Buttler ready for duel with Malinga


Jos Buttler’s whirlwind 47 from 16 balls against New Zealand at TrentBridge last week was one of the most brilliantly unconventional innings ever played by an England batsman. In its dexterity, strength and quick-wittedness, it had reminders of racquet sports and baseball with a spot of cricket thrown in.

If Lasith Malinga is reverse swinging the ball at the end of England’s innings at The Oval on Thursday and Buttler is on strike, he could be about to face his greatest challenge of all.

Buttler’s knock at TrentBridge was not as much an innings as an escapade, a tricksy collection of outlandish shots, as dapper as they were mischievous. In less than half an hour at the crease, he surely joined Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan as the type of England batsman to whet the appetite of many an IPL owner – if only they could find a way to get England players on the field.

Buttler is suddenly the England batsman the world wants to see – but next up comes Malinga as England seek to overcome Sri Lanka and all but assure themselves of a place in the Champions Trophy semi-finals.

He will attempt to unveil his collection of scoops, swivel scoops and reverse scoops, with an occasional straight slug for good measure, against the bowler with the thickety hairstyle of the jungle and a yorker that can be suitably ferocious.

Buttler did not sound as if he is about to forego the challenge as he prepared for practice in the refined atmosphere of Dulwich College, an independent school in south-east London, where there were more artificial practice strips – a casual count brought 15 – than in any county ground in the land, as well as a square of first-class standard.

“Any shot is harder against reverse swing, but the scoop is a big part of my game,” Buttler said. “I practise it a lot and if I feel the situation is right I won’t be afraid to play it.

“I played against Malinga in the Champions League for Somerset against Mumbai and also in the World T20. I didn’t score many against him in the Champions League.

“He’s a world-class bowler and everyone knows how good he is. But I’m confident I can put in some good performances against him. He’s different, but he’s been around a while so people are more used to him now than when he first came on to the scene.”

Mention to Mahela Jayawardene, the great protector of Sri Lanka cricket, that Buttler and perhaps Eoin Morgan too might unveil their scoop shots against Malinga and he smiles at the prospect. He knows it would stretch batting ambition to the limit.

Jayawardene himself does not pretend to have the capacity to do it, and there are few more serenely talented players in the game, and he has never seen Tillakaratne Dilshan – Buttler’s TV inspiration when he joined Somerset as a raw teenager – attempt it either.

“I wish them all the best with it, I wouldn’t do it against Malinga but if they want to do it then that is up to them. I remember a few tried and got hit on the toe and hit on the wrist and all that stuff so you’ve got to be very, very careful.

“I don’t play it. Dilshan doesn’t play it against him either, not at all and not in the nets. Why would you want to do that? That is ridiculous.”

Buttler is committed to far more than novelty these days. He is now absolutely committed to developing his wicketkeeping and his steady improvement, although he has a long way to go, is slowly changing perceptions.

Paul Nixon, a former England keeper, dismissed Buttler and Jonny Bairstow in January as having a long way to go before either could be regarded as a regular gloveman for England in one-day cricket. Five months later, Nixon has floated the possibility that Buttler could develop into the long-term successor to Matt Prior.

“Keeping wicket is a huge part of my game and there’s a lot of scope for improvement still. I’m excited about that,” Buttler said. “The nature of my game means I’m going down the wicketkeeping route.”

If Somerset do not satisfy his ambition to keep in Championship cricket early in the season, he will face a tough decision about whether to remain with the county when his contract expires. “Decisions will be have to be made and there will be talks, but at the moment I’m only focusing on the Champions Trophy,” he said.

Buttler has also adopted a more meaningful approach to his batting in the Championship. He has dutifully reined himself in all season during a traumatic start for Somerset and, although it does not yet seem entirely natural to him, the result has been 426 runs at an improved average of 42.60, including a century and two near misses.

“I had a sit down and looked at my Championship cricket,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious that I’ve underperformed so far. Maybe I had been using one-day cricket as a bit of an excuse, to say I’m a one-day player and shot maker, those kind of things.

“They were an easy way out and it was a lazy attitude, so I’ve sat down and thought of a way to transfer into four-day cricket. I was doing myself an injustice because I’m a better player than that. I’ve been happy with my Championship form so far this year.

“I do get as much pleasure from making runs in the Championship. It’s great to be adaptable and show that to other people who may question that element of my game.”

But that is for the future. Malinga was narrowly fought off by New Zealand, who inflicted a one-wicket defeat on Sri Lanka in Cardiff on Sunday, leaving them desperate to overturn England and maintain a realistic hope of reaching the semi-finals.