How Do You Solve A Problem Like Jos Buttler?

Jos Buttler is an absolutely incredible white ball cricketer. That is a statement which even the most contentious or unorthodox cricket pundit would find impossible to disagree with. No player in the history of one day cricket has scored more runs than Buttler at a faster strike rate. Only Shahid Afridi and Glenn Maxwell even come close. A destructive and dominating batsman who instils fear into the hearts of his opponents.

In Test cricket, the picture is more nuanced. A Test batting average of 33.90 is not particularly impressive for a 30 year old after 47 Test matches, especially having played 20 of those games as a specialist batsman. It’s not a terrible record either, but it places him significantly below the top tier of Test wicketkeeper-batsmen (de Kock, Watling, Pant and Rizwan, for example). Nevertheless, Joe Root has come out in the press this week vehemently backing Buttler not only as a batsman but also as the Test wicketkeeper for this winter’s tours.

Buttler’s batting statistics last summer were exemplary. He was England’s second most prolific run scorer in the six Tests, scoring just one run less than Zak Crawley, and finished with a batting average of 52.00. A wicketkeeper with that kind of scoring ability is essentially undroppable.

So here is my argument for why I would drop him from the Test team.

For a start, it might be worth considering why Buttler performed so well this summer. One notable aspect is that he didn’t play any white ball cricket in the months leading up to or during the Test summer. With the IPL postponed, his last T20 was in February against South Africa and his last fifty-over game was the 2019 World Cup final. That represents almost six months with no distractions from preparing for Test cricket.

Few batsmen seem able to seamlessly swap between white ball cricket and Tests, with the transition usually having a negative effect in at least one of the formats, and this is borne out in the statistics. Jos Buttler averages 38 when he has played a Test in the previous 30 days, but only 18 when he hasn’t. Buttler is without doubt one of the best white ball batsmen in the world, with ODI and T20I strike rates which are amongst the best of all time, and there is a T20 World Cup due to be played in India this October. Is it a good selection policy to keep him out of T20Is and the IPL this year in order to have him playing at his best in Tests?  I don’t think so.

Another key aspect to my preference on not selecting Buttler in Tests is his wicketkeeping ability. Specifically, his keeping when up to the stumps is just plain bad. According to CricViz, Jos Buttler was by some considerable distance the worst Test keeper to spin in the period from the beginning of 2018 to the first Test against Pakistan in 2019. I must confess that I don’t exactly understand how CricViz quantifies ‘Fielding Impact’ as their models are intentially opaque, but it is presumably some combination of missed wicket-taking chances and preventable byes and wides being conceded.

One clear example of Jos Buttler’s abilities (or lack thereof) with regards to spin bowling is his record of Test stumpings. In 27 Tests as England wicketkeeper, Buttler has not taken a single stumping. Not one. In fact, in the history of Test cricket only one wicketkeeper has played as many Tests as Buttler without taking at least three stumpings: Former ICC CEO and South African international Dave Richardson (who still took two more than Buttler). This could be a crucial weakness because England’s next two Test series are in Sri Lanka and India.

England have won only one Test series in Asia over the past eight years, and that was their 3-0 victory in Sri Lanka two years ago. The key to this rare overseas whitewash was their spin bowling: 49 of the 60 wickets England took were from their spin attack of Leach, Ali, Rashid and Root (18, 18, 12, and 1 wickets respectively). Seventy-nine percent of England’s overs were delivered by these four bowlers. It is patently ridiculous to me that you would even consider selecting Jos Buttler as wicketkeeper in conditions where he seems almost certain to struggle.

It is worth noting that Buttler was selected as a specialist batsman in the previous Sri Lanka series, and performed very well. He scored the second most runs for England, amassing 250 runs in six innings and was behind only Ben Foakes’ total of 277. There is certainly an argument for including him this winter in that role, but that isn’t necessarily clear cut either.

For one thing, ‘demoting’ Buttler to a mere batsman would lead to him replacing one of the existing batting lineup. I can’t see him playing in the top order, although England did try Moeen Ali once as an opener in the UAE so I can’t entirely rule it out either. England’s middle order comprises of the captain, the best batting allrounder in the world, and Ollie Pope. Pope is currently returning from a shoulder injury, so won’t even be available for the Sri Lanka series. If he does return in time to play in India, Pope is clearly the most vulnerable. He has never played a Test in the subcontinent, and also had a lacklustre summer for England. On the other hand, he is only twenty three years old and he already has a career Test batting average greater than Buttler’s. I’m not sure I’d necessarily opt for experience in this scenario, although Buttler might have the Sri Lanka series to press his case for inclusion.

Perhaps the most important factor regarding Jos Buttler’s selection would be managing his workload in 2021. If Buttler is selected for all of England’s Test cricket this year in addition to the IPL in April/May and the T20 World Cup in October, it is not unreasonable to think that he would only spend a few weeks outside of the England camp all year. In normal times, this would be mentally and physically draining for any cricketer. These are not normal times however, and there seems a fair chance that a large portion of this time will also be in some form of quarantine or bubble.

If three-format players like Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer aren’t given series off, they might well be burned out by the end of the year. You only have to look at England after they had been driven beyond their limits by Andy Flower to see how that might decimate a team. I like my cricket management like I like my TV: Without repeats of the shit stuff.

There is a strong argument that Stokes and Archer are essential picks in the subcontinent. In England’s last series in Sri Lanka, Stokes took five wickets whilst the swing and seam bowlers (Anderson, Broad and Sam Curran) could only manage two between them. Pace and bounce are clearly more effective weapons in those conditions, therefore I would probably look to rest those two during during the English summer instead. Whilst you can certainly make a case for Buttler’s inclusion as a specialist batsman in Sri Lanka and India, his place in the squad doesn’t feel anywhere near as necessary to England’s chances of success as those of the pace bowlers.

Joe Root has publicly backed him though, so he’ll probably keep wicket in all six Tests this winter.

If you have any comments about Jos Buttler, the upcoming Tests, or anything else, add them below.