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Mature Jos Buttler quietly plays the innings of his life for England | Jonathan Liew | Sport


As a warm and windswept afternoon wound down, the fun and games could begin. The pitch was behaving, there were more than enough runs on the board, Pakistan’s attack were beaten and broken, and with Jos Buttler settled and comfortable the big shots could come out. The devastating reverse sweep. The disdainful ramp over the shoulder. The beefy off-side punch. Only there was something strange. Buttler wasn’t the one playing any of these shots at all.

Instead, in a curious reversal of roles it was Zak Crawley, the new crown prince of English batting, who was flaying Pakistan to all parts with a mixture of effortless timing and agricultural hitting.

Buttler, by contrast, was the one dropping anchor: holding up an end, biding his time.

Even as the runs piled up and England chased a declaration, he continued to plug away: nudging and pushing for singles, resolutely playing every ball on its merits.

And so, on a day stuffed with weird anomalies, of outlandish numbers and unfamiliar sights and sounds, perhaps the strangest of all was this: one of England’s most destructive and flamboyant batsmen posting his highest Test score almost unnoticed, the leading man willingly accepting a non-speaking role. He scored at less than three an over for most of the day, and between 1.36pm and 5.31pm he went 41 overs without hitting a boundary.

Yet for all its uncharacteristic absence of pizzazz, this may well have been one of the most important innings Buttler has played in his life, certainly against a red ball.

We knew what he could do with a white ball. We knew what he could do with a target. We knew what he could do for a couple of lawless hours on the counterattack, or in a lost cause.

But a mature 152 off 311 balls, made with impenetrable defence and impeccable judgement: did we truly believe Buttler had an innings like this in him?

Perhaps some of us did. For much of his England career, Buttler was one of those who did not. The unique scrutiny of Test cricket has always been apt to open up certain fissures in him, not just in his game but in his confidence. For Buttler, this sense of atrophy and decay, of circling vultures and spiralling doubt, has been pursuing him for most of the last five years. Arguably it is the dominant theme of his Test career, far more than his occasional flourishes or defiant cameos.

The doubt first began to set in during the summer of 2015, barely a year after his debut, as the runs began to dry up in the Ashes. It resurfaced in late 2016 during a disastrous tour of India. And more recently over the winter, after a poor tour of South Africa and a run of 14 consecutive innings without a half-century. Once again, a prevailing scepticism reigned over whether Buttler really was a Test batsman, or simply an impostor in whites.

For some, Buttler could never simply be a decent player going through a bad trot.

There always had to be that undercurrent of fraudulence, of masquerade, even a certain vulgarity in the idea that a white-ball specialist might try and cut it in the most beautiful game of all.

Limited-overs cricket may not quite carry the same sackcloth and stigma as it once did, but in many quarters of the English game there remains a certain exceptionalism to Test cricket that still brooks an instinctive suspicion of a player like Buttler. He doesn’t have the technique or the temperament. He hasn’t “figured out” how to play Test cricket. He’s had enough chances.

Few players of any ilk get a fourth crack at Test cricket. It feels fairly certain that Buttler would not have been one of them. Indeed, had the pandemic not curtailed England’s tour of Sri Lanka, Buttler might easily have been dropped in favour of Ben Foakes, a superior keeper against spin bowling. He might easily have been lost to the Test game forever. He might have been forced to content himself with being “merely” England’s greatest white-ball batsman in history.

The malaise persisted into the summer, even afflicting his usually tidy keeping. But by his principal measure of worth, Buttler has finally proven himself.

Since the start of the summer, when his place was under threat, he averages 52 with 416 runs over the six Tests. His balance at the crease appears much improved. His remodelled trigger movement allows him to judge his off-stump without cutting off his favoured scoring areas through cover. And this innings was the missing piece of the puzzle: a test of temperament as well as mettle, walking in at 127 for four on Friday afternoon and not leaving until the series was won. Forty-seven Tests into his career, it finally feels like Buttler belongs.

It is instructive that both of Buttler’s Test centuries – as well as his only genuine match-winning knock, the brilliant 75 at Old Trafford two Tests ago – have come at No 6. Perhaps, as with Ben Stokes, Buttler has finally managed to strike a balance between freedom and responsibility. All of which raises the issue of where he slots in when Stokes returns. Does he drop back to No 7? Do you drop a batsman and bring in Foakes for the tour of Sri Lanka? In a strange way, Buttler’s resurrection has raised more questions for England than it has answered. But unlike many of their recent selection dilemmas, it is a wonderful one to have.

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