Oh dear. I can already tell that Ed Smith and I are not going to get along. The selection of Jos Buttler to play as a specialist batsman at No.7 is indefensible if you believe in the county championship. And it’s also indefensible according to Smith’s own evidence-based methodology.
First of all it’s necessary to separate Jos Buttler the T20 batsman and Jos Buttler the test batsman. The former is a brilliant player. He’s one of my all time favourite limited overs batsman and a bit of a genius on his day. Buttler’s white ball game, which is based around a brilliant eye and fast hands, is ideally suited to T20. He’s undoubtedly a world class white ball batsman. As were the likes of Michael Bevan, Graeme Hick, and Neil Fairbrother of course.
Unfortunately however, Jos Buttler the first class batsman is a flawed specimen with a somewhat fallible technique. He’s often too loose outside the off-stump and also vulnerable against the short ball. Fast bowlers tremble when they see Jos Buttler wearing pyjamas. But when he’s wearing whites they’re queuing up to have a bowl. Just ask the Australians who played in the 2015 Ashes.
It’s extremely revealing that Jos has reached 50 or more a massive 31 times in the shortest form of the game, but only reached 50 or more a paltry 24 times in red ball cricket. That’s quite astonishing when you think how much longer he gets to bat in the championship or test cricket. The obvious reason, of course, is that he rarely survives long enough to make big scores.
We keep hearing that Smith is a man who embraces hard evidence; someone who likes statistics to back up his intuition. Well here are some damning stats for you: there are currently 10 keepers in county cricket with superior first class averages to Buttler: Ben Foakes, Tim Ambrose, Alex Davies, James Foster, Steve Davies, Adam Rossington, Chris Cooke, Ben Brown, John Simpson (by a whisker), and Gareth Roderick. Furthermore, this list doesn’t even include Jonny Bairstow and Joe Clarke (who reportedly wants to keep more regularly).
And let’s not forget that Buttler will be playing as a specialist batsman, despite only making four first class hundreds in 99 games and 156 innings. How many specialist batsmen in the country have better records than that? I’m going to suggest the ECB’s favourite round number: a hundred.
Like many people I’ve seen Buttler’s recent efforts in the IPL. He’s been nothing short of phenomenal. But surely someone as shrewd as Ed Smith realises that T20 form is completely irrelevant when it comes to test cricket (otherwise we might as well recall Duckett and Hales). What’s more, surely the last thing England’s test team needs at this time is yet another stroke-player?
The truth is that Ed’s brief should’ve been to identify players who can knuckle down, bat time, and score big hundreds. After all, isn’t that what everyone criticised James Vince (the batsman dropped for Buttler) for? Instead Smith has inexplicably recalled a player with similar flaws. At least Vince finally made a massive century yesterday so he’s in form. Buttler’s hasn’t even played any championship cricket for months. Indeed he rarely plays any at all – which is why he’s probably Lancashire’s third choice first-class keeper behind Dane Vilas and Alex Davies. Would Buttler even get a game for Lancs if he was ever available? I know some Lancs fans think he wouldn’t.
The other thing that irritates me about Buttler’s recall is it insults both the county championship and the players who have done the hard yards in the championship trying to win an England test place. How does one explain Buttler’s inclusion to the likes of Ben Foakes, or even one of the many specialist batsmen currently knocking on the door like Joe Clarke and Liam Livingstone (who was England’s spare batsman in New Zealand)? The latter might not be in the best form but at least he can remember what whites look like.
One wonders – and I hate to be so cynical – whether Buttler’s selection has something to do (whether intentional or not) with making the championship appear increasingly irrelevant at a time when the ECB is prioritising its ridiculous Hundred concept? After all, what’s the point of our domestic first class competition if players win international honours based on form in a foreign T20 slogathon? I bet you Daryl Mitchell and the PCA members aren’t too impressed at Buttler’s inclusion just days after stressing that the county championship is every player’s No.1 priority. If only we could be sure that the board and our new national selector shared the players’ outlook.
I’ve been racking my brain for other explanations for Buttler’s inclusion but I have to admit I’m struggling. Other explanations might even be (a) Ed Smith’s desire to be funky, or (b) the ECB’s desire to include one of its most famous and marketable stars in the test team (money talks etc). However, I can discount the former because picking Jos Buttler isn’t remotely funky; it’s an unoriginal and stale idea that’s been tired before and quickly discarded. As for the latter, let’s see how much the public wants to watch a losing team.
Anyway, I’ve written enough about Buttler. Now he’s in the team we wish him well. He seems like a good lad and it’s not his fault he’s been plucked from India by a man with no plan. Instead lets move onto the other controversial decisions. I won’t write too much about Root moving to three. I believe it’s the wrong decision because Joe averages more the further down the order he goes. I also don’t agree that Malan is a number 4. To me he’s a natural 5 because he’s elegant, plays crisp shots, but doesn’t move his feet too much; therefore I’d feel more and more comfortable the lower he bats.
The other two selections that are somewhat head-scratching are the retention of Mark Stoneman, who I read hasn’t made a score greater than 30 for Surrey this summer, and the left-field selection of Dom Bess. I don’t feel particularly passionate about either of these calls but they’re not the decisions I would have made.
Stoneman is an honest opening batsman. He’s looked ok at times but also been vulnerable against short bowling, which isn’t exactly ideal for an opener. Personally I felt that Rory Burns deserved a chance to shine. Or failing that (and only if he’s worked on his technique since he last played for England) Keaton Jennings. At least recalling the latter might have been justified by his two recent championship hundreds.
When it comes to Bess I have mixed feelings. I like him a lot as a cricketer. In fact, I picked him in my projected Ashes team a few months ago. However, I can’t avoid the fact that he’s taken just one solitary first class wicket this season. I admit the conditions have often favoured the seamers this ‘summer’ but that hasn’t stopped Surrey’s Amar Virdi from putting in several incredibly impressive performances. In fact, Bess has impressed with the bat far more than the ball thus far.
Having said that, there’s no doubting Bess’s class and potential. I’m looking forward to watching him play, even if once again his selection ignores domestic form. But hey, who cares about the championship when you’re an ECB employee? And the more you can give subtle signals that championship cricket is now irrelevant the better.
I’m probably wrong to be this cynical, of course, but that’s how it currently feels. And with everything else that’s going on in English cricket you can hardly blame me. Did you see Colin Graves argue that kids don’t like T20 yesterday? Yes Colin, and the moon is made of cheese and Jos Buttler is England’s test saviour.