There has been a strong atmosphere of the carnival swirling around cricket lately, not in the sense that cricketing life is one big party but in the state of its batting. As an attraction, that has become cricket’s bearded lady.
Each month, it seems, we anoint a fresh new freak to marvel at. Step right up folks, look at this one, able to hit shots you could not have imagined in your wildest dreams. Scores hundreds off 30 balls, fifties off 12, hits gargantuan sixes – and more of them – in unexpected areas and in unexpected manner.
The last few months have belonged to Jos Buttler, the freak du jour. Since June he has hit three ODI hundreds, taking 66, 46 and 73 balls to reach 100. His first ODI hundred, in 2014, was off 61 balls. Three of the top four fastest ODI hundreds for England are his, all made in the last 18 months or so.
Even on Tuesday, in the third ODI against South Africa, he wasted no time in making a duck, out first ball.
Earlier this week, Nasser Hussain interviewed Eoin Morgan about England’s ODI resurgence and asked him about Buttler. “How do you handle the freak that is Jos Buttler?”
Think of how many freaks we have had to come to terms with recently. AB de Villiers is obviously the gold standard. Glenn Maxwell is a sturdy aspirant. Chris Gayle has been known to produce extreme freakiness. Corey Anderson will figure. Brendon McCullum is, in many ways, the most influential.
In asking Morgan, Hussain also pointed out that it was the interviewee who used to be the freak, before Buttler took over.
This is how Morgan responded: “He’s actually an introvert but he is so extrovert in the way he plays that he’s great for the changing room. He takes a huge amount of responsibility on his shoulders and it’s our job to let him spread his wings and just play.”
It is easy to ignore, or at least underplay the significance of these words, as the kind of aphorisms sport is full off. “It’s our job to let him spread his wings and just play,” – of course it is, because it should be everyone’s job to do it for their own Buttlers.
But the more you see Buttler, and the other freaks bat, the more you understand that even though it may sound like glib self-help philosophy, it goes much, much deeper now. Fearlessness is the word most often used to describe England’s approach to ODI batting since the last World Cup and Buttler is its finest poster boy.
In December, Michael Vaughan discovered that Buttler has some, ahem, choice words, that are far to racy for a family publication such as this but let us just say allude to a brazen attitude, on the top of his bat handle, as a reminder and articulation of his credo every time he taps the bat ahead of a delivery.
In his playing day, Vaughan revealed, he wrote something along the same lines on the top of his bat handle. He thought it was similar but really it is nothing of the sort, or if it is, then it is as similar as Vaughan’s batting is to Buttler’s. Granted Vaughan was an opener, and Tests were his thing, but that note tells the tale of a different world, in which at least a certain amount of deference was due to the opponent and his weapon.
Buttler’s note tells him not to worry about anything: bat, ball, failing, nothing. Go out, burn the world and then shower in its ashes. It is a kind of batting nihilism.
In an interview late last year, in expanding on his perceptions of risk in shot-making De Villiers said that over the last few years he had essentially let go of “the fear of failing or not succeeding”.
Nobody ever really lets go completely of that fear. Athletes cannot. Partly it is what drives them onwards, that fear of failing and subsequently losing all they have worked for. It keeps them honest. Forget athletes, that is just how humans operate.
But what De Villiers, Buttler and so many new batsmen are doing is controlling that fear, allowing enough of it to push them on, but certainly not letting it overwhelm them.
A conducive environment is necessary, and especially relevant in Buttler and England’s case. Undoubtedly it helps that Morgan, a freak himself, is their leader and that the coaches Trevor Bayliss and Paul Farbrace have made a deliberate effort to not cloud their heads with too much information.
As just one example in contrast, take Umar Akmal. The other evening in Dubai he made 93 off 40 balls in the Pakistan Super League. Clearly he is capable, yet fearful, unstable management, under a succession of cautious batting captains have reduced him so that this was a freak innings, rather than the innings of a freak.
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