A little more than two decades have passed since the first Somerset academy coach to see a 12-year-old Jos Buttler in action immediately predicted: “This lad will play for England.” No one who has regularly seen him play in that period is surprised that he has become one of the great white-ball batters. But one of the great white-ball captains? That’s another story.
Buttler’s first World Cup was in New Zealand, in 2010, when he was part of an England Under-19s side that contained some of the great leaders of their generation: the country’s current white- and red-ball captains, Buttler and Ben Stokes, bolstered the middle order; Joe Root, captain for 64 Tests, opened the batting; James Vince, who became Hampshire’s youngest postwar captain at 23, came in at No 3.
None of them captained that side, though. “It’s an interesting conversation, around leadership and captaincy in age-group cricket,” says Azeem Rafiq, who did. Rafiq first met Buttler in 2006 when they both played at the Bunbury Festival, the annual tournament for the nation’s leading under-15s.
“The minute I met him it was obvious Jos had everything about him that you look for in a leader, but Jos is a quiet person and a lot of times in age-group cricket it can be the loudest person who ends up being captain,” he says.
“He’s got an incredible cricket brain, the way he reads the game and the way he reads the bowlers, but he’s a man of few words. I don’t know what he’s like with this England team, but it doesn’t seem like he’s changed much. There’s no reason he didn’t captain more in age-group stuff, he’s just not the loudest voice in the room. Never has been.”
Buttler says he is “probably naturally quite introverted”. “At school, the louder guys are the cooler ones or have the most friends or seem to be most popular,” he said last year. “You leave school and realise what a load of rubbish that is. Some of the best leaders I’ve played for are incredibly inspiring, even if they’re not loud.”
What has become clear as he has grown into his captaincy is that Buttler is most willing to speak at the most awkward of moments. Last year, he sounded out Stokes about the recall of Alex Hales, with whom Stokes had fallen out after both were involved in the 2017 brawl outside a Bristol nightclub. He broke the news to Jason Roy that he had been dropped from the Twenty20 squad – “a really difficult phone call” that did not stop him picking up the phone when someone had to do it again last month.
When England lost to Ireland in what became a watershed moment on their way to winning last year’s T20 World Cup, Buttler delivered what Moeen Ali described as “a bit of a bollocking” that was “a big step forward for him and his captaincy”.
Jonathan Trott played alongside Buttler in 16 one-day internationals including the captain’s first, against Pakistan in 2012, and later worked with him as England’s batting coach. “There are born leaders, and then there are people who develop into leaders and captains,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone and gone: ‘Oh, they’ll be a captain.’ I played in the under-19s with [South Africa’s] Graeme Smith, he didn’t strike me as a captain and he went on to be the most successful captain in Test cricket.
“When I played Lions cricket with Eoin Morgan, I wouldn’t have said he would go on to lead England to a World Cup. But all of them have developed into amazing leaders. Jos came into the side and was immensely talented, annoyingly good at everything, but very quiet, very humble. But there’s also this little streak in him, there’s a meanness or toughness that comes out, a ruthlessness. He can go to another level, or a different gear, that not many people have.”
Great players often have captaincy forced upon them whatever their leadership qualities. Buttler’s greatness has been clear for many years, but it took until 2021 for any side to give him their captaincy on anything more than a caretaker basis: Manchester Originals in the inaugural season of the Hundred.
“Listening to his team talks, when he speaks, people listen,” says Warren Hegg, the former England wicketkeeper who is now the cricket operations executive at Lancashire and the Originals. “It’s calculated, it’s factual, it’s passionate, and you’re definitely left with the feeling that one, he knows exactly what he’s on about, and two, he doesn’t waste words just for the sake of saying them.
“I’ve got to know him well, and what I’ve seen is someone who knows exactly what the game’s all about, a great reader of situations, a great reader of pitches and of other people. I’ve seen a handful of players that can read a situation, read the state of the wicket, read his opponents and play accordingly. I can count them on one hand. He’s one of those.”
At King’s college in Taunton, the school Buttler joined on a sports scholarship aged 14, the surprise was not that he went on to captain his country, but that it took him so long. “Watching him, seeing how he behaved, you knew he would captain at a high level,” says Dennis Breakwell, the former Northamptonshire and Somerset bowler who coached him there. Breakwell even put money on it with a local bookmaker (though he was a bit ambitious, betting on him to lead England in not just one but every format, so has never been able to cash in).
“For us, he was a born leader,” says Phil Lewis, the school’s director of sport, who arrived when Buttler was 15. “He was someone who not only spoke really well in team chats but he was so composed, he led from the front and he always had that leadership within him.
“What I would say is that Jos wasn’t the most confident of lads when he was younger. When he was comfortable, in an environment where he knew everyone, he really came out of his shell, but not knowing people he took a while to warm up. Perhaps it took a while as an international before he knew everyone and was confident with what was happening around him – and once he has that, he’s phenomenal.”