Ben Jones analyses England’s gloveman, and his role in the current Test XI.
Jos Buttler did not have a good day with the gloves today. Or yesterday.
England’s keeper missed a stumping against Shan Masood. He also missed a catch against him, a fine nick off the edge, then another catch against Yasir Shah today as England looked to slice through the tail. Missing two chances against the opposition’s top scorer, a man who went through the gears at the end of the innings to take the game further out of England’s reach, was not ideal. Not in the slightest.
With Dom Bess bowling in each scenario, Buttler’s failings have had a demonstrable impact on a young bowler who is learning his craft. The issues that Nathan Lyon experienced, early in his career with Matthew Wade’s below-par keeping damaging his figures, came to mind throughout the innings.
But that’s an intangible. We can speculate on that, but we can’t drill down into hard fact. Can we?
CricViz’s fielding impact measure allows us to calculate the value of any player’s fielding to their side, in runs-per-match. Against pace bowling, Buttler is a perfectly reasonable Test keeper. In his current stint with the gloves, he contributes +5 runs per Test – marginally better than Ben Foakes. However, against spin, it’s a different story.
Since the start of 2018, no wicketkeeper in the world to play in 3+ matches has a worse Fielding Impact when facing spin than Jos Buttler. On average, he costs his side 26 runs per Test.
This is a concern, to say the least. Buttler is, as the incumbent wicketkeeper, looking ahead to a winter in India, and a necessary focus on skills against spin. While his batting against it is a cause for encouragement (an average of 50 since returning to the Test team), his keeping is clearly an issue. If England are going to lay a glove on India’s high quality batting line-up, then the man with the gloves needs to be able to cope with the situation.
The increased scrutiny on Buttler’s work with the gloves is a direct response to his poor work with the bat. A version of Buttler who keeps to an adequate standard, and bats at No.7 as a luxury for some white-ball style thrashing is a desirable and attainable one. England are willing to make that compromise. And yet, recently, his batting hasn’t been keeping up its side of the bargain; since the start of 2019 he is averaging in the mid 20s. To average that low, you need to be a specialist keeper. Buttler is not that.
Which, in many ways, is the issue. Buttler doesn’t fit the mould of Chris Silverwood’s England. Buttler is a leftover, in many ways, from the Trevor Bayliss era, an era defined by aggression and assertiveness. That approach brought England success at home, and very little success away from home. Silverwood has been handed a clear set of aims as England coach, and one of them is to win the Ashes away from home, and to try and generally improve results away from home.
His method to achieve those goals, seemingly, is to recreate England’s golden period, and take Andy Flower as the template. Bat long, bowl dry. At the start of Day Two, England bowled very economically. They controlled the run rate, and they bowled maidens – 12 of them, in total, across the session. In the last three summers, England have only bowled that many maidens in a session on three occasions, all of them in 2020. Their defining innings this summer, from Ben Stokes and Dom Sibley, are the knocks with more leaves than any England batsman since records began. Silverwood’s England want to play cricket in this manner.
Jos Buttler, for all his many qualities, does not embody these values. He may be able to adapt to them – as we saw at times in the West Indies series, Buttler can defend and bat long – but they are not his default setting, his natural game. With the backing of Sibley and Burns in the opening spots, and the lengthening of the tail, England have set their stall out – they will back specialists, getting people with specific skillsets to do specific jobs. Buttler, batting securely at No.7 and keeping wicket, is not a specialist.
At the end of today, Buttler was in the middle with the bat. Ultimately, that is where he will prove his worth, or otherwise. If he makes runs, then his place will not – and should not – come under threat, for now. Batting is, in all but the most extreme case, far more important than wicketkeeping.
The issue for Buttler is that the combination of his record against spin, his poor form with the bat, and the touring schedule, could well make this an extreme case.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.