This Ashes series was always going to end with some England players facing questions about their international futures, and for one of them the end and the questions have come a little early. Jos Buttler’s injury has spared the selectors a decision about whether to retain him in the team for the final Test in Hobart, but it has forced England to think about who will keep wicket this week and also in the future.
There have always been huge expectations on Buttler because of his superb form in white-ball cricket, but precisely 100 innings into his Test career we’ve seen little sign of that form transferring. I remember working with him in Abu Dhabi when England played Pakistan there in 2015. He was struggling a little bit and after he got left out of the third Test we went to the nets, and he unloaded quite a lot of things that were on his mind. What it came down to was a lack of trust in and understanding of first-class cricket, and an uncertainty about how to play at No 6 or No 7 when perhaps the scoreboard is not dictating your approach. In one-day cricket he might be leading a run chase and knowing he needs six an over, or when batting first he might need to take advantage of a powerplay, but Test cricket is not formulaic in the same way.
In that net session, I suggested that I should throw him a few balls and he should play each ball on its merits, and he seemed to not quite understand that concept. It led me to think that there is so much premeditation in one-day cricket that some players who come through and excel in that format never adapt to the ebb and flow of Test cricket.
Buttler came into the Ashes having stood out at the Twenty20 World Cup, and he remains probably one of the top five one-day players in the world. But the contrast between his performances for Eoin Morgan’s white-ball side and those in Australia has been stark, watching him stand deep in the crease, leaden-footed, his weight back, unable to play shots with any authority.
When he was reintroduced to the side by Ed Smith it was to be an aggressive enforcer with the bat at No 7, to go out and play with no fear, but we have never really seen that. There is a lesson here for selectors and captains: it is not enough to pick a player and say: “I think you can do this role.” The player also needs to believe it. I remember in my career I had been left out of the first Test in Jamaica but before the second match of the series Michael Atherton asked me to bat No 3. At this stage I had played nine Tests with a top score of 64, the confidence that I had felt making my debut had slowly ebbed away through repeated failures, and I was very much taken aback that he would ask me to bat in front of Robin Smith and Graeme Hick. Michael would say that he had confidence in me, but the player himself has to believe it. I scored two and five.
In my time working with the England side, if you feel that a player’s strength is batting aggressively then you would encourage them to play in that fashion regardless of the team’s position in the match – but ultimately the player has to go out and play. This is where role clarity is really important. The one truly successful Jos Buttler Test innings I remember is his 75 at Old Trafford as he and Chris Woakes combined to beat Pakistan in 2020, playing brilliantly on a difficult pitch, but that match had almost become a one-day chase.
Wicketkeepers are the heartbeat of a cricket team and they need to be bubbly and give energy to the rest of the side, but in the cricket that I have seen on this tour Buttler has looked stony-faced. Of course some players do this more than others, but if you’re in that role and you don’t bring that energy, you’re struggling for runs and you’re dropping catches, then what exactly are you contributing?
As wicketkeeper Buttler averages 29.6, while Jonny Bairstow lost the gloves despite averaging 37.4. It’s hard to quantify someone’s character and presence in a dressing room, and Bairstow’s statistics are so superior that there must be something beyond individual performance that has kept Buttler in the side, but it is a decision that seems increasingly hard to justify.
Of those in line to replace him this week and in the future, Bairstow remains a decent option but has for now been ruled out by a thumb injury. Sam Billings is a player that Graham Thorpe and I have always had our eye on because of his orthodox technique and good basics, and may be able to grasp an opportunity if one is given to him. Ollie Pope kept well in Sydney and I believe he has a very bright future so long as he is handled correctly, but it would be strange to see him regularly keeping wicket for England when he does not for Surrey, who in Ben Foakes have the player widely regarded as the best wicketkeeper in English cricket.
Joe Root talks about a reset of the Test match team and if his intention is to pick players with long-form cricket in their DNA, people who would focus their attention completely on the first-class game and who could form the spine of a new-look team, it would seem to me that Foakes is precisely that sort of cricketer. I think many people within the game have been surprised not to see him play for England more often, but perhaps his time is about to come.