Jos Buttler’s Test career is probably over – but the what-ifs remain

<span>Photograph: Aijaz Rahi/AP</span>
Photograph: Aijaz Rahi/AP

A Nat Sciver-Brunt paddle for four, a stream of blue shirts on to the field, and a game changed for ever. Mumbai Indians’ seven-wicket win against Delhi Capitals on Sunday brought the inaugural edition of the Women’s Premier League to a close. But the tournament is here to stay.

While the WPL represents something fresh and hopeful, the men’s version, the behemoth that is the Indian Premier League, stands for one thing now: full-scale power.

Related: Charlotte Edwards after her WPL win: ‘I want to coach internationally’

Back this week for the start of its 16th season, the IPL, whether you like it or not, barks out the direction of the men’s game, deals the cards and runs the playground. Last June it landed a rights deal worth $6bn and the two-month tournament is now the main piece of a larger operation. IPL franchise owners have taken over South Africa’s Twenty20 league, dipped their toes in to the United Arab Emirates, and they will even try to break America. And somehow at the centre of all of this is a softly-spoken Englishman.

Jos Buttler was more than just pretty in pink last year for the Rajasthan Royals. Seventeen innings brought 863 runs at an average of 57.53, including four centuries, as he took his team to a runners-up finish. Turning patient starts at the top of the order into a blaze of disorder, Buttler’s perfectly constructed knocks confirmed one thing: he is the IPL’s greatest English import.

Then came the home summer, England’s Test revolution and, for a brief second, a wild thought that did the rounds: could Buttler open the batting in Test cricket? When put to him by Jonathan Agnew, Buttler laughed it off: “I thought someone had written the wrong story to be honest.” The white ball and captaining England’s short-form sides was his focus and has been ever since. That narrowing of his remit – a logical move in a calendar that forces every player to compromise – has brought success, too, in the form of a T20 World Cup triumph. This is an arrangement that has worked out well for all parties involved.

England were right to discard Buttler from their Test side after the Ashes last year. Fifty-seven Tests had brought some moments of joy but also a lack of fulfilment. The uber-confidence and aura of Buttler the limited-overs megastar never entirely transferred themselves to the red-ball batter. In the Test game he set out to play a more responsible way. “To have success in Test cricket you must be able to defend the ball well and look after the top of off-stump,” he said a couple of years ago. “You don’t want to just be a dasher who goes and gets 20 or 30, might score 60- or 70-odd.”

And yet Buttler’s best Test innings remains a white-ballish 75 to secure a mightily impressive fourth-innings win against Pakistan at Old Trafford in 2020. Sweeping and cover-driving Yasir Shah on a crumbling pitch, his sense of adventure was heightened by the looming threat of being dropped.

This brings us to a somewhat sad note, a missed opportunity, a what-if moment. Surely there are others out there who also wonder how Buttler might have fared in the current Test team. Here stands the cleanest, purest hitter of them all, thoroughly watchable regardless of the format. What if, to make it all click in whites, all he needed was the TLC of Baz and Ben?

Brendon McCullum namechecked him in the early days of his tenure, wondering out loud: “How could he be so dominant in one form of the game and not quite have found his feet, other than a few fleeting performances, in Test cricket?” It sounded like the new head coach was ready to work his magic, but Buttler’s last Test – and first-class appearance – remains England’s draw with Australia in Sydney last year.

The reasons for his continued absence are sound. How would you play a Test in New Zealand one day and be in Bangladesh to captain the one-day international side the next? Then there is the excellence of Ben Foakes behind the stumps and the useful runs he contributes in front of them. As a specialist batter, how would Buttler find space in a middle order that is already struggling to make room for Jonny Bairstow?

There is also the thinking that it wouldn’t work anyway. Behind the blazing innings of England’s batters over the past year have been sound first-class fundamentals. Despite Bairstow’s pre-2022 struggles, what he has always had to fall back on is a County Championship average north of 50 after 89 Test matches. After 63 county matches, Buttler’s is 31.54 (0.4 runs below his Test one). Strip back Harry Brook’s game and what stands out is a forward defence you’d pay entry to see. The old rules still matter.

The rational voice says that Buttler’s Test career is probably over and rightly so. He had his go, and they’re fine without him. In the next few weeks he’ll probably tear it up in the IPL and there’s a World Cup to focus on later this year. And then another one next year (they don’t stop with those nowadays). This is his world now – and it’s not a bad one.

But still you wonder, thinking of the same question McCullum posed last year. Buttler’s outrageous talent demands that you do. So maybe a gap opens up in the calendar down the line and a spot becomes free. And to satisfy the curiosity, McCullum and Ben Stokes repeat those two words famously scribbled on Buttler’s bat handle: fuck it.