Jos Buttler’s Test hopes throttled by five-day cricket’s tyranny of choice | Sport


It’s a familiar scene. You’re perched in front of the TV, remote in hand, “deciding” on something to watch. There’s that show about the mafia, or the one about drugs, or that one about drugs and mafia? What about this new police one? It’s written by that bloke who did that other police one, I think he used to be in the police, or the mafia, or both? No? Well there’s that subtitled one we recorded? Mmm, bit too much of an investment, it’s only a Tuesday night after all and I sort of don’t want to have to watch the screen all of the time. Have a look what’s on “normal telly” now, there might be something good. There might! Just have a look!

Cut to two hours later. The mafioso and police remain behind their respective thumbnails, unchosen, unwatched. Unsatisfied, you peel yourself off the sofa and shuffle off to bed. You’ve made a start on that book, maybe you’ll give that podcast a listen, there’s that one about … oh forget it. Welcome to the tyranny of choice.

Hold on. Having choice is a good thing, right? Well, yes. But too much choice can be harmful. Just ask Barry Schwartz. Just ask Jos Buttler. In fact, maybe give it a while with Jos.

Schwartz is a psychologist and social theory professor. In a 2005 Ted Talk he explains that an “explosion of choice” has led affluent western societies towards “paralysis rather than liberation”.

He merrily talks about his local store stocking 175 types of salad dressing or about the time he went to buy a new pair of jeans and was bamboozled by the different styles and fits.

With so many choices to be made in everyday life, Schwartz argues that humans increasingly find it difficult to choose at all, and when they do, they are rarely satisfied with their decision. They’re haunted by the lingering thought of other options they could have chosen. His talk has been viewed 16m times. It made me think of Jos Buttler.

Mark Ramprakash wrote a revelatory column for the Guardian a few weeks ago recalling a coaching session he had with a frustrated Buttler in Abu Dhabi in 2015, not long after the keeper-batter had been dropped from the Test side. Ramprakash mentioned Buttler had “a lack of trust in and understanding of first-class cricket”, that he was unsure of how to go about constructing an innings when faced with carte blanche and the scoreboard is not dictating the run rate and tempo as it does in white-ball cricket.

“In that net session, I suggested I should throw him a few balls and he should play each ball on its merits,” Ramprakash wrote. “He seemed to not quite understand that concept. It led me to think there is so much premeditation in one-day cricket that some players who come through and excel in that format never adapt to the ebb and flow of Test cricket.”

Jos Buttler takes off to play a shot while on nought in the fourth Ashes Test in Sydney, only to see the ball caught by Usman Khawaja.
Jos Buttler takes off to play a shot while on nought in the fourth Ashes Test in Sydney, only to see the ball caught by Usman Khawaja. Photograph: Steven Markham/Speed Media/Shutterstock

Renata Salecl, a Slovenian philosopher and theorist, called her 2011 book The Tyranny of Choice. She believes that choice “brings a sense of overwhelming responsibility into play, this is bound up with a fear of failure, a feeling of guilt and an anxiety that regret will follow if we make the wrong choice.” Could Buttler be suffering from the tyranny of choice?

He’s a white-ball supremo. The bowler in coloured kit knows that Buttler can hit the exact same delivery in numerous different places, depending on the state of the game and the field placings. Take a length ball just outside off stump: he can step out and bunt it down the ground with just a flick of those meaty and pliable wrists. Or rock back and glide it through point. Step to leg and crash it over extra cover. Step to off and paddle it fine or slap it over midwicket. He can sweep, reverse-sweep, paddle-sweep, scoop, ramp, flick, tap, tickle and thwock. I’ll run out of verbs before Buttler runs out of scoring options, choices, to a single white ball.

But in Test cricket, especially in the recent Ashes series, it’s a different story. Buttler is the panicked shopper, rendered paralysed by the choice on the condiment aisle or the dithering boxset doom-scroller. He scored 107 runs across eight innings at an average of 15.28 with a glacial strike rate of 27.43. Unsure of his process, continually bemused as to what his best option was in any scenario. Paralysis rather than liberation. Buttler faded throughout the series. With each passing game he looked more glum, upset, confused, frustrated. When Sam Billings replaced him in the final Test in Hobart, his Tiggerishness – is that a smile? Chatter and encouragement behind the stumps!? – only served to reinforce Buttler’s Eeyorish decline.

Sam Billings was a much more animated figure behind the stumps for England than Jos Buttler had been in the first four Ashes Tests.
Sam Billings was a much more animated figure behind the stumps for England than Jos Buttler had been in the first four Ashes Tests. Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

England’s most successful man with the willow in Test cricket, Alastair Cook, he of the 12,472 Test runs, has often been described as only being in possession of three shots. Maybe four if you include the leave. With a cut, a pull and a nurdle off his hips being his mainstays, Cook had a limited array of strokes coupled with an absolute clarity of role and purpose. Three or four modes, slightly dull to watch at times but capable of breaking records and unifying a nation, Cook was the last terrestrial TV cricketer. No, not in actuality but you know what I mean.

Buttler is at the peak of his powers in the white-ball game where more often than not there is a blueprint of how to play. The format determines it. Ramprakash recalls one of Buttler’s finest innings being the 75 against Pakistan at Old Trafford in 2020, a final day that more resembled a ODI match – a run chase, a time constraint, an equation to work with. Choice narrowed by the game situation. Very much Buttler’s meat and drink.

It’s not just Buttler, of course. Any number of England’s young male batters who have grown up playing all formats, who have all the shots at their disposal, struggle with how to go about putting an innings together in Test cricket. Zak Crawley, Ollie Pope, even the feast or famine of Ben Stokes suggests a lack of clarity and confidence in how to approach the open possibilities afforded by the longest format.

How many of them, Buttler included, will continue to keep attempting to crack Test cricket? How many will cut their losses and head down a white-ball-only route? After recent performances, the choice might no longer be theirs to make. What a relief.

This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe and get the full edition, visit this page and follow the instructions.

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