It has taken a bit of time to quietly reflect at home, but Jos Buttler thinks he has got to the root of his poor form since the start of 2019. The issue, he reckons, amid a period in which he has averaged 23.32 across 13 Tests, is pretty simple. He has started listening again.
Batting is about getting into your bubble and shutting yourself from the outside influences vying for your concentration. And when you are out of form, it is about doing what you can to carry that bubble into life off the pitch.
This, specifically, is what Buttler has struggled with, and it is most evident when he reflects on two stages of his career: when he was dropped in 2016 after the first 18 of his 40 Tests and his 2018 – the year of his recall – in which he scored 760 runs at 44.70.
“Certainly I was very clear,” he says of the latter. At the time, he had come off the back of a stellar 2018 Indian Premier League with the Rajasthan Royals. His 548 runs had come at a strike rate of 155.24 and the recently appointed national selector Ed Smith, a long-time admirer, decided now was the time to recall the keeper-batsman’s talents.
“I was very clear and committed to how I was going to play. Did it my way. I think a lot of people assume that I’m going to play loads of shots and counter-attack. But trying to actually trust my defence and judgement around off-stump. That’s really where the game in Test cricket is won or lost. I think I did that better [in 2018]”.
One of the key changes in that IPL season was the time spent with Shane Warne. For if there is any player who had to develop two blind eyes to the noise around him, both in the press and among the general public, it was the Australian. If you’ve got a favourite Warne dismissal then there’s every chance you also have a favourite Warne tabloid yarn, too.
Warne’s advice to Buttler was simple. To remember how good he is. But after a tough Ashes series (247 runs at 24.70) and an even rougher go against South Africa (115 at 16.42), the 30-year old admits he lost sight of that way of being. The parallels between when he was dropped and now – he remains part of the Test squad and will travel for the two Tests against Sri Lanka – are clear to him now.
“Maybe if I look back to when I first lost my place in the Test team, I probably listened to too many people,” he says. “You always feel as the individual everyone’s got an opinion on how you should play. If you’re not good with how you manage that you can confuse yourself, which I certainly did four or five years ago.
“Maybe in South Africa, I did that a little bit in terms of after the first game thinking I’m going to come out and counter-attack. When actually, you’ve just got to play the situation in front of you and react best and, as an individual, play how you see best according to that. I maybe didn’t do that as well as I would have liked.”
As ever in life, working out you have a problem is one thing but rectifying is quite another. Because, well, how do you stop listening?
The issue Buttler has is he is a voracious consumer of all sorts of media. Newspapers, books, podcasts and Twitter. They all form part of his downtime, whether killing time or trying to make himself more well-rounded.
“It’s quite hard to stay away from it,” he says. “I enjoy reading about sport, so if I go on to a paper and read about sport, it’s tough to skip past one that says ‘Buttler has done this…’.”
What has helped, which is a sure sign of maturity, is appreciating that he is going to be written about, whether in form as one of the most talented English batsmen of his generation, or out of form as one of the most talented English batsmen of his generation.
And perhaps more importantly, there is also a concession that even in his previous over-consumption, he was doing so for the right reasons.
“What I have done in the past is confuse the goal of always trying to improve and get better and listening to too many people. With ex-players, you can think so-and-so played X number of games, had a good record, he must know. You get drawn into it… chasing information. You can confuse yourself.
“That quest to improve yourself, you have to be skilful in how you process that information. Does it add value, just because it came from him? If Brian Lara said stand on your head to bat, just because Lara said it, it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. That’s a skill that comes with experience.”
His ambition, as it was when he was younger, is to be one of the best multi-format cricketers in the game. And he admits struggling with the lack of change across six months which saw him play 10 Tests – five against Australia, one against New Zealand and four against South Africa – which is one of the longest periods in which he has played nothing but red ball cricket.
Indeed, the opportunity to finish a long South Africa tour with three T20is was “a big relief”, as was the opportunity to play a form of the game where you “go out without as many consequences and you can take more risks”, which does fit his natural disposition.
But with that, he counters that he “can’t think of any times I’ve played well in Test cricket and gone out and been really aggressive in the way I do in the white ball game”.
It may well be variety is key to getting the best out of himself and the prospect of the Sri Lanka tour, another IPL programme as an integral part of the Royals set-up, the summer’s Test engagements with West Indies and Pakistan, The Hundred and of course the men’s Twenty20 World Cup in Australia, will provide that in abundance.
Much work will need to be done between now and then to carry this new-found clarity into his batting when approaching the variety of situations Test cricket throw-up and whether he is to continue at the top of the order in England’s ideal T20 XI or keep to his “usual” international role as a finisher.
He admits selection as a starter for the Sri Lanka series and his role in the shortest format are up to the captain and coach to sort out. And while much will be written about it, none of it will be read by him.
The IPL returns to Sky Sports for the 2020 season where you can watch the Rajasthan Royals’ star English contingent of Jos Buttler, Jofra Archer, Ben Stokes and Tom Curran.