England’s Buttler problem

There will always be a clamour for Jos Buttler to be inserted into England’s Test XI. He’s an outrageously talented and expansive batsmen whose exploits in the white ball formats make him irresistible. Indeed, he was a Siren call that new England selector, Ed Smith, couldn’t ignore for his first Test squad in May against Pakistan.

Jos Buttler has been floored by Test cricket. An outrageously talented limited overs batsman, it just isn’t working for him in Test cricket

So well had Buttler performed in the IPL and for England’s ODI side that Smith felt he simply had to find spot in the Test side for him and settled on the notion of Buttler as a specialist number seven. This was a batsman in the form of his life who simply had to be accommodated. You could almost see the logic.

Almost, because Buttler’s First Class average is, well, average at best. 86 red ball games have yielded a modest return of 3,841 runs at an average of 31.74. His Test record is pretty much consistent with this, 22 Tests have returned 970 runs at 32.33.

But then there’s his ODI record: 117 games, 3,148 runs at 40.35 with six centuries (he has none in Tests and only four in First Class games). He is, without doubt, one of the finest ODI batsmen on the planet and a finisher of the highest calibre. As he showcased against the Australians at Old Trafford this summer, for example, a game is never lost when Buttler is at the crease. He is fundamental to England’s World Cup efforts next summer.

In T20s, too, Buttler excels. He’s played 231 of them around the world and has amassed 5,099 runs at an average of 30.17.

He is a white ball specialist. For some reason, however, English cricket retains the perverse need to ratify its talents in the Test arena. You can’t be considered a ‘proper’ cricketer in England unless you can do it against the red ball. For all the advances since the shambolic 2015 World Cup in England’s ODI setup, old notions die hard.

It is clear to see where Buttler’s problems lie, too. Against India at Lord’s he was walking towards the bowler at every delivery. Now, this works in ODIs because you need to keep the bowler second guessing you and put him off his bowling plans. With fielding restrictions in play, Buttler has an extraordinary ability to score around the wicket.

Against a Dukes ball in conditions which offer more balance between bat and ball, even favouring the bowler, this is suicidal. One inside edge narrowly missed the stumps and a fidgety innings was put out of its misery by Mohammed Shami getting one to nip back in ever so slightly and wrap a wandering Buttler on his front pad in front of middle stump.

The techniques which have served him so well in white ball cricket simply do not translate into success in the Test arena. Chris Woakes came to the crease next and scored a fuss-free 137* to put the game to bed. That was supposed to be Buttler’s role.

Now England have a problem. Buttler has been appointed a vice-captain of the Test side and Smith has to back himself and his selection, but it’s pretty clear that Buttler just isn’t ready for this. Whisper it quietly, but he’s not really up to it, either. It’s hardly surprising since he so rarely plays First Class cricket. If you set someone up to fail, generally they will do just that.

Will Smith hold his hands up and admit he’s got this one wrong? When Ben Stokes comes back into the side, someone has to go. Woakes can’t be dropped after his performance at Lord’s and Ollie Pope cut a far more composed figure at the crease than Buttler did. Equally, Sam Curran is enjoying a stellar start to life in Test cricket. There are only 11 spaces available and it feels like Buttler is the weakest batsmen of this quartet.

With so much invested in him, however, England have a Buttler sized problem on their hands. Do they persevere with an experiment which is currently doomed to failure, or do they admit they’ve got it wrong and drop him?

By Miles Reucroft

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