Jos Buttler pauses as he ponders the best word to describe the way he was recalled from a long Test exile nine months ago. He had just got off the plane after a record-breaking batting stint in the Indian Premier League when he was told.
He had not even played a Championship game when the phone rang. ‘It was very…’ he says, a smile spreading over his face as he settles on the word, ‘un-English’.
That is the thing about Buttler, though. There is something very un-English about him. Not in the quiet, calm, diplomatic way in which he talks, not in the trace of the gentle West Country accent that soothes his speech and not in the modesty he always displays. But in the way he plays cricket.
Jos Buttler was recalled by the England Test squad last year after a lengthy exile
He spoke to Sportsmail’s Oliver Holt about his views on how cricket could change for good
He is a product of the age. English cricket, for so long wary of innovation and change, is suddenly giddy with the ways in which it might break free from its shackles. Buttler is the personification of the modern cricketer’s dash for liberation and expression.
Nearly six weeks into a year when World Cup fever will be focused on Lord’s and when the Australians, disgraced and diminished, will arrive to try to defend the Ashes, the prospect of sporting immortality looms ahead of Buttler as he sits in the foyer of England’s team hotel in St Lucia.
In an era that values the spectacular above all else, when younger fans prize fleeting, explosive moments above stubbornly-earned glories, Buttler is English cricket’s first new-age superstar, a player whose breathtakingly audacious ramp shots go viral on social media, a batsman whose aggression at the crease is so daring it crosses over into the wider public consciousness and extends cricket’s audience.
Buttler is a gentle man who speaks calmly and quietly but, when he has a bat in his hand, he is capable of stretching the boundaries of his sport.
He is an innovator with his batting, his ramp shot is a particularly eye-catching part of his game
He is Neymar bamboozling a defender with a rainbow flick. He is Nick Kyrgios hitting a winner with a tweener. He is Antonin Panenka with a dinked penalty, Odell Beckham Jnr with a one-handed catch, Sugar Ray Leonard with a bolo punch as a feint, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with a dunk, Sonny Bill Williams with a back-handed offload.
‘That’s one of the best bits about cricket,’ says Buttler.
‘The exploration side, playing around, experimenting in the nets. It feels like a great time for innovation in cricket. In any walk of life, people love new things. There will be sceptics and there will be guys who love it.
‘Innovation grabs the attention. You go back through the history of cricket and there are certain moments in time that grab you. Kevin Pietersen’s flamingo shot was one of those.
‘I had heard coaches talking about it and then this guy’s just played this shot to Glenn McGrath and you think: “Oh my God, this guy’s incredible”. Some players are ahead of their time.
‘The demographic of the cricket fan at the moment means we need to engage more with younger fans. The world changes and we need to learn to adapt with that.
‘Jason Roy took an incredible catch in the Bangladesh Premier League recently and it’s that kind of thing that captures the public imagination. I watched that and thought it was incredible.
‘Jonty Rhodes used to have that effect on me. I would watch him field and then go and fling myself around the garden pretending I was him. Making it cool is what you want.
‘Cricket has a stigma of old men in white clothes playing cricket but readdressing that image to people who aren’t necessarily cricket lovers may go some way to making it cooler.
‘The Hundred has had a lot of criticism already but why can’t it be cool? When there is change, there are always sceptics who think it won’t work. I am sure someone at some point thought the iPhone wouldn’t take off. It’s going to be exciting and different and it will create talking points.’
South Africa’s former fielding sensation Jonty Rhodes was an inspiration to Buttler growing up
It is only right that a player with Buttler’s lavish talent should find himself at the heart of both English cricket’s grand designs as they unfold in the months ahead and he and his one-day team-mates try to become the first England team to lift the World Cup before moving on to attempt to wrest back the Ashes in the embers of what could be a golden summer to rival any that has gone before.
Buttler, 28, is one of the key players in England’s ODI team which will go into the World Cup as favourites and, after he was recalled to the Test side in May, he became England’s leading run-scorer in the series against Pakistan and India and the second-highest in the triumph in Sri Lanka. His fortunes have dipped briefly in the West Indies but he is hardly alone in that in this England team.
The third Test began here at the Daren Sammy National Cricket Ground on Saturday and Buttler acknowledges that defeat in the Caribbean has changed the tone of anticipation for what lies ahead.
He is also aware that the team’s performance has reopened the debate about whether the long and short forms of the game are incompatible for those, like him, who are trying to master both.
There is an ideological war between traditionalists and innovators in cricket that even in good times lies close to the surface of the English game.
In bad times, such as the Test series loss to the West Indies that was confirmed by defeat in Antigua last week, players who embody change, adventure and free spirit of experimentation are shackled and paraded before us as fifth columnists.
If there was one central theme that emerged in the dissection of why England failed so miserably in a Test series they were expected to win easily, it was that their hopes had been undermined by an emptiness that had infiltrated their core and that this emptiness was a direct product of too much collaboration with and enthusiasm for, limited-overs cricket.
‘England are learning that a focus on Mickey Mouse white-ball cricket means you produce Mickey Mouse cricketers,’ Simon Heffer, the historian and political columnist, wrote.
The former England captain, Michael Vaughan, mined the same seam. ‘I don’t think we are prepared to bat ugly,’ he argued. ‘England’s batsmen want to look pretty.’
Buttler, England’s vice-captain, listens to these theories that he and his team-mates have been so seduced by the quick rewards and grand gestures of limited-overs cricket that their mentalities have become as flimsy as the straw canopies of the beach umbrellas he can see beyond the hotel gardens on the sands of Rodney Bay. He smiles and dismisses them.
The Lancashire wicketkeeper-batsman is a vital part of all three formats for this England team
Buttler hits a four on the first day of the final Test at the Daren Sammy National Cricket Ground
England’s No 5 raises his bat after bringing up his half century in St Lucia on Saturday
‘I think that’s unfair,’ says Buttler. ‘When you look at the best players in the world, they can play all the formats. I don’t think it’s an easy thing to do and that’s why they’re the best players in the world.
‘We have done some really good things in the past couple of years in terms of playing in a bold manner and we have been praised for them. We have played on lots of result wickets so sometimes the best way has been to be bold and counter-attack.
‘There are obvious ways we need to improve as a side and these two really poor performances highlight that. It is a psychological leap from one form of the game to the other. It is almost trying to brainwash yourself each time to say: “Right, I am now playing in a Test match and this is the game I need to bring”.
‘It is not possible to play red-ball cricket in a full-on white ball style. If it were, people would have been doing it for years. I have to try and play according to situations. In one of the Tests in Sri Lanka, I got 60 odd, hit 24 singles and only hit two or three fours.’
Buttler, who shared England’s first century partnership of the tour with Ben Stokes on the first day of the Third Test on Saturday and was unbeaten on 67 at stumps, is a pathfinder, a man whose signature flourish in the white ball game is dancing into the path of a delivery as it hurtles towards him and helping it on its way with a deft scoop beyond the wicketkeeper, and sometimes beyond fine leg, that has become known as the ramp shot.
Innovation in the sport fascinates him, partly because he thinks it is crucial to its future. He has become a student of it.
Tillakaratne Dilshan was one of the pioneers of T20 cricket and invented the ‘Dilscoop’
Those shots are 100 per cent premeditated,’ he says. ‘It is not a complete gamble. You are looking around a field to try to get a feel of which particular ball a bowler is going to bowl.
‘You are always working out when the odds are in your favour to make these more expansive shots. Eoin Morgan likes to use his feet to seam bowlers to hit the ball over the top but it’s not a wild punt. The odds are generally in his favour. The bowler is looking to hit a length at that stage of the game so you know the ball should be in a certain area.
‘You do your research. You come to understand this bowler generally likes to go for a yorker at a certain point. When you play a ramp shot, you are taking a punt but it is a well thought-out punt. The biggest thing is the commitment to it. You have to be 100 per cent committed to it. You are running mathematical equations in your mind. You are always trying to process information. Gather information.
‘I have never played a ramp shot in Test cricket. It probably won’t happen. There may be a time in a game but you are trying to evaluate risk and decision making and the risk’s not worth it in a Test match.
‘Your attitude to risk is a bit different when a game lasts for five days. Your wicket is not as valuable when you are playing in Twenty20 or a one-day game as it is in a five-day game.
‘I watched Tillakaratne Dilshan do it first in that T20 World Cup where he would get down and scoop it over his head. I was never quite brave enough to do it that way. You are starting to see guys use their wrists a lot more. You watch Virat Kohli, his wrist work is amazing. Glenn Maxwell is the same. AB De Villiers is my idol. He is the guy I have always looked at. Mr 360.’
Glenn Maxwell is another player who has taken white-ball cricket forward in recent years
But Buttler revealed his icon and person he has always looked to is South Africa’s AB De Villiers
Of the two great tests that lie ahead, Buttler says he is looking forward to the World Cup most, partly because it is a chance to play the tournament in front of home fans and because he tasted the humiliation of the last one in Australia four years ago where England looked like they were years behind in the one-day game.
He has played his part in the subsequent transformation of the England team under Morgan into the side who are favoured to win the competition this summer.
‘We have to embrace being favourites,’ says Buttler. ‘Being a favourite is a good thing. Going into tournaments and competitions with people expecting you to win is a really good place to be. It shows you have been doing good stuff before. It is to be relished.
‘It is quite a prize. If you allow yourself to dream and put that romantic spin on things, it could be absolutely incredible for English cricket.
‘I have loved playing for the one-day team over the last few years. It is great to dream big and allow yourself to visualise those things and understand what you need to do to get there.’
He knows that in the Ashes, Australia will be a different proposition with Steve Smith and David Warner back after serving bans for ball-tampering but he does not agree with suggestions England will be scarred by defeat in the Caribbean.
Steve Smith and David Warner will be back to contest the Ashes after serving lengthy bans
‘The first two Tests here have been a reality check,’ says Buttler. ‘We have really under-performed. It’s not that we are performing to our best and we are coming up short.
‘We just haven’t played well. It’s easy to do the right things when it’s going well. But when you face adversity or have some bad games, that’s when it’s a real challenge.
‘It’s the start of a big year when everything has been very positive and suddenly it has changed a bit. It’s real now. It’s not just fantasy, writing about how it’s going to play out.
‘It’s meant to be hard. The guys have to be motivated to get better. There is plenty of time to get those things right.
‘With Smith and Warner available, they’ll be a better side. Smith is one of the best batsmen in the world so it will alter the dynamic of the series. Their ban set a strong precedent.
‘They are tough bans but fair play to Cricket Australia for being bullish and a bit of fair play to the players for not contesting the judgment and saying they’ll do what it takes to get back playing.’
As for the sledging culture that had dominated Australian cricket again before its fall from grace, Buttler is clear where he stands. ‘I had a lot of respect for the way Brendon McCullum operated with his New Zealand side,’ says Buttler. ‘That really resonated quite strongly with me.
‘They decided “sledging isn’t going to make us play better so let’s be the best versions of who we are and we’ll play hard cricket”. I’m not shy of having a word but personal insults are something I try and steer clear of.’
An old-fashioned sense of decorum. In the flamboyant blur of his talent, there is something quintessentially English in Buttler out in the middle after all.