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One day a book will be written about the crazy world of cricket administration in the early 21st century. A fair chunk of it will be devoted to the domestic scene in England, where the men in suits seriously expect fans to follow four different formats at the same time – and the poor old players are like the staff of a 24-hour supermarket.
One chapter could home in on a single month in the life of England’s players: July 2022. A month when they were required to play a deciding Test against one of cricket’s superpowers, India, followed by four white-ball series in 25 days. A series a week! Lunacy, thy name is ECB.
An overstuffed schedule is like long Covid, a malaise with tentacles. This particular idiocy – not all the board’s fault, as it was partly a knock-on from India flouncing out of that fifth Test last year – led Ben Stokes to retire from 50-over internationals. The man who did most to win the World Cup for England, after Eoin Morgan, won’t be there to defend it.
It also gave Jos Buttler a nightmare start as England’s white-ball captain following Morgan’s abrupt retirement. Those four series in 25 days were Buttler’s first four as official captain. The thing about a baptism of fire is that you only have to face it once. Buttler – along with Matthew Mott, the new coach, who had only come up against the Netherlands – had to get through four of them. No wonder he lost three series and drew the other one.
In a tight corner like that, you need your big guns firing. Buttler had to manage without England’s top four one-day international bowlers – Chris Woakes, Jofra Archer, Mark Wood (all injured) and Adil Rashid (on leave for the first six games, making a pilgrimage to Mecca). Reece Topley rose to the challenge so well that he may well keep his place even when Woakes and Wood return, but the other seamers, bar Chris Jordan, looked like the second-stringers they are.
The batting was powerful on paper, with a reunion of the so-called fab five – Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root, Stokes and Buttler. But three of them (the middle three) were knackered from playing four Tests in five weeks. Stokes’s style of play is sheer electricity, which burns a lot of fuel. The one-day specialists, Roy and Buttler, struggled too, on sticky pitches. And here Buttler, who deserves every sympathy on most of these fronts, made two miscalculations.
One was his handling of Roy, so out of form it was painful to watch. This was like when Roy played his only Test series, the 2019 Ashes. He was all bottom hand, timing the ball so badly that his opponents may well have wanted to keep him in. Even his strike rate went to pieces, plummeting from 130 to 80.
Roy was doing all he could to be dropped and England had a ready-made replacement in Phil Salt. But Buttler opted to show faith, even when it was clearly of the blind variety. There will be advantages to that, as others feel more secure when they have a bad trot. And it’s great that we have moved on from the bad old days of Alec Bedser and two-flops-and-you’re-out. But this wasn’t doing the team, or Roy, any good.
Stokes and Brendon McCullum are taking the same approach with Zak Crawley in the Test side. He at least isn’t painful to watch: a Crawley innings is lovely while it lasts, which is usually around half an hour. And he did make a vital 46 in his last Test knock, laying the platform for Bairstow’s latest rip-roaring run chase. But the bottom line is that Crawley is unlikely to make it as a Test opener because he keeps steering the seamer’s stock ball to second slip.
Buttler’s other mis-step was something that often trips up a captain: his handling of himself. He opted to carry on opening the batting for the Twenty20 team. And why not, you may ask – as an opener for Rajasthan Royals, he’s a superstar. Yes, but he’s not the captain there. He’s not even the keeper. And doing all three jobs well is almost impossible.
Just ask Alec Stewart, who tried it for England in 1998-99. In 20 games as captain-keeper-opener, culminating in a calamitous World Cup, Stewart averaged only 18 rather than his usual 40. He was often fluent, especially batting second, when his eye was already in and he’d got the measure of the pitch. But he seldom lasted long, because he needed a breather. Exactly the same thing kept happening to Buttler last month. When England needed a captain’s innings, he could offer only a cameo.
In Stewart’s time there wasn’t another English keeper who could score fast. These days there are three – Bairstow, Sam Billings and Salt (who keeps for Manchester Originals, ahead of Buttler, his captain there). It’s blindingly obvious that the roles need sharing out: Bairstow has to open, or keep, or both, freeing Buttler to be the boss and either an explosive opener or, more realistically, an expert finisher – like MS Dhoni with added smiles.
Even a decade into their careers, with a World Cup winner’s medal on each man’s mantelpiece, there’s still a whiff of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard about Buttler and Bairstow. In another 10 years’ time, they’ll probably be managing mid-table counties.