Selfless Buttler needs to find the right gear
England will stand by their keeper in the hope he builds on his solitary Test century by adding patience to his talent
Not since the 1980s have England tolerated a wicketkeeper averaging less than 20 with the bat. Yet in the seven Tests since he was officially installed instead of Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler has averaged 18.
So, Buttler could do with a good third Test at Emirates Old Trafford in three ways: with the bat, with the gloves, and with the result, ie England win and regain the Wisden Trophy. But even if none eventualises, Buttler could still hang on to his place: it was the same national selector, Ed Smith, who in 2018 offered Bairstow the poisoned chalice of batting at No5, when no keeper had ever made regular runs so high except Zimbabwe’s Andy Flower, to make room for Buttler’s Test recall.
It is one of the mysteries of this age that a batsman so talented as Buttler has gone to the wicket 77 times in a Test and scored only one more century than most of you and I would have done. Sometimes he has been the wicketkeeper, sometimes a specialist batsman; sometimes he has made a counterattacking 50 which has been as effective as a hundred in changing the course of a match. Nevertheless, a single Test hundred, and Buttler is only a couple of months from turning 30, and the graph is heading downward.
Too often Buttler has been selfless in the interests of the England team as he has perceived them, doing himself and his average no good. The typical Buttler Test innings has been a quick 30, including a six that has soared miles, as England’s tail has been blown away. Most of his predecessors would have opted for holding up an end, hoping to find a tail-ender to stick around and, if nothing else, a neat not-out 20.
Belatedly, Buttler seems to have realised he has to play himself in for the first 20 balls before unleashing. He has tried batting in Tests as he does in white-ball internationals, but only Ben Stokes is good enough to blast Test bowling from ball one. Spoilt for choice in having so many gears, Buttler has yet to work out how to use them.
Buttler volunteered to open last Sunday evening, and dragged on for a duck. It was the same mistake England made in the final session of the Abu Dhabi Test of 2015: when time, not the number of overs, determines the amount of batting England have, send in a pair of right-handers or of left-handers. Do not mix them, because it gives the opposing captain the excuse to waste even more time by changing the field and costs an over or two.
The standard of English wicketkeeping has become so high – much credit to Bruce French, the keeping coach, the one who averaged 18 back in the late 1980s – that most Test series pass without England’s keeper missing a catch standing back; perhaps one drop a year.
What differentiates keepers is the turning pitch, which this one is likely to be, by English standards.
In his last game on a turner, at Port Elizabeth last winter, Buttler had a shocker – 16 byes – when keeping to the off-breaks of Dom Bess and Joe Root, hardly mystery spinners.
Buttler since then has corrected his mistake – he would not bend down low enough – and has changed his set-up when standing up, so that he now touches the ground with his gloves before every ball, to make himself stay down.
Keepers offer different qualities as they become the fulcrum of their side in the field. Some offer bustle and energy in the style pioneered by Godfrey Evans, such as David and Jonny Bairstow, or Matt Prior. Others emulate Alan Knott, such as Ben Foakes or Jack Russell or James Foster, and polish their team’s outcricket by making a wild throw melt into their gloves: these are the keepers begotten not made. No data can quantify the impact of this choreography, or ballet, but it has to be valuable in satisfying spectators and daunting opponents.
Buttler does neither. Of course he makes his catches and takes throws tidily enough. The value he adds behind the stumps is the advice to his captain and the quiet encouragement to bowlers and fielders. He is one of England’s Test triumvirate with Root and Stokes, as signalled when he was made vice-captain to Stokes in Southampton.
But England cannot forever make do with twenties and thirties from their keeper/bat: the side lack a core. They had one when there were three world-class all-rounders, but in the past couple of years only Stokes has kicked on, while Moeen Ali has fallen by the wayside and Bairstow has been shunted around, then omitted. He was averaging twice as many runs as Buttler of late, until that which did not have to be fixed was broken.
All-too familiar: Jos Buttler is bowled by West Indies’ Alzarri Joseph during the first Test for nine runs