Buttler deserves anchor role after superb counter-attack
Batsman is still learning to play Test game but should stay in the No6 spot after another resilient display
Jos Buttler has given England straws to which they can cling on the fourth day of this fourth Test, by top-scoring for the fourth time in his country’s 10 Test innings this summer. Thanks to Buttler and Sam Curran building on the grunt-work done by the upper order in wearing down the bowlers, England could even be in the ascendant if the forecast cloud returns for India’s run chase.
England’s Test line-up may resemble ever more closely a succession of square pegs in round holes, but two elements crystallised during their hard-fought, if far from glamorous, second innings. One is that Joe Root has to be allowed to bat in his favoured position of No4, and the other that Buttler has to bat at six.
Not so clear is where Jonny Bairstow fits in, once the middle finger of his left hand has recovered. But Bairstow himself could hardly have made more apparent his distaste for being a specialist batsman: one swish and he was gone, disenchanted, in an experiment which cannot be allowed to continue when the Oval Test starts on Friday. Bairstow is wounded mentally as well as physically by not being England’s wicketkeeperbatsman.
Buttler, on the other hand, is a less complicated individual. He is still learning the process of playing himself in against Test bowling, has yet to discipline himself when tempted by the ball outside off stump at the outset but, once in, Buttler has scored happy runs whether he is keeping wicket or not. As indeed he should score runs, batting down the order in a summer where the new ball has swung impossibly for opening batsmen, and as England’s vice-captain.
Consistency is never going to be the hallmark or yardstick of a swashbuckler: what matters is the number of match-winning innings he plays.
In his six Tests since his return to England’s side, Buttler has played at least one – when he took the Headingley Test away from Pakistan, who were 1-0 up, in his unbeaten 80 of 101 balls – while his 69 against India could prove to be his second. Two match-winning innings in six Test matches, that is a ratio of which any of the great counter-attackers through the ages would be proud.
England were steeped in gloom when Buttler came in upon the run-out of Root, being five wickets down with a lead of less than 100. Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings had radiated defiance but not confidence, as if their Test futures were on the line, which they are; promoting Moeen Ali to No3 was a gamble worth taking, on a one-off basis, to let Root feel at home at four; and Bairstow had departed after his swish, no doubt to replay again in his mind the fumbles which Buttler had made behind the wicket.
Ben Stokes used to bat with the same positive, even belligerent intent that Buttler now has, but that baton was passed during the third Test at Trent Bridge, when Stokes and Buttler shared England’s face-saving stand in their second innings. Stokes, in his two Tests since his trial, has gone into his shell: he has contributed his share of runs, all right, 125, but at two runs an over in effect, off 389 balls. The all-rounder, who scored 258 in Cape Town, has been wearing bowlers down for Buttler to attack.
Buttler shared half-century stands first with Stokes, then with Curran. Having been a modern merry-goround, this series turned into a traditional Test at a traditional tempo, below three runs an over. Ravi Ashwin saw to that by holding one end – lacking his normal body action and pivot, but still steady – while India’s four pace bowlers took turns in trying conventional then reverse-swing.
Southampton’s crowd has yet to establish an identity, as this is only the third Test, but afternoon sun and caravans selling beer – not to mention Buttler – generated an ever-more optimistic atmosphere before the second new ball.
Even Virat Kohli lost some of his animation as England clawed themselves into a 50-50 position, because when India chase their target, Moeen – being fully fit – will present more of a challenge than Ashwin.
Almost unbelievably, after Buttler had been dismissed leg-before by Ishant Sharma’s inswinger and the second new ball, Curran – far from failing as he was entitled to do – played yet another innings of the utmost maturity to see England through to the close. As with Buttler, and in accordance with the dry surface, Curran’s confidence was translated mainly into drives through extra cover. Another 19 runs, indeed, and Curran will overtake Buttler, whose aggregate is 260, as England’s leading run-scorer in this series.
Will it be 3-1 to England, or 2-2? Whatever happens in the rest of this match, it would seem that Bairstow – once he is fit again – has to be England’s wicketkeeper-batsman at No7, where he can carve through the off side as he does in ODIs.
Buttler will revert to No6, as a specialist and special batsman.
Leading role: Jos Buttler celebrates his important half-century at Southampton