The Buttler Conundrum

Averaging just 22.9 in his past five test series, Jos Buttler is under pressure.

I am quite the Buttler fan. As I wrote just over a month ago, if Buttler were to find form in the test side, he would regularly win games for England. And yet, glimmers of his talent aside, an average of 31.6 and the solitary hundred in 44 tests reflect a player, who, despite obvious ability with the bat, is yet to make good in test cricket. With county favourite Ben Foakes in reserve, and Jonny Bairstow determined to win back his spot, England's white-ball freak needs some red ball runs. And quickly.

With every series where he doesn't make runs, critics are quick to ask for Buttler's head, calls that become louder the more he fails. But much to the ire of Twitter, Ed Smith has retained Buttler as England's wicket-keeper for the first test against Pakistan.

The Good, the Bad, the Buttler

What feels like a lifetime ago now, was in 2018, when Buttler, on the back of a brilliant IPL, made his triumphant return to the test side against Pakistan. He scored two fifties, including a match winning 80* in the second test at Headingley, finishing as England's highest run scorer. After a brief interlude to hammer Australia with the white-ball, India visited the UK, where Buttler again starred, finishing as England's highest run scorer again, after going past fifty in three of the five tests. In the tour of Sri Lanka that followed, Buttler continued to make useful runs, as England played aggressively against spin, with his two fifties at an average of 41.7 helping England to a 3-0 away win.

And yet since this good return to test cricket, Buttler's form has gone rapidly downhill. Despite flashes of his skill, he struggled in the tour to the West Indies in 2019, was very poor in last year's Ashes until an impressive 70 at the Oval, and looked awful in last winter's tours to New Zealand and South Africa. While he showed some signs of runs against the West Indies (he looked as though he was rescuing England in the first innings of the first test, and did so with a fifty when batting with Ollie Pope in the third), a failure to score big runs again put his place under pressure again. Fans, understandably are asked to wonder why Buttler continues to be selected, when numerous county options are seemingly available. And as much as I could write an ode to Ben Foakes, instead, let me try and answer the hardest question known to humanity:

Why do England persist with Jos Buttler?

The impossible question. While I could delve into a conspiracy about Ed Smith and Buttler being his pet project, this interesting parallel aside, what could be a legitimate reason for Buttler's continued selection?

Perhaps it is the inexperience of England's batting line-up. Since Buttler's return to the test side in May 2018, England have used 27 different players in 28 tests, with nobody playing them all. Of said 27, 11 were bowlers, leaving 16 who have played as batsmen/all-rounders. From these 16, just four have played more than 15 tests, with one being Jos Buttler. Despite his inability to be better than average, his international experience amid a constantly changing side has made him very useful to said side, with pundits often pointing to his cricketing brain and the support he offers to the leadership of Joe Root and Ben Stokes.

While this argument may be dying due to a batting order that looks to be stabilising thanks to Rory Burns and Dom Sibley, England thought they had stability before. While I hope the Burns/Sibley partnership lasts, we must keep in mind that Sam Robson, Nick Compton, Keaton Jennings, Gary Ballance and Dawid Malan have all made centuries for England in the past eight years, and it is highly likely that none of them will ever play again. So while it seems as though England have the start of a partnership, they've been hurt before by starting to believe, and while Jos Buttler is not setting the world alight, they know him to be a decent player with plenty of international experience in high-pressure scenarios. This familiar heartbreak at the top order would also help explain why England stuck with Joe Denly for 15 tests!

The stats do support this heartbreak theory. Following Buttler's return to the test side, only Root (1,886) and Stokes (1,887) have scored more than Jos' 1,494 runs for England. And of those who have played more than half of the 28 tests, just three Stokes (43.9), Root (38.5) and Burns (35.7) average more than Buttler (31.78). Buttler has also made 11 scores of 50+ since his return in 2018, only Stokes (13) and Root (14) have made more. England's fragile batting depth has meant that Buttler has perhaps got more games than expected.

Nobody except for Stokes (who also averages 28 with ball and has the second most wickets [for England, 61] in that time) boasts great batting stats in recent years. Joe Root, England's best player exemplifies this, with just one 100 in his past 14 tests! This shows, that Buttler, despite mediocre returns with the bat, offers more to the side than we perhaps realise. Obviously experience and concern about others shouldn't guarantee selection, but he is a known entity, something undervalued by those of us who can only watch in frustration.

Don't forget he's a wicket-keeper!

For all the talk of his failings with the bat, Jos Buttler's record with the gloves has been very good. Since the start of 2016, of all test keepers to have taken at least 20 catches, Buttler boasts the highest catch success rate in test cricket at 96%. While he may not be getting the runs he should, his keeping is not an issue, and shouldn't be treated as such.

White-ball, Red-ball

Jos Buttler's last ODI saw him make a crucial and underrated 59 in the World Cup Final; he has three 50s in his past four IT20 series. In the most recent IPLs of 2018 and 2019, Buttler scored over 300 runs in both at a strike rate of over 150. His ability to hit 360 degrees with bat, and talent to get power on the ball through his weird but wonderful wrists make power hitting look deceptively easy. Buttler can complete a batting innings (150 v West Indies), rescue a nightmare (5th ODI v Australia, 2018) or open and build a platform (final IT20 in South Africa). We all know Buttler is a transformative white-ball player, and when Eoin Morgan retires, Buttler will, in all likelihood, take over the captaincy of England's limited-overs stars.

I know I'm preaching to the converted when I worship Buttler's short form ability. But I do so anyway, because a truly great white-ball player, can still be a good red-ball player. I'm fully aware this is beyond controversial. You point at the Jason Roy experiment all you like, and I'll point you to David Warner, who has a test average of 48.9. You can tell me about Alex Hales' red ball troubles all you want, and I'll tell you about Chris Gayle's test average of 42.2. Now I'd agree when you say these are exceptions, and I fully agree that most white-ball players don't make good red-ball players, and vice versa.

And yet, most of the greats of the modern game; Ricky Ponting, Kevin Pietersen, Sachin Tendulkar, AB de Villiers, Kumar Sangakkara; the next set of greats; Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson, Babar Azam and more, have all succeeded in both forms. Because truly great players do that. I'm not deluded enough to think Buttler is a great red-ball player, I know he's not. But I reject any argument that suggests he can't succeed in test match cricket because he's a white ball specialist. The best players can adapt, and in some of his best test knocks, Buttler has proved capable of that.

His challenge, as we all aware, is doing so regularly. And let's hope he can, because Jos Buttler playing well in test matches would be something quite brilliant.

Jos Buttler may be under pressure. But he thrives on it.

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