- England v India
Hope springs eternal in Buttler
Was Jos Buttler aware of all the hope he was carrying? The question made it sound like an awesome responsibility. It did not just sound like run-of-the-mill hope. It was made to sound like hope, the sort of hope that must have been around when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the Americans landed on the moon, or Elvis sang That's All Right Mama. It sounded like the hope lavished on Mandela, Obama, or on Margaret Thatcher in the Home Counties of England in 1979.
One minute you are telling the world that you are not yet ready for Test cricket, and the world, by and large, is nodding wisely in agreement, the next minute this hope thing pops up its head and you are preparing for a Test debut against India at the Ageas Bowl at a time when English cricket is full of yearning.
This is not an ordinary Test debut. It is a debut when England have not won in 10 Tests, their worst run for 20 years, the sort that England said they would never witness again by building structures, making plans, centralising every decision they could think of.
It is also a Test debut by England's most original player for years and - dare it be said - by a player who ended May with a dashing century to soften an ODI defeat against Sri Lanka and then pronounced with characteristically soft-spoken modesty: "I'm probably not ready for Test cricket - that is my honest opinion and it's the opinion of others." There is nothing quite as interesting as a great-yet-vulnerable sporting talent and, at the Ageas Bowl, Buttler will be precisely that.
After that Lord's hundred, he spoke of limited glovework and a first-class average of 32 and remarked: "If I wasn't playing one-day cricket I would not be at the forefront of anyone's mind with that average in first-class cricket." Instead, he wanted to turn himself into a Test cricketer as quickly as he could.
Less than two months later, here he is. He has not changed in the interim. At least if he has, Lancashire forgot to issue a press release. What has changed is that England have been forced to accept that their gamble on Matt Prior's fitness has failed. Prior has stood down for the summer. Buttler steps in. Your time comes when it comes. Get on with it.
So now Buttler naturally has to make light of those deficiencies he summed up so honestly at Lord's. "Mentally I've come round to the fact I was closer than perhaps I thought I was at the time and my cricket has progressed faster than I thought," he said. "I was well aware I had just scored a hundred and it would have been easy to say I'm playing really well and I'm ready.
"Test cricket's going to be completely different but this year in the Championship I've been scoring more runs and everything's been going better so I think it's just more of a mental thing. In the weeks since then I've realised I was closer to playing than I thought I was.
"Test cricket's been my ultimate goal for the whole of my career, it's probably come a little bit sooner than I thought it would, which is great."
Can Buttler be England's Gilchrist?
- Jos Buttler has spoken about how Adam Gilchrist is the role model he looks up to. These are the numbers he has to aspire to:
- Matches: 96
- Runs: 5570
- Average: 47.60
- Strike rate: 81.95
- High score: 204*
- Hundreds: 17
- Fifites: 26
- Catches: 379
- Stumpings: 37
It was neatly put. Identical situations can look different if viewed from a different angle, or with a different mindset. And anyway when Buttler played down that Lord's one-day century with such humility, others said even then that England should ignore him.
Derek Pringle in the Daily Telegraph was one, writing that he was "one of those quiet sportsmen who remains a devoted advocate of deed over word. But just as England's selectors should ignore the self-publicists who trumpet their cause, they should also discount Buttler's coy self-analysis."
It was at Trent Bridge, in the first Test against India, when Buttler realised that a Test debut was approaching. He was called up as cover for Prior and would not have been able to miss the work of the medical team and the tribulations and the insecurities of the player himself - Alastair Cook's valued sergeant major - as he tried to force his battered body through the summer.
It would be nice to think that Prior, for all the complex dynamics of a dressing room, found time to say: "Look, I might get through the summer - get yourself prepared." But if he did not say it, Buttler would have seen it in his eyes.
"I saw him at Trent Bridge," Buttler said. "I went there as cover for his injury and it was actually really good to have a chat with him and try and pick his brain during that practice session. I think I knew then I was a bit closer potentially than I thought I was and I had to come round and mentally prepare to play if that chance came during the summer. I think that's helped me in my preparation for this game.
"It's quite a big confidence builder as well to get called up for a squad. It's a feelgood thing to know you're so close and the chance of playing Test cricket for England is a great motivator as well. So it was that time when I thought I was probably on the verge of something."
Nobody should pretend the situation is perfect. In pure wicketkeeping terms, Prior's physical collapse has come too soon for Buttler in Test cricket. A Test debut in the West Indies next year would have been an easier ask. Buttler, in his own words, is "a work in progress" or "not the finished article". He has several stock phrases to act as longstop.
Those wicketkeeping shortcomings have been just as apparent in one-day cricket. He fulfils the role as best he can and occasional lapses are forgiven in the belief that the graph is moving upwards.
Jos Buttler on not changing too much
And Buttler, more than anyone, is a player who can produce the excitement to move England on - or, more accurately many England cricket followers - from the Kevin Pietersen debacle. He has proved in the past two seasons, for both Somerset and Lancashire, that he can adapt his game to the longer format, but he is not about to be cowed. Nobody wants him to be. England need his vibrancy, his originality, his sense of adventure. As far as his batting is concerned, hope will not let go.
"Naturally I want to score runs and hit the ball and I don't think things should change that much," he said. "Obviously I have got to be a bit more selective and work out a method to bat longer periods of time so I can put a few shots away that I might not need to play in Test cricket.
"But If you look around the world there are people who play in that aggressive manner and do well. When Kevin Pietersen played for England people were excited to watch him because he was always looking to score runs, David Warner has obviously done that role for Australia very successfully. It would be silly of me to go into my shell completely and curb all my natural instincts because at the end of the day that is what has got me to where I have got to."
Pietersen without the strut; Warner without the pugilistic tendencies. Talent with modesty. Now that really would be something.
As for wicketkeeping, he has taken sustenance from Prior but his idol has been Adam Gilchrist. He does not remember much about Prior's hundred on Test debut, but he finds strength in the knowledge that his keeping was questioned for a while, to the extent that he was dropped, and that he fought back to prove himself an indispensable part of the England side, one of England's best wicketkeeper-batsmen.
"People questioned his glovework but he become England's best wicketkeeper-batsman. For me to know that I know someone who was that good for England was not the finished article either gives me a bit of confidence. He is 32 now and how many years he has been England's best wicketkeeper? I am 23 and have still got that time to improve my game and get to a level he got to."
But it is the standards set by an Australian that are treasured by any young England wicketkeeper. "Adam Gilchrist changed the game for wicketkeepers to start with. If you look round the world, batsman-wicketkeeper has to go hand in hand. You can't have one without the other.
"I remember him a lot, growing up, when Australia were the strongest side in the world by a long way - and he was a massive part of that. Being a young batsman-wicketkeeper, he was an ideal man to be your hero growing up and to try to copy. If I could emulate him, that would be outstanding. He's obviously set the benchmark very high for everyone."
It's a huge expectation. It is not his expectation - he is just a sportsman with an honest ambition. If it is the expectation of England, an England that is so downtrodden by recent results, it dare not hope too loudly. Officially, the hope is at the levels once expressed by Disraeli: hope for the best, steel yourself for the worst.
Don't you believe it.
England, short of heroes, is hoping so much that it hurts.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo