(Photo: Getty Images)
By Derek Pringle
Before we go into the nitty gritty of his selection for England’s Test team, can I just declare myself a big fan of Jos Buttler, the batsman. He is a special talent, though one perhaps who has also shown himself to be ordinary in respect of the doubts that can afflict those who play professional sport.
Sometimes, special talents need special treatment to bring about their fruition, something Ed Smith, the new National Selector, has clearly done in returning him to the Test team after an 18-month absence.
Smith, a devotee of big data, was appointed to modernise selection yet Buttler’s appointment cannot be justified by any metric that I can think of, at least for red-ball cricket – which is what he will be playing when he faces Pakistan next week.
His presence owes itself mostly to a value judgment of his form in the Indian Premier League, which, since he was promoted to open for the Rajasthan Royals a few weeks ago, has been spectacular.
Picking him, while one in the eye for all those county batsmen scrapping for runs on early-season green tops, is counter-intuitive and bold. It is also entirely justifiable for the National Selector to make such a call.
In the past, I’ve fulminated over the decision to drop Buttler, now 27, from England’s Test team.
At the time, he was probably the better wicketkeeper in a shoot-out between him and Jonny Bairstow, and certainly the more naturally gifted batsman.
But Bairstow has since worked hard on improving his keeping and his batting to the point where he is now the better gloveman and, in terms of red-ball cricket and the tougher mental processes that it requires, the better batsman as well.
Bairstow’s promotion to number five, therefore, is entirely sensible, as is his continued role as keeper.
The old selection panel under James Whitaker; of him Angus Fraser, Mick Newell and coach Trevor Bayliss, would probably not have recalled Buttler because it would have required consensus.
Although Fraser and Newell were also part of Smith’s selection process (until their replacements are appointed), their old-school philosophy of upholding fairness as well as the primacy of the County Championship, meant that they were unlikely to have picked someone who has played just five Championship matches in the past three seasons. Smith, in his first selection, has not made an honourable decision but he has made an exciting one.
The old quartet’s cricketing nous might have also cautioned against it. Pakistan have a fine seam-bowling attack that could be a handful on an early-season Lord’s pitch, especially if there is cloud cover to supplement any lateral movement of the red ball.
Bashing a white ball that scarcely swings let alone seams on batsman-friendly pitches in the IPL, as Buttler has been doing, would not have seemed the right conditioning for such a challenge.
Now Buttler is back he will bat at seven, a position that he has filled before for England. For some, it will seem too low for an out-and-out batsman though having the insurance of a specialist there is nothing new. Believe it or not, Graeme Hick batted there 12 times for England, and he started off at number three.
Buttler has batted at seven 21 times for his country in Tests and scored 618 runs at an average of 32.5. Famed for his audacious strokes, such as the ramp shot that he played the other night against the Kolkata Knight Riders’ Shivam Mavi, an 88mph seamer, you wonder what might represent success for Buttler in that position?
Although batting with the tail can be rewarding for team and individual, he isn’t going to get many opportunities to make a hundred. An average of 32.5 is probably about as good as it gets, though a few more not outs could massage the figure higher. In which case, you wonder why was he dropped in the first place?
The answer to that is probably for the same reason that Moeen Ali now finds himself cast back into county cricket – Buttler had a poor Ashes series. That experience, in 2015, when he averaged just 15.25 in five home Tests against the Aussies, put him on notice and while he played five more Tests after that, he played them like a man on borrowed time, which he was.
That should change with this, his second recall, when he will no doubt be given licence to – and this a favourite phrase of today’s pro cricketers – “express himself”, and decorate the red-ball game with what Smith referred to as his “unique talent”.
For sheer watchability I’m all for his return. It was 20 years ago when Steve Waugh first identified that scoring rates in Test cricket had to rise if the format was to entertain and stay relevant. A five, six, seven of Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Buttler surely fits that brief. Of course, England need to start winning again, consistently, but it will be all the more pleasing for those concerned, including spectators, if they can do so with vigour and style.
That does not excuse Buttler from occasionally having to play some proper cricket, to coin one of Geoffrey Boycott’s favourite phrases. It will be fascinating, for instance, if the ball is seaming about next week at Lord’s, to watch how he would go about playing such a situation.
Convention would say you need to play with soft hands, leave the ball well and not go after those you don’t need to, the very opposite of white-ball T20, where an IPL crowd would boo you off the park if you ever shouldered arms. He will probably have two or three net sessions to reboot and get the red-ball part of his brain working again.
Even so, I’m relishing the prospect. Ever since I watched Buttler score 121 in a one-day international against Sri Lanka at Lord’s in 2014, a magnificent innings that almost snatched victory from a seemingly hopeless position (England lost a high-scoring match by seven runs), I have been waiting for him to announce himself in Test cricket. Hopefully, he’ll find his full voice this time.
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