Monday, May 20, 2024

Jos Buttler should be considered a true great – but might not be

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Those playing now and in the future for South Africa, New Zealand, Pakistan, West Indies and Sri Lanka will not play the amount of Test cricket of their predecessors because the economic realities of the sport (and what the public wants) forces their boards to play T20 and organise franchise leagues.

It does not mean the current and next generation of players are any less talented than the ones that went before them, it is just that their skills are channelled and challenged in a different way. They will not have to face a barrage of bouncers from four West Indian fast bowlers, work out how to bowl to Don Bradman or keep out Shane Warne. But they will have to hit their first ball for six, and keep on doing it, while bowlers will evolve their skills to survive such onslaughts and succeed in death overs, winning tense games with million-dollar contracts riding on the outcomes.

Should those players be judged differently and do we need to think about how we reflect on English players too? Look at Jos Buttler. He is 33 and it is not inconceivable that he will retire from international cricket soon, becoming full-time on the franchise circuit. How will he be regarded? I would argue he ticks the requirements for being ranked among the best England for what he achieved in white-ball cricket, yet he never really succeeded at Test level which is why I expect most readers will disagree.

He was instrumental in World Cup wins in 50-over and T20 cricket. His explosive finishing was crucial in Eoin Morgan’s team, his 360-degree innovative batting a revelation in a side that, before 2015, was suspicious of those trying to be different. Young emerging players cite him as an inspiration. He curbed his attacking instincts to partner Ben Stokes in the 2019 World Cup final, hitting the last ball of the Super Over for four to set up one of the most remarkable days in English cricket history.

He is the first Englishman to really succeed over a period of time in the IPL. This season he is the only batsman to score two hundreds in the competition. He has seven in all in IPL cricket. Only Virat Kohli has more (eight) and he has played nearly 140 more IPL games. Buttler’s strike rate in ODI cricket is 171, way in excess of any other England player, and scored more T20 runs for his country at a quicker rate than any player with more than 25 caps.

His last Test match was on the troubled Ashes tour of 2021-22 when he dropped catches in Adelaide and was worn down by the stresses of the format. He was never really suited to a team which at that time placed emphasis on grinding out big totals. You feel the Bazball era would have unlocked the door but, by the time Brendon McCullum and Stokes started their rebuild, it had been decided that Buttler would concentrate on his white-ball captaincy.

But this is not really about Buttler. It is intended to debate how we reflect on great players. The changes in other parts of the world will reach English cricket too over the course of the next generation. Shorter formats will be played more and the kind of numbers posted by Anderson or Joe Root and Alastair Cook in Test cricket will become impossible to match, a little bit like the bowling and batting records set pre-war in first-class cricket by Jack Hobbs and Wilfred Rhodes.

I’ve had this discussion already with younger colleagues who are in no doubt the T20 records of Kieron Pollard and Sunil Narine should be ranked with those by other West Indians in Test cricket. I can’t say I agreed, but as Test cricket becomes increasingly a sport played by three countries, and others fitting it in when they can around franchise leagues, they are probably on to something. It is not the end of an era with Anderson but it feels like how we evaluate cricketers will have changed by the time those books about him are written in 50 or 60 years’ time.

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