Spoiler alert: it’s Joe Denly next. And then Zak Crawley. Then, it’ll be time for Ben Stokes to be taken down a peg. Then probably Dom Sibley. Then, sometime next summer, Rory Burns or Jofra Archer. Then Denly again. Welcome to the England Test team in 2020, a toxic chalice of confected jeopardy in which somebody must always be in crisis. Somebody – anybody – must always be hovering just above the trapdoor.
Right now, it’s Jos Buttler. Poor Jos: England’s golden sapling (and, just six months ago, their presumptive next captain in all formats) withered to a sad husk. Even as England cruised to a comfortable victory over South Africa, Buttler emitted the heavy-headed dolour of a man who suspects his time may be at hand.
Poor Jos. And yet, equally: this is quite poor, Jos. A batting average of 16 might just have been salvageable had his glovework passed muster, but he can have few complaints if England look elsewhere for the upcoming tour of Sri Lanka. And there are plenty of people for whom this would be the ideal scenario: cutting Buttler adrift, allowing him to concentrate on being the most destructive white-ball cricketer England have ever had.
There is, admittedly, a boring grown-up logic to this. The formats are drifting apart. Buttler’s red-ball record – one century in 41 Tests, a first-class average of 32 – was never that good anyway. The example of Eoin Morgan, who hasn’t played a Test since he was 25, proves that a solely white-ball legacy is no bar to greatness. And so the argument runs that, like Alex Hales, Jason Roy and Adil Rashid, Buttler should simply be unshackled from the pinching handcuffs of Test cricket, and set free to do what he does best.
At which point, we must cry “stop”. None of the following is an argument that Buttler is currently performing to standard, or that he should even necessarily keep his place. Perhaps all he needs is a break. Perhaps, ultimately, a conscious uncoupling will become inevitable. Even so, jettisoning one of the most gifted cricketers England has ever produced surely requires just a moment’s extra pause.
The first point to make is that there is no useful precedent here. Telling Buttler to rip up his Indian Premier League contract, go back to Lancashire and score some runs in April and May just isn’t the way things work anymore. Besides, this is a man who walked straight back into Test cricket in 2018 after 18 months out and immediately took a fine Pakistan attack to pieces. Normal rules do not apply to Buttler, and never have.
You suspect, on some level, that this has always been the problem. The shrill, censorious reaction to his first-innings dismissal at Johannesburg – charging Vernon Philander and smashing the ball straight upwards – reinforced the idea that English cricket still sees batsmanship in essentially moral terms. Some dismissals are more acceptable than others. Nicking off in the channel: annoying, but essentially fine. Never mind that since the start of last summer, most of Buttler’s dismissals have come either defending or leaving. A naturally aggressive batsman playing a naturally aggressive game: still, somehow, taboo.
Besides, these are austere times. Gone are the exploding landmines and hailstorm collapses of the Trevor Bayliss days. In a way, the grim strictures of the Joe Root/Chris Silverwood era are an inevitable corrective, the point at which grand dreams meet stark reality. We couldn’t stop Brexit, we can’t stop climate change, and we couldn’t play white-ball cricket with a red ball. Now please, let’s try and put some runs on the board before we all die in a giant fireball.
Where does Buttler fit into these straitened times? Perhaps he doesn’t. This, in a way, is the Buttler Paradox: the less important he is, the better he performs; the better he performs, the more important he becomes. This is why the comparisons with AB de Villiers, or MS Dhoni, or even Kevin Pietersen have never quite worked. At his best Buttler is a glorious freewheeling irrelevance, a joyriding frivolity, a player who derives his essential function from having none at all.
Still, no player operates in a vacuum. Over time the constant background noise of English cricket acts as a sort of tightening noose, a vortex of stern faces and statistical damnation from which there is no real escape. Remember when people used to gripe that Ian Bell only made centuries when somebody else did? Or that Jonathan Trott scored too slowly? English cricket loves nothing more than complaining, even if the cumulative effect is a sort of nonsensical cant. Play with freedom, Jos. Express yourself. But not with too much freedom or expression. Execute your full repertoire of shots without taking undue risks. Play your own game. And the situation.
Buttler, for his part, has been playing pretty much solidly for a year: a period that has taken in a gruelling home World Cup, an immediate Ashes series and the birth of his first child (from whom this is his first winter away). Should his underperformance really surprise us? And if not, then why is the debate about discarding him for good rather than trying to get the best out of him?
There are broader, more fundamental questions here too. Can a team accommodate a Sibley and a Buttler at once? If not, why not? What does it say about Test cricket if it cannot find a place for one of the most thrilling talents in the sport? And how do you reckon Australia feel about Buttler never playing in another Ashes?
Ultimately, you feel, the loss of Buttler would say as much about English cricket as it would about Buttler himself.