Jos Buttler is a man in step with cricket’s evolution and yet he’s desperate to make a success of Test cricket. The India tour saw him regain his place in the side but what comes next? For him, and for the game.
Test cricket, despite what some would have you think, is always moving, always evolving. In more ways than one. The matches are constant, and the state of the game? Well it’s very different to how it was 10 years ago. And it bears less resemblance again to the game of 20 years before that.
When AOC meets with Jos Buttler the morning after the scheduled finish of the third Test at Mohali those two factors are writ large. Buttler and his teammates are travelling again today – a tired conveyor belt of training kit and cricket bags – from the north of India to Dubai for a five-day break in the middle of a hectic subcontinent tour. By its close, it will have lasted the best part of four months. That he is on the Test leg of the tour at all – and not limited to one-day cricket – speaks of the change that’s taken place at the very heart of our sport.
That is no comment on his talent. Far from it. Very few people in the world possess Buttler’s ability. But he has not flourished in Test cricket. Yet.
Buttler made his Test return at Mohali as a specialist batsman at No.7 (England’s first since 2001) and the signs were encouraging in only his second first-class game in 12 months. He combined with Jonny Bairstow – the man who took his Test gloves and has shone ever since – to put on 69 for the fifth wicket: England’s largest of a disappointing first innings.
In the next match at Mumbai he produced his most impressive Test knock yet, bringing up his half-century from 106 deliveries before playing more expansively as he batted with the tail. His innings of 76, which included a typically wristy and audacious six off Ashwin, was one of the few bright spots in a miserable game for the tourists.
It marked a change for Buttler. At the beginning of this tour he was England’s captain, during the Test series he became – once again – a promising young thing trying to prove he can do it. You would forgive him for finding the chasm between those two roles frustrating. Given his special ability you wonder whether – were Buttler not English – the desire to play Test cricket would be there. There are many others in world cricket who have gone that way.
It may take a sea-change of thinking for many cricket fans to countenance but there is money, fame and critical acclaim on a plate for Buttler in cricket’s T20 leagues.
Why bother waiting for a chance at Test level when he could just focus on the shorter forms and the promise of winning fans and trophies all over the world?
Perhaps the answer came during the Bangladesh series. As well as leading from the front with the bat we saw another side of Jos Buttler: an angry side. An on-field clash following his dismissal in the second ODI saw him lose his temper with celebrations that he felt were “over the top”. In the press conference afterwards he admitted it wasn’t necessarily out of character: “You guys [the press] always write about a quietly spoken and soft guy… but maybe you don’t know me that well.”
Has it been frustrating to have to shift your role from ODI skipper to Test squad member?
No, not really. I’m very aware where my standing is in one-day cricket compared to the Test team so I knew it was going to be like that. I really enjoyed Bangladesh, standing in for Eoin Morgan, and doing the extra bits and pieces that captaincy brings. You definitely feel that extra responsibility, and you definitely feel like you want to lead by example. When you’re captain that sort of entails everything; from the way you carry yourself around the hotel to how you are in training. I knew that was just for a short period of time and that the Test matches would be different.
How did you approach the Test leg of the tour, knowing that it would be different?
I was very aware that there was a high chance that I wouldn’t play a game at all so that has very much been my mindset, knowing that was a possibility and not getting disheartened by that. I needed to make sure that I trained as hard as I possibly could. In this part of the world you’re never short of net bowlers and I wanted to make the most of that.
What does it mean for that hard work to be rewarded with a return to the Test side?
It’s great to be involved again, I hadn’t played for 12 months and at times – watching on – I maybe didn’t miss it as much as I thought I would, but then when you get back into it you realise, wow, I really did miss this.
When you were watching on did you ever wonder whether you’d get another chance to crack Test cricket?
I felt like I would get a chance again, or that I would be good enough to get a chance again, but I didn’t know when. I was a little bit unsure whether I would get picked as the reserve wicketkeeper for the India tour, having not played much red-ball cricket over the past 12 months. I was sort of thinking that I might not even be on the tour. But I wouldn’t change anything in the last year, I’ve had some fantastic opportunities – like coming to the IPL – and I was unlucky in the summer with a couple of injuries that kept me out of some red-ball cricket. I’ve learned some great things over that period as well, things that I need to take back into Test cricket now that I’ve got this chance.
Those changes are, Buttler says, nothing technical. They’re all mental cues learned from watching others bat. Buttler has had success at Test level playing his way (after his first eight Tests he averaged 52.66, after seven more it was 30 when he went his shell and was dropped) and you wouldn’t want any run of form – however poor it may be – to take away from him the essence of the player he is.
His technique is unconventional: he stays leg-side of the ball, he plays away from his body, on occasion his weight isn’t fully forward – preferring instead to use his wrists to snap through the ball – and these were areas that Australia exploited in the 2015 Ashes. Change them, though, and you’re changing Buttler. Besides, there’s no such thing as a ‘perfect technique’.
The situation didn’t demand outright aggression in the first innings at Mohali, but were you annoyed by your dismissal? In one-day cricket you would have just extended your arms and hit it for six.
Naturally, whenever you get out, you think about what you could have done differently. If you defended one then you think you could have gone for it, if you play a big shot and get caught then you think you could have just defended it! That’s always the conundrum. For myself the big thing is the mentality I take into an innings.
People have obviously talked about my approach in white-ball cricket versus red-ball cricket in terms of how I go about playing, but it doesn’t have to be about the rate you score at. It can be the mentality and confidence you take to the crease, and the mindset of looking to dominate. That can come in defence, as well. You can dominate the top of off-stump. That’s the kind of thing I want to do consistently. I’m always going to look to be positive and look to score.
To put pressure back on the bowlers?
Exactly. I’m looking at bowlers and thinking about how they’re trying to get me out but at the same time they’re worried about what a batsman can do to them. If they’re half a yard full or half a yard short then they know this guy’s going to look to score. That’s one of my strengths and I’ve got to look to put pressure on the bowlers in that fashion. That’s how I want to play my cricket and I want to fall on the positive side of things.
But you wouldn’t see it as being directly transferrable from ODI cricket?
It’s different. In one-day cricket bowlers are always looking to contain and you’ve only got a certain number of balls to maximise but in Test cricket if you want to have those periods where you sit in and dry it up you can. Before tea at Mohali, for example, I probably scored quite freely and then after tea they really dried things up, to both me and Jonny [Bairstow].
They started to bowl wider of off-stump and not go for any runs. Do you sit in for that period and accept that or do you say, ‘You’ve only got so many fielders on the leg-side, I’m going to stand out here and try and hit you over there’? That’s for me to work out, that’s the challenge of cricket and that’s the great thing about Test cricket – it challenges you in so many ways.
Sometimes it feels like you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t – criticised if you’re aggressive but also if you’re defensive. Is that frustrating?
I’m probably the same when I watch other sports! I’ll think, ‘Well, why didn’t you just do that?’ The media always do that – in one game England are too aggressive and in the next they’re too timid. That’s just something you have to accept, people write with the privilege of hindsight and they’re never going to be wrong. For us as players it’s for us to work out. When you walk off the field having got out, if you know what you were to trying to do, and you’re happy with that, then you’ve got to make peace with it and move on.
Does it feel like you have licence to play your natural game in Test cricket?
Yeah, it does. In a one-day game I’m really positive and pro-active and I look to dominate. That’s what Trevor [Bayliss] and Alastair Cook want me to do in the Test team. That’s how they believe I can get the best out of myself and it’s great for me to have their backing. It’s good to know that people are really championing me trying to play positive and aggressive cricket.
I don’t want to be a guy who just goes out, has a slog and if it comes off, it comes off, but I want to be aggressive. Cricket is a team sport but a very individual game so you have to your own way that you really want to live your cricket by.
“You have to have your own way that you really want to live your cricket by.” It’s a bold approach but Jos Buttler is a bold cricketer. He would have been a very different cricketer if he played in the Nineties.
And yet he’s not entirely a modernist – the fact that the idea of being a squad member for this Test tour wasn’t too dispiriting is evidence of that. There’s never been the slightest suggestion that he doesn’t fancy this, even though his own experience demonstrates that Test cricket isn’t necessarily always where the party’s at.
Buttler is a child of 2005 (Trescothick, naturally, was his hero, although he quite liked Gilchrist before Flintoff started coming around the wicket) and that Test series has left its mark in all sorts of places. What it’s also done is leave a high bar for series to aspire to. Test cricket has never quite captured the public’s attention to the same degree since.
Cricket still reaches into the public consciousness but it’s generally the formats that Buttler has excelled at, not Test cricket. “I think the real eye-opener is when you go and do some coaching in schools with Chance To Shine,” Buttler says. “If you throw six balls at them, you can guarantee that of those six balls one of them will be a reverse-sweep, one will be a slog out of the ground and one will be a scoop! I think that’s just amazing.”
Amazing it may be, but the relative lack of interest in Test cricket also poses some questions about where the game goes from here. Questions that have also been raised by the disappointing number of Indian fans at the grounds on this tour.
The crowds in India haven’t been as big as you’d hope them to be. Has that been surprising?
Yeah, I think so. Bruce French has been out here doing some stuff with the keepers and I was talking to him about what it was like when he toured India. He said it was packed every day, day one to five, whether the game was alive or not.
Does that make you consider cricket’s future?
As a fan of cricket, it’s clear that it’s facing some really interesting changes. To be honest, though, I don’t know how it will change. I’m not sure anyone really knows. I think cricket as a whole faces some challenges over the next five to 10 years and potentially we’ll see a really different landscape.
A lot of people talk about the history of Test cricket, how Ashes series are built on history and how that’s why it will always remain the pinnacle and why stuff like Twenty20 will never have the same standing. To an extent I really believe that, however Twenty20 is only 15 years old. I don’t know if this will be the case but potentially in the years to come guys will be like, ‘Do you remember that amazing Twenty20 match?’ or, ‘Do you remember that amazing Twenty20 player?’.
Unfortunately for us, people might always remember and talk about Carlos Brathwaite hitting four sixes in a World T20 final. I don’t know if those things will happen and I really hope that we find a way for Test cricket to keep driving forward and get the grounds full.
Do you talk about this in the dressing room?
We talk about it a little bit, some more than others! I think it’s a really interesting point, even though I don’t know the specifics. The suggestion of city-based T20 competition in England, for example, will it ever happen? Some guys are even thinking, ‘I hope it happens in my time, before it’s too late’. Naturally you’re always thinking about what might happen, I don’t know how much say we have and how much we may be able to shape it.
It sounds like you’ve thought about cricket’s future a fair bit?
I’d say I have. I see myself as one of the children of the 2005 Ashes – that was one of the iconic series. The images I always have of that series – and I know it’s a series when Australia had great players and England were the coming force – are of people queuing outside Old Trafford and how full the grounds were. Naturally you want to play in that sort of environment.
A city-based T20 tournament in England is something that needs to happen then, from your point of view?
Yeah, definitely. I would really champion a tournament like that. Having played a couple of games in the Big Bash and the IPL it really frustrates me that we don’t have a tournament like that in England. We have fantastic grounds; it would be so easy to get from place to place. We could just drive whereas in other countries you have to fly. We’re such a multicultural country as well, and there’d be so much interest in players from all over the world because of the nature of the UK.
Could it also benefit our national team?
It would be important for our players, as well. The amount that someone would get from sitting in the dressing room with someone like de Villiers or Kohli would be huge. We have to remember that with cricket, we’re talking about being elite and trying to be the best, and a lot of guys ask about whether young guys will get the opportunities in a competition like that. Somehow the best players will rise to the top and be that much better for the competition. Trying to get 10 off a Mitchell Starc over to win the game for your team… if you were a 20-year-old English lad who’d been picked in the team and you did that, imagine the confidence that would give you.
I really hope that we find a way to do it. I understand that it’s not simple in England because of the counties and the way that it’s all structured but I feel like it will be a fantastic thing for cricket. Because it’s not just Test cricket facing challenges – participation numbers are falling and without inspiring the next generation cricket will just peter out.
Jos Buttler, then. Hitter, scooper, thinker. Conscientious, independently minded, smart and quietly courageous. The future of our game worries him – as it does many others. The difference with him is that he’ll be at the centre of that change. He’ll play in front of packed houses in global T20 leagues and in front of the county faithful on the domestic circuit; he’ll aim for global tournament wins with his country and he’ll do all he can to carry on playing Test cricket.
He understands that the game is evolving and yet he retains a devotion to Test cricket. As a child of 2005 his reverence and respect for that form runs deep enough to keep him on message but understandably his head is turned. In 2026 will the next Jos Buttler have the same attitude? Is that kid even watching Test cricket today?
He’s not in a position to say it but the presence of players like him in the Test arena will help to sustain it. Those kids at the Chance to Shine sessions are scooping and reverse-sweeping because they’ve seen him do it in coloured kit. Whether he’s able to keep his Test place or not – and make no mistake, he’s desperate to be a success in whites – he arguably has a higher aim: “It’s important to remember: we are playing to try and entertain people and make them want to pick up a bat.”
You just hope the kids are watching.