A rand for Jos Buttler’s thoughts as Mark Wood and Stuart Broad were clouting South Africa’s bowlers around Johannesburg? The invigorating final-wicket stand of 82 contained the kind of pyrotechnics we have become accustomed to from Buttler in white-ball cricket. Cross formats, though, and England’s Test wicketkeeper looks as sorry as a soggy Catherine wheel.
It was not always this way; Buttler was deemed a triumph of a selection after he received an unexpected Test recall in May 2018. That pick, a ballsy initial calculation by the national selector, Ed Smith, in his first summer in the job, was followed by a good series against India as a specialist No 7 batsman.
Buttler hit three fifty-plus scores, including a maiden Test century at Trent Bridge, to help England hammer the world’s No 1-ranked team 4-1. Even then, though, his numbers – 349 runs across five Tests at an average of 38.77 – were not off the charts.
This was still a promising start to his second chapter as a Test cricketer. Things have changed markedly since. Buttler’s numbers since he was handed back the wicketkeeping gloves on a permanent basis from Jonny Bairstow at the start of the winter are pitiful.
His average in five Tests stands at 18.75. In this series against South Africa it is even worse at 17.83.
Joe Denly, another player widely deemed to be struggling at Test level and fighting for his place, is averaging 33.66.
Buttler’s latest failure on the second day of this fourth Test was a scratchy 20 from 43 balls that ended with a wild swipe at Vernon Philander and a catch in the covers. He was at least dismissed trying to play on the offensive – his natural game. This, though, looked like the act of a player who is mentally shot.
The exertions of last summer’s World Cup win, a triumph Buttler played a key role in achieving, are obviously still affecting him.
A Test batting average of 22.05 since then is clearly not good enough. The experiment should be shelved.
In 41 Tests over the past five and half years he averages 32.10 with that hundred at Trent Bridge two summers ago his sole three-figure score in this format.
Here in South Africa his sequence reads: 12, 22, 29, 23, 1, 20. Even if he somehow bucks that trend in England’s second innings at the Wanderers, the decision should be the same.
It is probably fair to assume things are getting pretty bad form-wise when a player is getting called out on Twitter by Nick Compton.
The former England batsman, who boasts a Test average of 28.70, said: “Jos is a fantastic cricketer and bloke but how he plays ahead of [Jonny] Bairstow in Test cricket is nothing more than considerably bizarre and has been a complete waste of time. Class over clique! Get Bairstow back in make him the main man and you’ll see a world class player! #simple.”
Compton’s call for Bairstow to regain the gloves is one option available to England, although Smith’s insistence that the Yorkshireman was dropped at the end of last summer so he could ‘reset’ and concentrate on being a specialist batsman suggests he may not get the nod.
The sensible call would be to bring Ben Foakes back into the fold. The Surrey wicketkeeper is widely regarded as the best gloveman in the country and was man of the series the last time England went to Sri Lanka in late 2018.
With England’s next Test assignment a two-match series back there in March, Foakes should surely be recalled?
On slow pitches where spin dominates, England will need the best keeper available to them. Foakes is that man.
Forget the fact he had an ordinary season with the bat for Surrey last summer, averaging 26.14.
This is a player who scored a hundred on his debut at Galle and averages 41.50 in Test cricket, albeit from a small sample size of five matches.
Temperament is something that cannot be taught, though, and it is a quality Foakes has in abundance. Remember the one-day international against Ireland at Malahide last May?
It was Jofra Archer’s first game for England but also Foakes’ ODI debut. The 26-year-old was named man of the match after he made an unbeaten 61 to lead an under-strength team to a four-wicket win.
For Buttler, to borrow a phrase from Smith, this is the time to ‘reset’ and concentrate on white-ball cricket. He will be England’s key man come this autumn’s T20 World Cup in Australia.
He is arguably the best short-form batsman in the world. He has a lot still to offer his country, just not in Test cricket.