Much of the wicketkeeping focus in the build-up to the Ashes has surrounded Australia. Out goes Tim Paine and in comes Alex Carey, a safe pair of hands who’s kicked the white ball around for quite a few years. Now it’s time for the step up: Test cricket.
For Carey, it’ll be a debut in Brisbane; for Jos Buttler, his English counterpart, it’s set to be his first Test in Australia.
That seems almost hard to believe. At 31, Buttler’s been around the block and played more than a half-century of Tests. But Australia, the climax for an England player, has never happened for him. He first came into the Test side in the summer of 2014, taking the gloves off Matt Prior not long after Mitchell Johnson had bruised the bodies and minds of an entire nation. But a tough Ashes series in 2015 began a lean run and it was Jonny Bairstow who nicked the gauntlets for the 4-0 series defeat in 2017/18.
Ed Smith couldn’t resist the allure of the limited-overs supremo at the start of a new era in 2018, but nearly a whole four-year cycle later, Buttler’s Facebook relationship status with Test cricket hasn’t changed: it’s complicated.
There have been good times. He played the right chords in his first summer back, and in 2020 there were two special innings against Pakistan: a fourth-innings 75 felt like a career-saving effort and a second Test century followed not long after. But there have been times when trying to have it all – red-ball domination to go with white-ball supremacy – has looked firmly out of reach, even when he’s made the conscious decision to protect his off stump and play the situation: to bat properly.
This year has been a particularly odd one for Buttler. He was influential in helping England to three wins on the bounce in Asia before being granted a rest. Without him, England spiralled in India and he missed the series defeat to New Zealand too, having been given another break after the IPL. When he finally returned in the summer after a lengthy absence, he looked out of sorts for three Tests before departing for paternity leave. Speculation grew over whether this was the end for him in the Test side, particularly after he’d expressed concerns over travelling to Australia without his young family.
Yet Buttler has made the trip and is set to wade into uncharted territory. Having never even played a first-class match in the country, it’s hard to know what to expect from him. Add in a severe lack of warm-up action and it becomes even more difficult to gauge just how well Buttler is lining up against the Kookaburra.
If England fans do want some hope, though, there’s a historical comparison to cling on too. When Buttler made a classy return to the Test side three years ago, it was just a few days on from the end of an explosive IPL campaign, with no first-class preparation in-between. This time round, he’s entering the Ashes on the back of a ridiculous T20 World Cup run in which he made one thing abundantly clear: there isn’t a better short-form opening batter in the world game. Included in his showreel was a takedown of Australia – who lined up with their Test triumvirate of Cummins, Hazlewood and Starc – in Dubai. Thirty-two balls came and went; a score of 71 was the answer.
Now this could mean nothing. Jason Roy obliterated Australia in a World Cup two years ago before enduring a tortuous Ashes campaign the same summer. But when both sides are entering a five-match series relatively undercooked, and there’s greater emphasis on the mental over the physical, then perhaps such a brutal assault does count for something more.
Buttler has said he’ll try and bring a “fearless approach” to his game and that he feels like he has nothing to lose. These are just words, but maybe there’s some substance there: that he’s not going to clutch onto too much theory, that he’s going to just go out there and let that deep well of natural talent take over. If he can go some way close to replicating what Rishabh Pant did for India at the start of this year, then that’s a tantalising prospect.
There are no scars from a whitewash. Just a clean slate and a blank canvas. Jos Buttler in Australia? This could be fun.