When Jos Buttler arrived at the crease with England wobbling and in danger of succumbing meekly in the second innings of the third Test against Sri Lanka last week he had one thing on his mind.
His side may have been 39-4, just 135 runs ahead, on day three in Colombo and the hosts’ spinners may have had their tails up on a turning wicket, but Buttler wasn’t fazed.
“Trying to wrestle back momentum,” he answered when asked later what he was thinking about. “The new ball seems to be a tricky place to bat against spin with some skidding on and some spinning. We’ve talked about playing in a brave way, looking to score, being busy, trying to get them off their lengths being the best way to go.”
In the previous Test in Kandy Buttler scored the vast majority of his 97 runs across both innings through sweeps and reverse-sweeps. But one game later he looked a different batsman, frequently using his feet to come down the wicket to spinners.
His strategy worked. He scored 64 runs from 79 balls, putting on a partnership of 89 with Ben Stokes as England recovered to set Sri Lanka a record 327 to win.
With four England centuries scored by others across the series Buttler’s wasn’t the side’s stand-out innings, but it was a perfect distillation of how they’ve instigated a collective revival this year.
It was an innings which showed England’s newly-acquired tactics under the leadership of captain Joe Root and coach Trevor Bayliss based on confidence, flexibility and counter-attacking.
It is a mantra which has bled into the Test side from Eoin Morgan’s all-conquering one-day team, and which Buttler embodies better than anyone. And yet back in May Buttler was in the wilderness, a white-ball stalwart who had not played with the red variety for eight months.
England owe Buttler’s impact to national selector Ed Smith, who made the brave call to ditch tradition and pick a player on the back of a stint in the Indian Premier League.
Announcing his decision for the opening Test against Pakistan, Smith spoke of Buttler as a “destructive batsman”, “fantastic competitive presence” and “dynamic athlete”, who possessed “unique gifts” and “innate leadership skills”.
It sounded hyperbolic at the time, but it is certainly reflected in the truth now.
Buttler has enjoyed a brilliant 2018 and his reintegration now looks a masterstroke by Smith, who had only started his role as selector a month previously.
The 28-year-old has scored 760 runs this year – the fourth most of any batsman in the world – and has passed 50 on seven occasions in 10 Tests. He has transferred his idiosyncratic style over into the Test arena expertly, scoring at a strike-rate of 68 runs per 100 balls – the highest of any of the top 35 batsmen in world cricket this year.
We’ve seen Sam Curran, Ben Foakes, Adil Rashid and more come to the fore for England in 2018, but Buttler’s triumphant return to Test cricket after 17 months out has been the ultimate success story.
He may be England’s second-most prolific run-scorer this year, behind Root – who has played six more innings – but it is more the way Buttler has scored the runs which has been so influential. The softly-spoken right-hander was installed as vice-captain, bringing with him a truly modern mind.
Having made his name primarily as an inventive, destructive shorter format player, Buttler is used to thinking quickly and outside of the box. He has improved his defence, but largely he is scoring Test runs the same way he does in other formats.
In doing so successfully he has carried others along with him. Imbued with the spirit of the one-day side England are now pushing new boundaries in Tests. Buttler has helped propel that gradual shift and in the process could have set new trends in batsmanship.
“I’ve really enjoyed playing Test cricket again,” he said last week. “It wasn’t on my radar at the start of the summer.” Now firmly back in business, other batsmen may be have their radars trained on learning from the most exciting player in world cricket.