England’s advance to the T20 World Cup final is evidence that in an era of data-driven decisions, when eagle-eyed analysts search for even the most distant statistical advantage, there is still a place for simple intuition. And that Jos Buttler’s tends to be on point.
“You can look at numbers till the cows come home really, in this day and age,” England’s captain says. “But I think ‘the feel’ on the day is a really important part of it.”
Buttler’s instincts are proving well honed and, though England’s performances have not always been as overwhelming as in the semi-final against India, his success rate has been impressive.
Against New Zealand, for example, he ripped up England’s bowling plans on a hunch. “I came off having batted and thought Moeen Ali should bowl the first over. I didn’t think that leading into the game,” he said. “It’s important to see what’s in front of you and then trust your instincts.” Moeen had not bowled at all in the tournament; his over went for just four.
England’s last three games, all won, have seen more regular, and more surprising, bowling changes. Moeen says that a key difference between Buttler and his predecessor is that “under Morgs [Eoin Morgan] you had more of a set plan about who was going to bowl”. Chris Woakes says that as a bowler under Buttler “you never know what’s going to happen”.
After a look at the Adelaide Oval pitch before that semi-final Buttler upended England’s plan to bat first if they won the toss. “I think the majority of us were thinking: ‘It’s a great wicket, let’s go out and put a statement out there,’” said England’s coach, Matthew Mott. “And he was really clear. He consulted and then he said: ‘No, I think this is our best chance of winning.’ And it proved a masterstroke.”
Except when he has a bat in his hands, Buttler does not seem an obvious leader. He speaks quietly and lacks the fiery charisma that is evident in Morgan, his close friend and predecessor as white-ball captain. His first weeks in the role, which coincided with a downturn in results and performances, were not exactly encouraging. “The team lost a bit of its mojo and a little bit of its swagger – and that happens when you have changes of leadership at times,” Mott admitted.
But over the course of this tournament, in games and in conversations with those in and around the team, a picture of Buttler’s leadership has started to emerge. It is a combination of match-day improvisation and methodical attention to detail in preparation.
Ben Stokes came into the squad for the World Cup having not played a T20 for England in 18 months and feeling some uncertainty about his position in a very settled side. “When we got here, before we’d even had a training session, he sat me down for five or 10 minutes and just said: ‘This is your role, this is what I want you to do,’” he said. “That 10-minute chat just made me really understand the way in which I can affect the game.”
Chris Jordan’s problem was precisely the opposite: he had played in 72 of England’s 75 T20s between the start of 2016 and the end of this summer, but as the World Cup started – and until Mark Wood’s injury thrust him back into the side for the semi-finals – he found himself on the sidelines.
“The communication was always crystal clear,” he said. “When guys come on as a sub fielder and really have an impact on the game, that goes to show the headspace everyone’s been in. I think one of his greatest strengths is really being in the moment, and thinking outside the box.”
Mott said: “He does a lot of talking to players, one-on-one or in and around training, so there’s clarity on their individual role. Yes, he is very softly spoken, but I think one of the things about Jos is when he speaks, people listen. He doesn’t waste his words, he saves his messages and he’s on point most of the time.”
Buttler may have nearly 20 years of captaincy experience, going back to his days in Somerset’s under-13s, but that still amounts to only 55 games. Morgan, almost exactly four years older, has captained 363 times. The team’s run to Sunday’s final against Pakistan at Melbourne’s MCG, suggests that for all the lost experience there has been no long-term loss of momentum.
“I certainly feel more comfortable in the role as it goes on,” Buttler says. “As frustrating as the summer was in terms of results, I actually learned a lot through that period, with the benefit of having a few months to kind of reflect on things I probably would have done differently. I feel I’m growing into the role day by day.”