Forty-two Tests down and question marks remain over Jos Buttler’s suitability to the longest format. Taha Hashim analyses what’s gone wrong and what it means for the legacy of a white-ball great.
Five down. Lead of 139. Evening session, day four, and out he comes. Jos. Forget that he hasn’t reached fifty in his last 11 Test innings. Forget that he averages 24 since the start of 2019. He’s still Jos Buttler, primed and ready to punch you off the back foot through cover, to ramp you over the keeper’s head, to finally say he’s the man for the long form. Besides the partisan English supporter, even the neutral wants it to work out. Why? Because when it clicks, it’s just so damn good. It’s Jos.
But that aura, the one Buttler has when he’s got his ODI and T20 pyjamas on, doesn’t transmit to Alzarri Joseph, young, fearless and break-your-bat quick. All that’s left of Buttler from the 13th ball of his innings – which could have taken England to a more imposing second-innings total – is a breached defence. The stumps are down, Buttler’s head having fallen over to the off side, a sign that the balance just isn’t quite there. He walks off with a batting average of 31.46 and one century from 42 Tests.
It’s back to square one. When Buttler was recalled to England’s Test line-up back in the summer of 2018, the average was 31.36. Then it clicked, with Buttler ignoring his eight-month absence from red-ball cricket to play the role of specialist game-changer to perfection. It wasn’t necessarily about being Gilchristian; as Buttler has said since, it was about keeping faith with his defence, instincts and what the match required of his ability.
That methodology was perfectly embodied on the tour of Sri Lanka later that year: in Kandy, his 67-ball 63 was a sweep-shot masterclass; in the next Test, inspired by an old Michael Clarke knock on TV, he ditched the tactic and relied on his feet, advancing to the pitch of the ball to deliver another half-century. He finished that calendar year as England’s second-highest run-scorer. There was the sense that the white-ball genius had been embellished by the required red-ball nuance.
Since then, however, the struggles have been apparent. According to CricViz, in 2018, from a total of 17 dismissals, Buttler was out twice while playing defensive strokes, once every 131 defensive shots. Since the start of 2019, nine of Buttler’s 27 dismissals have been while defending, out once every 35 defensive shots. The opportunity to see him flourish isn’t going to be there when the base has been compromised.
It’s not like it hasn’t come together on occasion, though. A lean run in the Ashes was brought to an end with enterprising knocks of 70 and 47 at The Oval while batting at six, where he averages just under 40. But the decline of Jonny Bairstow appears to have hurt Buttler, too. In New Zealand he was handed the gloves and pushed back to No.7, and the statistics show that time behind the stumps hinders Buttler the batsman. While his sole Test ton against India came after he spent part of the game as a keeper due to an injury to Bairstow, as England’s assigned wicketkeeper the batting average stands at 27 from 22 matches. There’s a strong argument that England should just let the man bat, but the emergence of Ollie Pope has left little room in the middle order.
Still, with 42 appearances now under his belt – a pretty hefty sample size – it’s becoming increasingly difficult to believe that this marriage is ever going to work out, which brings a sense of unease when turning to discussions of legacy. Greatness in cricketing terms has always demanded Test success, so you wonder where Buttler – perhaps England’s sweetest-ever striker of a cricket ball – fits into that discussion. Modern times bring in modern measures; as Chris Woakes told Wisden Cricket Monthly just a few months ago: “As it stands, players aren’t classed as great unless they’ve played Test cricket, but you feel that it is changing.” Regardless of what is to come, Buttler was the man who raised his bat for fifty, smashed the super over and took down the stumps last July, all in the greatest game. No-one will forget that.
The Ageas Bowl Test is almost certainly not the end; Buttler was England’s vice-captain in the match, which displays his influence in the dressing room, and with 35 in the first innings of a low-scorer, his performance was hardly a trainwreck. But with Ben Foakes – a superior wicketkeeper who did little wrong when he had the job – waiting in the wings, the future is hardly guaranteed.
What is certain is that the next time Buttler walks out to bat, something inside you will so desperately want it to work out. Because if it does, it’ll be so damn good.