest of us. His particular type of ability is accessible to anyone – nobody could watch him ramp a 90mph bowler for six into the Taff last summer, and fail to be awestruck. He is obviously, aesthetically, physically incredible.
Sometimes you need a breakthrough single, a louder, sparkier effort that presents a case to the world and invites it to get involved. This summer, the summer of all cricketing summers, Buttler is English cricket’s lead single, the one they are throwing at the radio, plastering across billboards, the one they want you to hear because they know that, after hearing that, you’ll hunt out the album.
Cricket in England isn’t at some terrible moment in its history, but it has been given an opportunity that no previous generation has ever had; the two events that non-cricket people have heard of, are happening in England, in one summer. Buttler has an audience this summer, an audience that shown the right thing, will fall in love with the game. Buttler is the right thing – and he’s the most important cricketer in the world.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.