By Derek Pringle
Jos Buttler’s claim to being the best white-ball batsman in world cricket was not in dispute after he broke the England record for the fastest T20 fifty the other night. Promoted to open the innings against Australia at Edgbaston, Buttler reached the milestone in 22 balls though he might have got there even quicker had he not absorbed eight dots.
As well as the speed of the scoring, what astounded was the range, power and control of stroke. There were two mishits, a hack off debutant wrist-spinner, Mitchell Swepson and a thick edge to third man. It was the only time, until he was out, that Buttler did not have utter, existential control of where he wanted the ball to go.
When I bowled for England’s ODI sides 25-30 years ago, you could count the batsmen who might humiliate you, as Buttler did to Australia’s bowlers, on one, maybe two, hands. Now, after 18 years of T20 evolution, it is only the batsmen who cannot humiliate you that can be counted in the same way. Which means there is a whole generation of players who can now clear the ropes with ease. Even so, Buttler stands apart as something special.
But what makes him so good? The easy and glib answer would be to say a freakish natural ability. But while there is an element of that, in the speed with which he can judge the trajectory of the ball and then process the information sent from brain to muscles, there are other factors which contribute to his sublime skills. And they are sublime as he is not a stand-and-deliver clogger like Chris Gayle, watchable though the Universe Boss can be when in the mood.
It has become a cliche to describe someone as a 360-degree batsman, able to place shots to all areas of the ground. In reality few can do that in an accomplished way and none without an element of pre-determination.
This is where Buttler is different. Although he also relies on a degree of pre-determination, in setting himself for certain shots, he can improvise if the ball is not quite where anticipated. He has more than one option. The speed of decision-making required to do that is so fast though, as to leave most of us slack-jawed in wonder.
He is rarely left off balance, either, the other thing that separates him from the crowd of other talented batsmen. Paul Farbrace, England’s assistant coach, described Buttler as “a batsman who plays good, strong shots,” which means he is not a slogger. Not for him the default hoik over cow corner.
Instead, he tends to target the off-side straight of extra cover, with the ability to hit to long-on if he has to adjust. For that he needs a strong base from which to use his body and arms, which means decisive footwork. Although he may move around the crease, to unnerve the bowler, his feet are usually well planted when bat hits ball.
Some batsmen can play shots while on the move and off balance, but they risk miscueing them when attempting to clear the boundary. Indeed, Buttler fell foul himself on Wednesday, an off-balance pull off Swepson finding the hands of deep mid-wicket. Generally, though, he has a solid foundation from which to strike the ball.
Hitting the ball hard and a long way relies on bat speed. Just about anyone can produce quick bat speed if they wind the bat up round their necks like a golf club. Yet, you risk losing control of the shot if it is too extravagant. The best players get speed and therefore power by other means, one of which is developing arm and torso muscles down the gym. Buttler works out dutifully though he is not as ripped as some.
No matter. Much of his bat speed comes from fast hands and strong flexible wrists, the legacy of playing other sports at school like squash, hockey and tennis. AB de Villiers, the man whose batting crown Buttler has usurped on the international stage, was similar in his adeptness at other sports growing up, admitting that they had facilitated many of the shots he played in white-ball cricket.
Michael Atherton interviewed Buttler on Sky TV recently, over a game of snooker. “I’m told you’re good at everything,” said Atherton. Buttler, mumbled something about it being propaganda, too modest to admit that he probably is.
All these skills mean he doesn’t try to overhit the ball, a major reason batsmen perish when trying to strike boundaries. Losing your body shape or control of the bat face as the bottom hand comes through too strongly, or not strongly enough, is why most miscue. Of course, Buttler is not immune to mis-hits, but generally there is a harmony and flow to his strokes, which means that any errors are mostly down to him misjudging a ball’s length or pace.
Buttler opened at Edgbaston the other night with Jason Roy, a similarly destructive batsman though one of very different temperament. To put it crudely, Roy appears a hothead driven to smash the bowling as verification of his masculinity. His frustration, when it doesn’t go well is obvious. Buttler on the other hand is cool and calm and while obviously possessing a keen competitive streak, does not appear to make batting personal.
Yet, fine ball-striker that Roy is I don’t reckon he possesses the clear-headedness to play the kind of one-day innings Buttler managed against Australia at Old Trafford on June 24 in a 50-over international.
There, with England listing at 114-8, he somehow managed, through calm calculation and the odd big shot, to get them to the 206 needed for victory. A remarkable one-day innings and one of the finest ever played for England.
Buttler possesses that other quality the very best have – a restless desire to improve. He name-checks the Indian Premier League as a tournament that has given him confidence and experience as well as a viewing platform for seeing how other top-class batsmen play certain shots. He then sets about practising those shots with an uncompromising diligence, tweaking and tailoring them to suit his own palette. One such stroke, played low to the ground with left-shoulder dropped so he can get his right hand through with power to almost top spin the ball, was developed to combat yorkers and low full tosses.
The idea is to get the middle of the bat as low and close to the pitch as possible so that it could meet the ball flush. Yorkers and low full tosses are effective mostly because they hit the bottom part of the bat, where there is no sweet spot. Buttler has found an effective way to combat that.
And on it goes, one man’s quest to make every ball a boundary option and entertain while he is at it. The calm and acceptable face of the war against bowling.