Jos Buttler has coach's backing to regain form but doubts grow about long-term Test prospects

Nick Hoult
Jos Buttler is fighting to retain the gloves and his place in the Test side and needs a big score at Johannesburg to seal his place for Sri Lanka - Getty Images Europe

England have not won a series in South Africa by more than one Test match since 1948 and have the chance to chalk up a significant achievement in Johannesburg this week.

At 2-1 up, England are in the ascendancy with many of their working parts in good order but as ever there is always one player under pressure and Jos Buttler arrived in Johannesburg on Tuesday knowing he needs a good performance to keep his place in the side.

Two weeks ago Buttler began 2020 admitting he was not “performing to the standards I need to” and since then he has endured two difficult Tests in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.

Scores of 29, 23 and one have coincided with a fine from the match referee for swearing at Vernon Philander and he appeared to wither under a barrage of South African sledging as they took their revenge in Port Elizabeth. 

On a slow turner his keeping was ragged, conceding 16 byes but that only tells one part of the story. There were fumbles that did not cost runs and he appeared to struggle when standing up to the stumps, a skill that will be stretched far more on the next tour to Sri Lanka in six weeks’ time. 

There is also the fact he has scored only one hundred in 40 Tests and averages 22 since the start of the last Ashes series.

With the influx of young players breaking up the established order, it makes more experienced players such as Buttler suddenly more vulnerable to change. 

Ben Foakes kept brilliantly in Sri Lanka in 2019, missing merely one chance in three Tests and scored a hundred in Galle. He was dropped in the West Indies to accommodate Jonny Bairstow’s wish to bat down the order and keep wicket at a time when Trevor Bayliss did not want to upset the harmony, particularly among the white-ball players he would soon need to rely on in the World Cup.

Foakes endured a poor season for Surrey with the bat which was used as a reason for him leaving him off the winter tours. However, his fine keeping will be vital in Sri Lanka where the half-chances are so important and his resilient batting at seven can complement Ollie Pope. 

Root stands next to Buttler at first slip and relies on his tactical brain and calm counsel. Keeper Buttler, first slip Root and second slip Ben Stokes run the team. Root will be reluctant to break up that group and after the Port Elizabeth Test Chris Silverwood lent jis support to the former vice-captain.

Ben Foakes kept impeccably on the tour to Sri Lanka in Dec 2018 Credit:  REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

“It’s a team game and he will come good at some point – he’s going to hurt someone. We know that. So I’ve got absolutely no problem with that,” he said when asked about Buttler’s form.

The Wanderers will suit him. Spin will not play a part, he can stand back and face less pressure on his keeping. The faster pitch may suit his batting too and Buttler is at his best with his back to the wall. He has vowed to be more positive with his batting and if he can make a significant contribution he could save his place.

Root likes Buttler’s presence and he is a vital member of the management group. If England win the series 3-1 and Buttler makes runs they will be more inclined to show  loyalty to a gifted player. But Root has paid the price before for standing by players for too long and with next year’s main tour being to India, he will need a keeper he can trust to take chances in difficult conditions.

If Buttler loses his Test spot, he would remain a hugely important figure in English cricket. Eoin Morgan should stand down as 50-over captain after the forthcoming series in South Africa. He is not going to lead England to the next World Cup so should not stand in the way of the next man, Buttler, building the side he wants to take to that tournament in India in 2023.

Morgan can concentrate on two Twenty20 World Cups over the next two years instead. Morgan reaped the benefits of being free from Test cricket when he rebuilt England’s one-day side and to expect Buttler to captain the 50-over team as well as keep and bat in all three formats is asking too much.

Only Stokes appears to have the mental and physical resilience to play all formats for England. Even Root has now been left out of the T20 side against his wishes but it gives him crucial time to refresh.

The last thing England want is Buttler’s Test form also sucking the life out of his 50-over cricket. There is a lot to play for in Johannesburg.