England benefit from Buttler’s masterclass in restraint

One of the great mysteries in combat sport is how to improve your chin. Strengthening your neck can help as the muscles there can act as a shock absorber, preventing you from rattling back when you’ve been clocked, thus allowing you to maintain a bit of balance. For a while, it was believed pure mental strength could make a difference. Simply put: if you don’t want to be knocked out, you won’t be.

There have been some comical remedies in the past. Some fighters back believed building up a resistance by consistently taking blows to the jaw was the way to go. This particular tactic was reportedly taken to farcical levels with a handful repeatedly punching themselves in the face. The thing is, there’s only one way to avoid being knocked out. Don’t get hit.

Of course, that’s an occupational hazard of the fight game. You’re going to get tagged, but if you can keep those to a minimum, you’ll always go right. And if you can’t, well, just make sure you hit your opponent harder.

When England were swaying in the breeze, eyes crossed, nose bloodied on 32 for four after 10 overs, it was the sixth time they had come out of the Power Play for the loss of four or more since the end of the 2015 World Cup. They failed to win any of those five previous capitulations and the most harrowing of the four defeats came at Adelaide earlier this year.

Just as it was coming into today’s match, the trophy had been sealed and the whitewash was there for the taking. But in front of a packed Australia Day crowd, England found themselves a quite embarrassing 18 for five after the first power play. It was a wake-up call, or rather, another wake-up call after defeat in the semi-final of the 2017 Champions Trophy: if they are going to play a brand of cricket that has them throwing so many punches, they are going to come undone every so often. And in the knock-out stages of a competition, one hit is all it takes.

There was, however, one anomaly – today. For today was the first of those six occasions that they were down by four at the end of the first power play that Jos Buttler was still standing. Australia being rolled for 205 inside 35 overs meant England had the best part of an hour. At the break, they went in at 66 for five. After the restart, minor resistance was tempered by three more wickets had them 114 for eight.

What followed was truly the work of a player so unreservedly at the peak of his powers that the opposition knew exactly how certain passages were going to play out but could do little to prevent it. Perhaps Tim Paine could have captained better – he was certainly guilty of a few glaring calls in the field when matters got tight. But when Buttler pushed into gaps, there were singles. And when he really tried, there were twos.

With 20 overs to go and 92 to get, he did the maths. Rebuilding with Adil Rashid wouldn’t have to be a taxing ordeal, but he just had to make sure that once they entered the last 10 overs, the ask would be, at the most, a run a ball. “By doing that,” said Buttler in the post match press conference, “you always score a few more than you expect.” So it came to pass: 39 were needed from the last 60.

Prior to that landmark, a unique one had been ticked off: for the first time in his ODI career, Buttler had made it to 100 balls in one innings. Now, the reason that stat is so mind-blowing is that the 27-year-old had five hundreds going into this game. Four of those were scored quicker than Sunday’s half-century, which took 74 balls and, prior to converting it to three figures from his 117th ball, his ODI hundred was from 83 balls.

The restraint he showed was such that you felt the tension bursting at the seams. Usually, he identifies one over to go after, to get ahead of the rate before maintaining a steady pace home. But with only Jake Ball waiting to bat, the risk was too great. Until, that is, Ball came in, with 11 needed for the win. First ball of the 10th wicket stand, Buttler blitzed Stoinis back over his head for his first six, taking him to his hundred.

Even the partnership with Ball was something of a masterclass of restraint: saying no to runs when those required were into single figures, not snatching at full-fish balls that could have been sent over the heads of the fielders looking to tighten up in the ring. Ball, buoyed by Buttler’s demeanour, got through 10 balls with an aptitude that belied his number-11-ness.

The moment that summed up what Buttler was about came with two to win. An easy single into the leg side was struck but not taken. It would have brought score levels and ensured England could not lose. But you don’t win games like this – like Buttler does – by fearing failure. A drive off the very next ball, straight through the covers for four, sent Old Trafford wild for only England’s seventh one-wicket win in 713 ODIs.

Eoin Morgan was asked if any one other than Buttler could have won England this match. Without skipping a beat, Morgan answered: “Probably not.” Paine reckoned, right now, the wicketkeeper batsman is at the absolute peak of his powers. Even his work in the first innings, nabbing a caught behind, stumping, stumping assist and run out – of Paine, no less – was the work of a genius.

There will be a temptation for some to say that the rest of England’s batsmen should learn from Buttler. That they take cues from his nerve and ability to find gaps at will and incorporate it into their own games. To assess as he does and not be so careless if conditions don’t fall their way.

The sentiment is nice enough. But how do you teach someone to be Jos Buttler? Can you even imitate that kind of talent? There’s a reason it’s frowned upon to cover Nina Simone.

The series has shown why England should be out-and-out favourites for next year’s World Cup and could easily not make it to the final. This side will forever be one that keeps throwing punches and wearing some, too. And for as long as they have Jos Buttler, they’ll be a team that, even on its knees, has a fighter’s chance.

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