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At the start of this year, it was hard to escape the sense that one of English cricket’s most rarefied talents had learned to convert his gifts into consistent Test match success. After years in which English cricket had anguished over whether Jos Buttler could thrive in the five-day arena, he left Chennai on February 9 boasting an average of 64.6 in his last seven Tests. Increasingly the hallmark of Buttler the Test cricketer, like Buttler the one-day titan, was his adaptability.
It seemed that Buttler had become one of the few modern cricketers able to bridge the divide between the three formats, and thrive for his country in all three. If the road here had been altogether more circuitous than envisaged, Buttler had show huge skill, fortitude and willpower to develop his Test game when he was already a superstar of the white-ball game. He left India with England 1-0 up, having won three consecutive Test matches and six of their last eight, during which they were unbeaten.
Buttler returned to the Test side on Wednesday, after seven months, to survey a very different scene. In his absence, England had lost four - and won none - of their previous five Tests. He was greeted by a scoreboard of the sort that England could feel entitled to patent: 138-5, with Joe Root the lone source of meaningful resistance.
At which point Buttler met one of the most daunting sights in world cricket, regardless of the colour of the ball: Jasprit Bumrah. Curving the ball like a conjurer, Bumrah spent his next three overs whizzing the ball past Buttler’s inside and outside edges alike. Scoreless from his first 17 deliveries - though he could have been out at least twice, from a slice in the air or a late-dipping yorker which just missed off stump - Buttler then pushed forward tentatively to his 18th. This time, the ball kissed the edge en route to Rishabh Pant - and England were a little closer to their abject destination of 183 all out.
Yet in a sense none of this, really, is Buttler’s fault. In the seven months since the first Test in Chennai, in between copious time in quarantine, the Indian Premier League, the Hundred and England’s limited-overs games, Buttler has not played a single first-class match. And so a player who has always needed time to readjust to the rhythm of Test cricket - throughout his career, Buttler averages just 25.4 in the first match of Test series, but 38.8 thereafter - was denied the chance to find it.
If it is easy to see Buttler’s travails at Trent Bridge as evidence of his limitations as a Test player, the evidence of the last year, and a Test average when keeping wicket only a run shy of Alec Stewart and Brendon McCullum, suggests otherwise. Instead, Buttler’s failure is best viewed as a microcosm of wider problems in the English game: a system failure.
The litany of problems are wearingly familiar. A County Championship in which the challenges bear scant resemblance to the demands of the Test game. A dearth of first-class fixtures at the height of summer, an issue that long predates the Hundred: England’s six batsmen from three to eight had not even faced a solitary ball in first-class cricket since the series defeat to New Zealand seven weeks ago. And, perhaps more than anything, simply too much cricket. While Covid-19 has exacerbated these challenges, it has not caused them.
As India provided a reminder, as if it were needed, of quite how outstanding and versatile their bowling attack is, the central irony was inescapable. While India have been practising with red balls in England for almost two months, including playing the high-octane World Test Championship final against New Zealand, England’s squad for Trent Bridge only assembled four days ago. Perhaps never have a touring team been so much better-prepared than their hosts; England could scarcely have been accommodating had their players been plied with vodka before taking to the field.
And so, for all the temptation to vilify the shots of England’s top-order, the ire is better directed elsewhere. On the opening day at Trent Bridge, England were undone as much by the failings of their own administrators as India’s unerring excellence.
In the dock: England’s suspect six charged with wasting their wicket
By Isabelle Westbury
Sometimes, it turns out, sport can be scripted. Everything that English fans feared might materialise with its fragile batting line-up did, as the hosts were tumbled out for under 200 at Trent Bridge. It was almost as though England predicted it too, sacrificing bowling options in an effort to add an extra batter and bolster its top order. High risk for no reward as it turned out.
The one man we thought, or hoped, might inject something solid into the fragile top three shattered that notion before England even had runs on the board. While no one should envy opening the batting against the spearing deliveries of Jasprit Bumrah, you can’t be opening in Test cricket and playing across your front leg. In times past a left hand bat might have thought LBW was a remote possibility to the right-armer but not now, not with DRS. The worst possible start.
No surprise whose strike rate offered to grind the Indians down, Sibley once again England’s slowest scorer. Which wouldn’t have flustered England, had he stuck in and did, actually, grind the opposition down. Eighteen runs from 70 balls and falling just after lunch was not the job he was tasked to do. Then again, facing this calibre of attack, on these pitches, perhaps it is a job which asks too much. Poor fella.
Verdict: Not guilty
Impressive white ball form coming into the Test, it was always a question of whether Crawley could convert that form into this challenging format. Things looked promising for much of the morning session, with a few crunching drives but it was the Test match mind which eluded the number three in the end, playing too loose, too often. In mitigation, Crawley caught the brunt of a magical Mohammad Siraj spell, which had already elicited a huge appeal and an India review just three balls before he nicked one to the keeper. He was defending, too.
Verdict: Not guilty
The bullish Yorkshireman dispelled any early demons (four ducks in his last five innings against India) to post England’s highest partnership with Joe Root. An experienced comfort blanket for England’s beleaguered captain, Bairstow looked good for much of the afternoon session. But technique matters, and however much Bairstow is determined to play Test cricket, he must also prove his determination to adapt his technique. An off-stump set-up has delivered more cons than it has pros of late, trapped lbw just as he was getting going.
The trump card, the reason that England once again overlooked a specialist spinner, Lawrence was the risk for reward which England opted from. Not to be, as he only lasted four balls. Too much pressure, too early on in his career? He never looked comfortable, walking to the crease, at the crease, and when he departed in the most horrible of fashions, strangled down the leg side, it wasn’t all that surprising. The wrong man for the job? England may well wonder.
The last line of defence, in truth. However, as the balls were notched up and still no runs came, even Buttler’s resolve was sorely tested. A waft outside off, and then a prod, Buttler’s wicket all too soon seemed like a matter of when, not if. A horrid time to enter, mind, at five down for not all that much and at the height of a wicked Bumrah spell, duke ball in hand and a plan well executed.
Verdict: Not guilty