Originally published in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2019, Tim de Lisle profiles England’s Jos Buttler – one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year.
Cricket is a game of a thousand swearwords. Most are routine outbursts of frustration or antagonism, instantly forgotten. Hardly any are written down – which makes this one more distinctive. Inked on the end of a bat handle, it sits on the parallel lines like notes on a sheet of music. It says, in full: “Fuck it”.
It is England’s most significant expletive since Mike Gatting addressed Shakoor Rana in 1987. That was a hand grenade, whereas this is a note to self. It was made famous by a cameraman during the Headingley Test, as Jos Buttler’s bat leaned on his helmet. “It’s just something that reminds me of my best mindset, when I’m playing cricket, and probably in life as well,” he said. “It puts cricket in perspective: when you nick off, does it really matter?”
For Buttler, 2018 was one purple patch after another. Opening for Rajasthan Royals, he equalled Virender Sehwag’s IPL record of five successive fifties. Summoned from the Test wilderness by Ed Smith, he kept turning the tide with a judicious sixty. Facing Australia’s depleted white-ball teams, he racked up 336 for three times out. From his Test recall to England’s triumph in Sri Lanka, he reached fifty 13 times in 32 international innings. Two things had been glaringly absent from his glittering record: a Test century, and consistency. In 2018, he achieved both, while still emptying bars.
Buttler finished the year starring for Sydney Thunder. He and his wife, Louise, pregnant with their first child, shared a house with Joe, Carrie and Alfie Root. “It’s a bit more real living in a house,” Buttler says. “In the England squad, there’s lots of friendships, so it’s nice to live together in a new city.”
Ed Smith’s England often seem to be playing 15-a-side, yet nobody wears more hats than Buttler, who doesn’t even bowl. In 50-over cricket, he’s a lethal finisher, racing along at 116 runs per hundred balls, polishing the scoop and the ramp, making Botham and Flintoff look like amateurs. In Twenty20, he’s a swashbuckling opener. In Tests, he’s the adult clearing up the mess when England collapse. In white-ball games, he’s the wicketkeeper. In every format, he’s the vice-captain, valued by two very different bosses – the buccaneering Eoin Morgan, the more tentative Root.
JOSEPH CHARLES BUTTLER was born in Taunton on September 8, 1990, and grew up in the village of Wedmore. The sporting gods gave him a phenomenal eye, big hands, whippy wrists, and older siblings. His cricket began in the back garden with James, seven years his elder. “I’d be the annoying younger brother,” says Jos, who tends to see others’ point of view. At Cheddar CC, his Under-13 coach was his mother, Patricia. “It was a bit embarrassing sometimes, my mum telling me what to do,” he once said. “She would inevitably ask why I played that silly shot. She still does.”
When Jos was eight, the World Cup came to Taunton. He was riveted as Ganguly and Dravid put on 318 for India against Sri Lanka. “Watching these guys smashing Murali into the river,” he has said, “was probably my earliest fanboy moment.” It may have been the best thing that happened to England in the tournament. At nine, he was Somerset Under-13 tennis champion. He had offers of sports scholarships from King’s College, Taunton, and Millfield. His parents chose King’s, further from Wedmore but closer to the county ground. Jos was amazed to find the school allowed him to net at lunchtime. In 2008, riled by missing out on a Somerset contract, he made 227 in an opening stand of 340 with Alex Barrow. In 2010, he was the Wisden Schools Cricketer of the Year. “I looked up who else had won it, Jonny Bairstow and James Taylor, and thought: ‘These guys are on the path I want to be on.’”
By then, he had already tasted T20 in India, when Somerset reached the Champions League. After making his name with some white-ball fireworks, he played T20 cricket for England at the age of 20, ODIs at 21, and Tests at 23. His Test career started serenely against M. S. Dhoni’s Indians in 2014, then stalled in the following summer’s Ashes. “Until the last year,” he says, “I never understood my red-ball game. I’m desperate to reach my potential.” His 106 in the Trent Bridge Test against India, his 194th international innings, was the first of at least 150 balls. The man who had twice broken the record for England’s fastest one-day hundred had discovered his inner classicist.
A few months earlier, Buttler was playing in any colour, as long as it wasn’t white: the blue and orange of England, the red of Lancashire, the green of Sydney Thunder, the blue of Rajasthan Royals, the red of Comilla Victorians. He was starring in his own show, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Kit. But he was a Test exile. James Whitaker’s selection panel placed more faith in Tom Westley, James Vince and Dawid Malan. Buttler could have given up red-ball, like his friend Alex Hales; instead, he earmarked August 2018 as the time to make some Championship runs for Lancashire.
That never happened because he sailed back into Test cricket, propelled by the four winds: his IPL form, an Ashes drubbing, Ed Smith’s lateral thinking, and a prod from Shane Warne, the Royals’ official mentor. “He had a big influence,” Buttler says. “You start off in awe of him, but we really clicked, whether it was on the bus or at the bar. He said: ‘Test cricket should still be your aim.’ That gave me confidence. He’s an incredible cricket brain to learn from. You pinch yourself: I’m talking to Shane Warne about cricket!”
Rumours of the death of players talking shop may have been exaggerated. “One of England’s strengths,” he reckons, “is that everyone talks about cricket.” And, among the franchises, “cricket is the common interest”. Buttler, who used to suffer from nerves, now seems calm. “I’ve got a deep-down desire to win, but I try and enjoy having a clear head.” He mentions two role models, Dhoni and Morgan: “They always look in control. You don’t often make the right decision if you’re not calm.”
Buttler’s superpower, though, is creativity. In Sri Lanka, he changed his game more in a week – sweeping everything in Pallekele, using his feet to straight-drive in Colombo – than Alastair Cook had in 12 years. “I always want to try every shot,” he says. “That’s one of the fun parts of practice, trying to learn new skills.” His favourite stroke is “probably the ramp”. Because it’s the trickiest? “No – because it’s effective. There’s never a fielder behind the wicketkeeper. Even if you don’t play it, the bowler is factoring in that you might.” There he goes again: seeing the other point of view.