It was just over a fortnight ago that Ed Smith was talking of the “positive force” that Jos Buttler could be in Test cricket. Wherever he is right now, the new national selector should be sitting very smugly.
In the past, the case for Buttler’s inclusion in England’s Test side has been more on potential than any meaningful returns, even after two separate cracks at the format since making his debut in the summer of 2014.
Now, four years on, there is something tangible: an unbeaten 80 that helped England to an innings and 55-run win over Pakistan at Headingley. It was a performance that squared the two-match series and earned him the man-of-the-match champagne.
Speaking after the conclusion of the second Test, dressed in whites for only the 10th time since the start of 2016, Buttler ceded that even he was aware of the unknowns that surrounded his selection for this Test series. A half-century during the first match at Lord’s, which Pakistan won by nine wickets, promised much. In Leeds, he delivered.
The questions over his selection centred mostly on his presence at the IPL. A stellar campaign with Rajasthan Royals was all well and good, but with no red ball work of note, there were worries over whether he’d be too slap-happy for the often grinding nature of Test cricket. Buttler believes, however, that his stint in India was a godsend.
“Those couple of weeks in the IPL gave me huge amounts of confidence,” he said. “To be in those pressure situations in India, playing in front of crowds and the pressure of being an overseas player. That showed me a lot about where I was at and where I can get to. For me, not trying to worry about the colour of the ball definitely helps. Having put in good performances elsewhere and not putting as much pressure on myself.”
Now with 20 Tests under his belt, the 27-year-old believes he is in a better place mentally to cope with the full demands of five days of graft. Crucially, he feels taking a backward step – the good kind – has allowed him to come into this series with an uncluttered mind. That was particularly evident when he ticked his way over to 45 off 90 balls.
“If anything, my mentality has been quite similar to my first few Tests. Not worrying about external factors, just trying to play the game, trusting myself. The big difference is experience,” he said.
“When I was a young player, I didn’t really believe in experience when the older guys told me I would improve or understand things with time. I used to think you could either do it or you can’t. But now I understand how valuable experience is, and maturity, to help you to deal with not only the on-field stuff but what goes on around it.”
Buttler explained that during the first chapter of his Test career, spanning July 2014 to November 2015, he spent too much energy on how not to get out rather on how to score.
“I learned some really valuable stuff there and got in a really bad rut that I just couldn’t get out of,” he said. “The only real way to get out of it was to be dropped. And actually, being dropped released a lot of pressure. Actually, it wasn’t very long after that that I had a hundred in Dubai (116 in an ODI against Pakistan), which was a turnaround for me after a long and hard six months.”
The most stunning moment of his almost three-hour-long stay at the crease at Leeds when he thumped Faheem Ashraf back over the bowler’s head and into the building site at the rugby ground end. Pakistan, the crowd and everyone else watching on at Headingley were stunned into silence. Cricket is a game full of white noise, and only certain players can create those moments of quiet. Buttler is one of them.
Of the 147 times that he’s cleared the ropes for six in international cricket, has he hit one sweeter? “Not against the red ball, that’s for sure,” mused Buttler. “That was thoroughly enjoyable.”
The six was part of an 11-ball period that brought Buttler 35 runs. During the onslaught, the Sky Sports cameras picked up the words “F*** IT” on the top of his bat handle. He has been tagging his bats with those words since 2013, possibly earlier, but the timing of the pictures being broadcast, while he was in such devastating nick, felt apt. As Buttler explains, the phrase reminds him that cricket is just a game.
“It’s just something that reminds me of what my best mindset is,” he said. “When I’m playing cricket – and probably in life as well. It puts cricket in perspective. When you nick off, does it really matter? It’s just a good reminder when I’m in the middle when I’m questioning myself, and it brings me back to a good place.”
The challenge for Buttler is how to stay in this good place. The nature of white-ball cricket – the regularity of games, knowing you don’t need to wait long for your next innings – allows touch to be preserved. Consistency is a tough thing to achieve in Test cricket, but Buttler hopes he and this England side, after two years of erratic performances, can get on the straight and narrow. Moving from the disappointment of Lord’s to a convincing win at Headingley is the ideal start.
“To front up and come and play like this is fantastic. But it’s about doing that consistently. The culture has to allow that to happen. There’s a really good feeling in that dressing room and that’s something we have to keep very tight. That’s the most important thing, in my opinion. With the white-ball side, there’s always been that drive of trying to push boundaries. We’ve got guys in there with great records and it showed in this game how hungry they are to not rest on those records.”
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Buttler now willing to throw himself into a third format, is his workload. Neither Buttler nor England will want to see oscillation in his bankable 50-over or T20 form. He believes, however, that the volume of cricket on offer, from ODI series to franchise cricket has led Buttler to this moment. He sees no reason why, at this juncture, things will be different now.
“I’ve only played two Test matches, so I’m not going to get far ahead of myself. But any time you get the opportunity to play around the world, it’s something that’s helped me in the last two years. I haven’t been kicking my heels, saying I’m a failure in Test cricket and regretting how it went for me. That frees you up in your mind, to know that there’s a lot of avenues you can go down. Hopefully I will have to juggle things, because that means I’d been successful.”
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