“White-ball cricket heralded an age of fearlessness, power and innovation and those who could not keep up were left behind,” read a powerful line from Freddie Wilde and Tim Wigmore’s book, Cricket 2.0:Inside the T20 Revolution.
It asked the batters to be more willing to take the risk, be more powerful, intelligent and yet find a way to mince the ball into the gaps. The growing demands of white-ball cricket asked for innovation, which would go on to define the best of cricketers. But being innovative is one, being consistent is another and then there is an elite group of cricketers: innovative and consistent.
One of South Africa’s all-time greats, AB de Villiers fell into that elite category, in fact for the longest time, even spearheaded this elite group of cricketers in the shortest format. But England’s very own Jos Buttler is not just challenging it but is on his way to surpassing de Villiers and his most powerful skill: versatility and visualisation.
A large chunk of de Villiers’ T20 cricket required him to take the risks, clear the boundaries and find gaps that only previously existed on the paper. It wasn’t common that batters accessed the third-man region, the short fine-leg region to score runs but once de Villiers did that, batters followed; some succeeded while most others failed. It is what made the South African one of the best white-ball batters, if not the best.
It wasn’t until his stint with Somerset, when Jos Buttler sharpened his wits with the bat, combining the skills from the other sports that he had played as a child, including hockey and squash, which powered him to learn the ramp shot. Unlike other modern-day greats, Buttler’s athletic abilities were a concoction of skills that he had developed via other sports, with a constant urge to be better.
Buttler’s rise as a T20 batter
As primarily a middle-order batter, who was so used to finishing innings, the wicket-keeper batsman had a few skills to sharpen: tackling the yorker, wide yorker and everything that was out of the reach usually. And he went unrestricted, during his time with Somerset, where he made it a habit to get the better off Alfonso Thomas, who was then one of the most feared bowlers at the death.
With bowlers growing more and more tenacious, precise and lethal with their plans, Buttler had to improvise, at the highest level, after his first ramp shot during his early days. He had to access boundaries via the ramp, paddle scoop, switch-hits, reverse switch-hits.
“I used to put myself under pressure. After normal practice I would take Buttler down to the nets and I would bowl yorkers at him and tell him I am only bowling yorkers for the next 24 balls. And this is my field. After two or three balls the two of us would have a chat and see what works,” said Thomas in the book Cricket 2.0.
Even in the middle-order, Buttler was always a ‘freak’, he always possessed the skills and tools to succeed in the shorter formats. But what made him unique was the urge to constantly up the bowlers, improving on his range of shots. Most of the English batter’s success is around the mind game that he plays with the bowler.
It all starts in Buttler's head
And in modern cricket, there are two ways to go around disturbing a bowler’s mindset: shuffle and range. At the crease, the English international is very calm, a shake of his shoulder, a dominant right-eye, a slight turn of the eye and a shimmer down the track. The result: nonchalantly clears the boundaries.
Buttler possesses both: a mean shuffle and an unparalleled range that he could access, because of how still his head is at the bowler’s release point. Yorker was supposed to be bowler’s go-to-delivery when put under the pump but the English batsman went one up on several bowlers.
He improvised on his hitting range, which now extended to behind the wicketkeeper, in the third-man region and over the fine-leg fielder, countering the yorkers with ease, putting the fielding skipper under tremendous pressure.
How do you spot his movement as a bowler? You don’t! Not until you are almost delivering the ball, with the English batter’s left foot moving away from leg-stump, clearing his way to scoop the ball behind. But the most vital aspect of Buttler’s entire method to the madness is his ability to visualize the delivery. Most of his shots are visualised at least five seconds before the bowler even delivers the ball.
What makes Buttler the smartest white-ball batter is how he perceives the game and does the thinking miles before any of it boils down to execution. In a format that requires the batters to clear the boundary, usually long and clear, Buttler has a different method: to clear the boundary with minimal flight but coming with the benefit of having utmost control over his shots.
Why is Buttler hailed as a white-ball great?
Unlike de Villiers, Buttler is spearheaded as one of the white-ball greats, thanks to his skill and adaptability. Several batters have in the past, batted at numerous positions at the top of the order but none with the level of consistency and aggression that the English batter possesses. Against the new ball, the major threat for the right-hander is the ball coming into the pads, swinging late away from the bat but with Buttler, he negates those with ease, with his feet movement.
“The IPL experience is an invaluable one to learn and play against the best players in the world in those situations. I’ve learned a lot about myself and how to get the best out of myself,” Buttler said in the same book.
May 2, 2018, a rain-curtailed fixture in Delhi, Rajasthan Royals found themselves in a fix, needing to mow down 151 runs in 12 overs. And what do they do? Promote Buttler to the top of the order. In what can be called an instant success, the English wicketkeeper smashed a 26-ball 67 that gave the franchise a great headstart before they fluffed the line. That’s where his success can be more than what can be measured: his ability to adapt instantly to the situation and the sheer flexibility to bat anywhere in the top six.
He continued in his role for the franchise, scoring 361 runs in the next five innings, at a strike-rate of 155.60: that sums Buttler perfectly; aggression marries consistency. In the next three years, Buttler averages 45.55 with the bat at the top, at a menacing strike-rate of 149.5, with only Mohammad Rizwan, KL Rahul and Babar Azam averaging more than the English batter in T20 cricket.
No other opener in the top-ten openers since 2018 has a better strike rate than the English keeper-batsman. Unlike other openers, Buttler is a threatening batsman across the phases, with a strike rate of 149.21 in the powerplay, 148.33 in the middle-overs and 176.23 at the death. Only Hales (3.6) and Sunil Narine (3.8) have a better ball/boundary ratio than Buttler (4).
On the T20Is front, Buttler has the second-best average in the powerplay (62), only behind Mohammad Rizwan (73) but at a far superior strike-rate of 152.9, compared to the Pakistani opener’s 119. His ability to adapt, improvise and overcome has what has resulted in England’s prolonged success in the shortest format of the game.
The wave of greatness: Buttler’s dominance in T20 World Cup
In a bid to improve his legacy, Buttler didn’t stop wasting one moment, the game against Sri Lanka defined the smart, gritty, agile version of the English opener while the game against Australia, showed the flashy, aggressive and all-out attack version of him. The result arguably was the same: England were dominant in both wins.
“So good that even the Aussies applauded,” was what BBC had headlined its copy after Buttler’s match-winning knock against Sri Lanka in the Super 12 stage of the 2021 T20 World Cup. First, some context, prior to this clash, Buttler had swept past Australia, with a 32-ball 72, including multiple maximums against Adam Zampa, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins. He ended the innings with a strike-rate of 221.87 - the best strike-rate for an opener in the shortest format in an unbeaten knock.
Being put to bat first, on a tough and nutty track in Sharjah, Buttler delivered the goods, in prime fashion. His first T20I century, in the footsteps of his first T20 century, also came in similar conditions. Against one of his tougher match-ups, in off-spin, Buttler negotiated the threat with caution, scoring his fifty off just 45 balls, his slowest fifty in the format before plummeting his next 50 off just 22 deliveries. It was a knock of the highest quality and in the aftermath of his knock, Buttler had just a few words to say.
"I remember saying a while ago that if I could put both parts of my game together, from opening and being in the middle order, then I'd be getting in a really good place with my T20 batting,” said Buttler and that is exactly what he is doing right now.
“F*** it,” are two words that are engraved in black pen at the top of Buttler’s bats but with the way he is batting, it won’t be too much time before it turns into “F*** you,” to the other batters.
*All stats are updated as of November 10