If you were told that from 269 for seven, England were able to reach 400, you’d assume Jos Buttler was involved. If you then found out 86 of those 131 runs came in boundaries, well , of course, you’d say to yourself, just what Jos Buttler does. Both true, of course. Both, on this occasion, taking liberty with the truth.
Buttler was part of the rearguard which ensured England’s morning collapse of three for 11, after Ollie Pope (56) and Joe Root (59) ran merry for a century stand which took just 168 deliveries, was not terminal.
A score of 258 for four, with domination on the horizon, turned to 269 for seven through Anrich Nortje’s three wickets in 18 balls. Root was dropped off the 12th before being picked up just before Sam Curran went for a third golden duck of his career. Without that lower order burst, South Africa’s position at stumps of 88 for six would be far more secure than languishing 312 behind with four first innings wickets remaining.
The boundaries, too, ensured the boon of noise that emerged after a disappointing first hour, and grew to levels even the Barmy Army could not conquer, fell flat even with the injection of fresh lager.
Yet for Buttler to take credit for those runs and boundaries would be a bit like Ringo accepting an award on behalf of The Beatles.
The keeper-batsman’s contribution to 400 was just 20. The boundaries in that 86, both fours, were unconvincing. And it was his introduction that breathed life into the partisan contingent at The Wanderers.
The Saturday crowd had come prepared, waiting for his arrival to the crease at 258 for five for delayed retaliation to his tirade against Vernon Philander in the second Test that earned him a demerit point. Those close to the tunnel in the vicinity where Ben Stokes’ bespectacled sledger roamed on day one, unveiled a sign in Afrikaans which read “JOS SE PUSH”. Around 107 minutes later, including the 40 for the lunch break, it was unveiled once more amid the howls around the ground at what might rank as the worst of Buttler’s 66 dismissals in Test cricket.
As soon as the ball left Philander’s hand, Buttler was down the track. Six of the previous eight deliveries from the veteran seamer were dots. And this, seemingly, was going to be anything but.
A miscalculation of the pitch of the ball – Philander was just back of a length to mean the right-hander’s skip was inadequate to manufacture a half-volley – and an unconvincing continuation of the stroke led to Dean Elgar taking a smart catch at point having started his pursuit at cover.
At times like this, in a run where he averages 17.83 in the series, the compulsion is to deal in absolutes with Buttler.
That number, for a start, is inadequate given the stock placed in him. The man expected to provide the cherry on top has sneezed on the cake instead.
As to why Buttler’s in this rut, it is not through a lack of hard work. He trained on Wednesday despite the XI who played at Port Elizabeth being told to take the session off. He is also one of the top-three fittest players in the squad.
He’s also pretty mentally robust: don’t take the admissions of fear at face value. Work with psychologists and sourcing other material has fortified his mind to the rigours of international cricket.
But Buttler does seem stuck between what is expected of him and the reality. Because while he is a limited-overs player of explosive capabilities, he is as his numbers are against the red ball: of six hundreds in 118 first-class innings, one in 40 Tests and, at present, an average of 33 and 32 in those formats respectively.
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At this point it is worth considering whether those who tout Buttler for a spot in the Test XI have got this a little wrong. ODI and T20 cricket, while offering parameters, also come with liberation which is, ultimately, what he thrives on.
It is that liberation which allowed Mark Wood and Stuart Broad to strike 82 from 50 balls; their fifty-stand brought up in 27 balls inside 21 minutes and a new Wanderers record for the 10th wicket ticked off when they reached 72 off 47. The eight sixes between numbers 10 and 11 – over square leg, down the ground and even over extra cover – could all have been taken out of Buttler’s catalogue.
There’s an argument to say that, actually, Buttler is doing just fine. That to average around 30 and, on the rarest of occasions, pull something out of the hat is perfectly fine in a side starting to develop more structure above him in the batting order. You get the sense the England management, for now, agree with this sentiment.
The real twist will come regarding his keeping. He could not quite get to an inside edge from Elgar. Not quite a chance, but when you are in that position and struggling for runs, it becomes another blemish in the notepad and your mind.
Buttler won’t be alone sitting in a dressing room with conflicting feelings. His personal dismay will be a contrast to the team’s glee at taking control of this match. That sentiment is flipped in a downbeat South Africa dressing room where Nortje is nursing a maiden five-wicket haul (five for 110).
There is chatter that Ben Foakes might be given the nod for the Sri Lanka series in March as the superior keeper, and that Jonny Bairstow may be the understudy with a higher ceiling as a batsman than Buttler and able provide adequate cover on two fronts. If this is to be Buttler’s last Test, he will leave all in English cricket with conflicting views – the most talented player of a generation who they expected a little too much from.