Ben Jones analyses where the Rajasthan Royals opener should bat in England’s order.
How do you stop Jos?
Well, here’s a scenario for you. You’re a bowling captain in a T20 match. It’s the final over, and the batting side need 12 to win. You have your pick of whichever seam bowler in the world you would like, barring Jofra Archer or Jasprit Bumrah – let’s not be greedy.
The man they are bowling to is Jos Buttler. He’s set, having faced 20 odd balls, and is ready to launch. Where are you telling your man to bowl?
A straight yorker? Don’t get your line wrong. A wide yorker – your funeral. Back of a length in the channel? Don’t telegraph it by dropping third man back. You can’t get predictable.
The point is, there isn’t a solid option here. A normal bowler, one who will make mistakes, is going to find it all but impossible to consistently limit Buttler’s scoring. There is no easy place to bowl to him, he has no real weakness, and he is as close to perfect as any T20 batsman England have. There are very few better in the world.
So how do you get the best out of your best batsman?
In the last two years or so, a consensus has formed with regard to Buttler. His promotion to the top of the order for Rajasthan Royals in 2018 was a masterstroke; converting him into an opener allowed him to make the most of the Powerplay, and ensured he was well set when the field went back, and spin came to the fore. He dominated. Plenty in the England camp wished they had tried it themselves, but once again the IPL had shown England the way – in every T20I since that tournament, Buttler has opened the batting.
There’s no question that the promotion got the best out of Buttler as a batsman, and on the face of it, there should be no debate over his position in the England order for the series against South Africa, and the World Cup later this year. And yet.
The most obvious point about England’s player pool is that they have an abundance of top order options, but lack similar depth for middle/lower order batsmen (as detailed here). Eoin Morgan is likely to bat at No.5/6 regardless, but the broader argument concerns whether Buttler should drop down to join him. Would the team as a whole benefit more from Buttler batting at No.5/6, with one of the numerous reserve openers (Alex Hales, Jason Roy, Phil Salt, Jonny Bairstow, Tom Banton, Dawid Malan, James Vince, Liam Livingstone) stepping in at the top?
First, let’s confirm that top order depth. Whilst standard of opposition varies for these players, it is clear that England’s Powerplay options are similarly skilled; Buttler is the best, but he’s in good company. As we can see below, whilst nobody scores quickly and retains their wicket as well as Buttler, both Banton, Hales and Bairstow can claim to be better than him in one of the two categories. Roy’s security is much less, but his scoring rate is comparable. Only Malan lags significantly behind in both areas.
With that established – why would moving Buttler down the order be of any broader importance? Why wouldn’t the best opener open?
It’s broadly accepted that opening in T20 cricket is easier than batting in the middle order. At No.4/5/6, you are more likely to have to start against spin, you are unlikely to be given the luxury of time to bed in at the crease, and you don’t get the luxury of hitting the Powerplay-induced gaps and seeing the ball go for four. You have to preserve your wicket in the pre-launch overs so you are well-set before the death , but you can’t slip too far behind the rate. It’s a balancing act. The argument is that Buttler is better equipped for these challenges than any of England’s other openers, while those other openers are capable of offering similar Powerplay returns.
The argument against it – and in favour of him opening – is that Buttler is England’s best player, and batting him down the order could leave him under-utilised, facing only 10-15 balls in an innings. Essentially – do England want Buttler to face as many ball as possible, or bat during the toughest period?
This isn’t a question unique to this England team. Rather, it’s a question fundamental to understanding T20 cricket. It is such a fundamental question, that it could be said to define the playing philosophy of a T20 side.
The ‘Facing Most Deliveries’ approach by its very nature puts the opposition and situation to one side, and asserts itself onto the game. It aims to take control of the innings from the outset, seceding no ground in terms of tactics, holding nothing back. It doesn’t consider the particular strengths of the opposition, because this method is not designed purely with this game in mind. It’s bigger than the individual match itself, it’s reflective of a fundamental approach – this is our plan, we’re better than you, you adapt to us. Not the other way around.
The ‘Toughest Period’ approach is the inverse. It is inherently pragmatic, given that it’s working from the premise that periods of the game will be too hard for certain players in your XI to cope with, or at least that they are not well-suited to the challenge. It’s reactive, because whilst ‘the toughest period’ remains relatively stable from match-to-match, the particular strengths and weaknesses of the opposition are considered. Against India or the Mumbai Indians, batting at the death and facing Jasprit Bumrah is the toughest period; against Adelaide Strikers, Sunrisers Hyderabad or Afghanistan, batting in the middle overs is the toughest period because you are facing Rashid Khan. You are responding to the other team, dodging the heaviest punches, making sacrifices to protect your most valuable asset.
What’s more, the choice of where to play Buttler is closely related to another key indicator of a T20 team’s identity and playing style – the identity of the No.7 batsman. If Silverwood and his staff are content to use Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali as a combined fifth bowler (i.e. deliver a guaranteed four overs), then England have a free spot. Both Moeen and Stokes are going to play in the top seven regardless, and so with four gun bowlers from No.8-11, England have a spot for an extra batsman. In that scenario, the relative value of Buttler’s death over hitting is less, with batting depth reducing the need for a specialist ‘finisher’.
However, if England don’t want to use Moeen/Stokes as a combined fifth bowler, then they need to select another bowling option in the top seven, most likely an all-rounder at No.7. In that scenario, with batting depth reduced, the value of Buttler batting at No.5/6 is increased, because the need for quality batsmen is increased.
Ultimately, what England do with Buttler will give the side its identity. If they take a pragmatic approach and bat him down the order, then England will be able to strengthen their bowling. It’ll allow them to be cannier with when they bowl their spinners, focusing on match-ups, and will make them a more flexible, reactive team. Yet if they take the ‘assertive’ option and open with Buttler, then they would be best-advised to pick another genuine batsman in the top seven, giving them the depth and power that typified their run to the final in 2016.
There are benefits to both options, but given that England’s bowling is their weaker suit, a more pragmatic approach would probably suit. Seven bowling options may seem a bit excessive at first glance, but take another look. Plenty of those options are either slightly one dimensional (Willey, Sam Curran) or unproven at top level T20 (Wood, Parkinson) – the flexibility of being able to only use them at the best moment is huge.
Having Buttler floating, able to manage the death overs is a luxury, but one England can afford because of their top order riches. If England can nail that role, and have him arriving at the crease between the 7th and 10th over – be that at No.3, No.4, or No.5 – then they will get the benefit of his ability against spin in the middle, his pre-launch management, and his pure finishing. All while allowing a less complete batsman the boost of working within the fielding restrictions at the top.
What’s more, Buttler is mature enough for that sort of responsibility now. He has been playing international cricket for a decade, and has been a white ball phenomenon for a fair chunk of that time. He could take the easier gig at the top of the order, tasked with taking the innings from green flag to chequered flag, but he’s better than that. If the 2019 World Cup was the moment Ben Stokes fulfilled his potential, then the 2020 World Cup is Buttler’s.
Because, ultimately – how do you stop Jos?
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.