The Buttler paradox

Even when things look ideal for Buttler to go crazy, they aren't

Jos Buttler is my current obsession. I'm doing an enormous project on him, so every move he makes is scanned by all hemispheres of my brain for deeper meaning.

How could I not be fascinated with Buttler? He hits the ball like no one else I've seen in cricket. He's got all the shots he needs, and some he probably doesn't. And yet, there's this will-he-or-won't-he 90s sitcom tension about his Test batting.

For me, he also epitomizes a question that I'm asking of all sports. Can skills can be transferred, or even learnt, at the top level? In basketball, it's all about shooting: can athletes can learn to hit shots from half-court with repetition and technique? In baseball it's a question of power: can you turn average hitters into sluggers with helpful exit velocities and advanced methods? In cricket it's the 40-year obsession with turning white ball batsmen into Test players.

I didn't watch every ball during the second test, except when Buttler was batting.

England set up a great partnership through Dom Sibley and Ben Stokes, and wanted to push on. It was the ideal situation for Buttler. It was what the ECB genetically engineered him for. But if you looked at the pitch, and how Stokes played on it, this would not be an easy deck to tee off on. Balls were keeping low, there were footmarks, and the West Indian bowlers were still getting some sideways movement.

These things don't happen in white ball matches. But these are the moments England wants to cash in on: the reward for their four-year obsession with developing him. Those nutty Buttler innings, 79 from 40, clanging balls off the empty stands. A Nuttler, if you will.

But that's hard on a surface like this unless you've spent a lifetime hitting the red ball everywhere. Buttler hasn't. His career strike rate in first class is 59. It seems he doesn't have the tools to consistently (or even regularly) smash the red ball.

When he hammers the white ball, he is gaming a system designed for someone like him to hit. Few - or no - catching fielders, opposition limited by the fielding ring, white balls that are rubbish,  and flat smooth surfaces that haven't been played once, or very little at most.

When he plays against the red ball many of those things are not in play. It swings - even more so with the Dukes ball in England and the West Indies - for longer. Pitches will have natural wear and tear after a couple of days. The opposition can put nine men on the rope from his first ball. Or they can chuck a bunch of guys on key boundaries while keeping a few in the cordon.

The skills needed to succeed in red ball cricket are just different. If Buttler had them, wouldn't they have shown up somewhere in his 48 Tests/108 First Class games?

It wasn't that his innings was poor, but 40 off 79 balls is not why he was brought into the team. He inverted the dream figures against tired bowlers in a back-to-back situation on a pitch that had plenty of degrading yet to do.

What's interesting about all this is that the second innings there was another seemingly perfect situation for a Nuttler. England just had to belt the ball, so they sent out one of the world's best T20 openers to do it.

Buttler had the freedom to swing, batting in party mode, and he lasted three balls. You can't suggest he's not suited to opening the batting in a Test match based on this one failure. You wouldn't say he was a failed T20 opener if you threw him up on a whim every now and again, and he failed.

But these aren't isolated failures. It's always been clear why he isn't suited to test cricket - and why he may never be. When Buttler opens in T20s, one of the best players in the world is facing a briefly-swinging ball without three guys in the cordon. In this innings, he faced two new ball guns, on a pitch that was going a bit up and down, with a red ball that he couldn't slap twice to stop it seaming and mess with fielding restrictions.

Other than the fact he's opening, and allowed to attack, how on earth is this like a white ball game?

It's not that players can't be good in both formats, Ben Stokes proved that again this match. It's that if you have a middling record in red ball cricket, and a good one in white ball, there's a reason. You can't overcome that in Tests without a serious remodelling of your game.

For Buttler to adapt to Test cricket, he'd have to practise on footmarked pitches with inconsistent bounce and perhaps do real match simulations where the bowlers only bowl outside off stump with five guys in the cordon. It's not that someone of his talent can't learn these skills, but he hasn't, and that means he's unlikely to if he continues to prepare the same way.

At the moment, even when it looks like Buttler's being set up to star in tests, more often than not he's being set up to fail. I hope England is even more obsessed with Buttler's ability to change than me.

If you want more England cricket stuff, here is a chat with Emma John and I about their cricket in the 90s.