Pick Buttler already
Limited-overs cricket was treated to two classic matches over the weekend, and two magnificent losing centuries by wicketkeepers. Jos Buttler, in the ODI at Lord's, and Wriddhiman Saha in the IPL final in Bangalore, each played the defining innings of his career so far. Each ended up in a grumpy dressing room. Cricket can be a cruel mistress. As can most forms of competition. I am sure that, back in 1066, some of King Harold's soldiers went home, were asked by their wives, "How did the battle go today, darling?", and replied: "Well, we lost, but I played brilliantly. I hammered those Normans all over the place. They couldn't handle me. Can't wait to have another look at it on the tapestreplay."
Buttler's innings added further bangers to the already sizzling barbecue of debate over whether he should be in England's Test team next week. By hitting 121 off 74 balls, and taking England to the precipice of a brilliant victory, the Lancashire gloveman probably did his Test match prospects more harm than good. Had he scored a neatly compiled 50 off 74 balls instead, in a comfortable and unremarkable defeat, proving his technical discipline and ability to restrain his uncomfortably Pietersen-esque flamboyance, he would be being heavily pencilled in as we speak.
After an innings of total mastery by Kumar Sangakkara, England lost a couple of early wickets, then carefully batted themselves into a position from which defeat was a near certainty. Strategically, pootling along at under 4 per over before losing a flurry of wickets was a stroke of genius - England cleverly removed any burden of expectation on Buttler by rendering the situation almost completely hopeless, thus liberating his stroke-making wizardry.
Others might suggest that, in a sizeable chase and after two early wickets, it might have been worth shuffling the batting order to give one of the faster-scoring batsmen an opportunity to make early inroads into the target, then allowing the accumulators to accumulate, before a final blast for victory. Last year, against New Zealand, after Martin Guptill had planked 189 and the Kiwis had set a target of 360, England stuck with their top four of Cook, Bell, Trott and Root. They batted adequately enough, but by the time Morgan came in, in the 22nd over, the required rate was 8.3 per over, and by the time he was out, slogging, to bring Buttler to the crease, in the 30th, it was well over 9. Trott tinkled along to an entirely ineffective century and England lost by a distance.
In all likelihood, they would have lost anyway. But why not risk giving their most likely match-winners the longest possible time to try to do some match-winning? They could even have tried as a "pinch hitter" Graeme Swann, a brilliant striker who was massively underused in ODIs - in 79 matches, he batted only twice above No. 8.
The pattern on Saturday was, to an extent, similar. The target was less imposing, and the openers were out within four overs, but even an innings of, say, 30 off 20 would have significantly changed the tone of the chase. England do not currently have enough destructive batsmen in their ODI side. They should use those they do possess with more flexibility.
Is Buttler "ready for Test cricket"? Alastair Cook publicly, and extremely oddly, suggested not. Buttler himself, modestly, did likewise. They may or may not be right. But both of their opinions are, to an extent, guesswork, and also to an extent, irrelevant. England should pick Buttler. With Prior struggling for fitness, Foster and Read in their mid-30s, Davies on a glovework sabbatical, and Kieswetter in moderate first-class form, Buttler has as good a short-term claim as any.
He could be an extremely high-value cricketer, even if he only averages in the low 30s. The Sri Lanka series offers a chance to blood new players against one of world cricket's less devastating attacks, the perfect opportunity to (a) see whether or not Buttler is, in fact, ready for Test cricket, (b) help him become ready for Test cricket by giving him a taste of and exposure to Test cricket, and (c) excite the crowd and justify the ticket prices.
Besides, how do you tell when a player is "ready for Test cricket"? Was Ravi Bopara "ready" when he scored three successive centuries against West Indies in 2009, before becoming "unready" again as soon as the Australians arrived? Or was he not ready but in a run of good form and playing against a moderate bowling attack? Was Garfield Sobers "ready" at 17? It took him four years to score his first century. After 15 Tests he averaged 31 with the bat and 44 with the ball. Thereafter, he proved to be a handy cricketer. Would he have been so effective at his peak had he not been thrown into the Test arena before he was "ready"?
Even if Cook is right, and Buttler is not ready, England should pick him. He might prove to be a one-day specialist, a 21st-century Neil Fairbrother. Eoin Morgan, another one-day magician, struggled in Tests. But why wait to find out? His talent is clearly extraordinary, and worth risking, in both the short and long terms.
In the IPL final there were stellar performances by Saha and Pandey with the bat, and by Danny Morrison with the microphone, attempting phrases and word combinations that commentators of the pre-IPL era simply would not have thought possible. Morrison was prepared to try the seemingly linguistically impossible, even at the risk of making absolutely no discernible sense whatsoever. It was a sensational effort, at the end of which the English language simply had to tip its hat and concede that it had been roundly beaten by the better man on the day.
* Clearly, Kevin Pietersen (or at least, an in-form Kevin Pietersen) would be a significant boon for this England ODI side, either opening or batting at three. Were England right to jettison him? The evidence of the four matches played in this series so far is inconclusive. Their excellent batting at The Oval suggested that the right decision had been made, but they could certainly have done with him in Durham, where, if he had scored more runs than whichever player would have been left out for him, England would have reached three figures. At Old Trafford, England showed once again that they have no need of the no-longer-allegedly-disconnected batsman, whereas at Lord's the situation was crying out for Pietersen like a dog waiting for its favourite snack. All in all: inconclusive. We will know definitively later today. At least until the next time England play.
* Stat alert: At a strike rate of 163, Buttler's was the fastest ODI 100-plus innings ever scored in a losing cause. Saha's 115 off 55 was, at a strike rate of 209, the fifth-fastest of the 32 centuries scored in T20 defeats. Saha does not have the traditional physique of someone likely to smash 115 off 55 balls, but T20 continues to defy traditional expectations in terms of who can do what. Both men could reasonably have expected to end on the winning side. Buttler's was the 22nd out of 127 ODI hundreds scored at a strike rate of 125 or over to have resulted in defeat (17.3%). Of the 192 centuries clonked in T20 matches, Saha's was the 32nd not to contribute to a victory (16.6% - four have been in tied games, 155 in wins).
* Sangakkara and Dilshan would no doubt have appreciated Buttler's ultimately vain effort. In December 2009, they blasted Sri Lanka to the brink of chasing down 415 to beat India. Dilshan's 160 off 124 was the second-highest score ever made, and Sangakkara's 90 off 43 the fifth-fastest 50-plus score, in an unsuccessful ODI chase. One month earlier, Tendulkar had scored a dazzling 175 in pursuit of 351, against Australia in Hyderabad, but after he was out at 332 for 7, India lost by 3 runs.
* Karanveer Singh's 4 for 54 in the IPL final was the most expensive four-wicket haul in T20 history (and only one three-for has been clouted for more runs - Michael Bates' 3 for 61 for Auckland against Central Districts in January 2010). Nevertheless, 4 for 54 now adorns his career record as his "best" figures in T20s. It is one of the many curious charms/idiocies of cricketing statistics that, for example, an analysis of 6 for 542 off 24 overs is considered "better" than 5 for 3 off 12.
* The Confectionery Stall 14-Man England Squad for next week's first Test against Sri Lanka
Cook (capt), Root, Balance, Bell, Vince, Moeen Ali, Buttler (wk), Zaltzman (vice-capt), Stokes, Broad, Jordanm Anderson, Larwood, W Gidman
Selection notes: Not sure about Root - he is clearly worth persevering with in the long term, but a short-term benching and a look at other options might be worthwhile. But I've kept him in. Vince is scoring a lot of runs, quickly. Both are relevant factors. Moeen Ali bats beautifully. I think every international team should be forced to select at least one player on artistic impression. He also bowls well, and could be a competent fifth bowler. Zaltzman surely deserves his chance after an excellent match-winning innings for Penshurst against Leigh in a Sunday friendly in 1999. If Stokes is not fit, then Woakes. Minimal commentator disruption. Larwood's Test career was abruptly ended after Bodyline by injury and politics - he should be ceremonially recalled to the squad as a gesture, even if his best cricket is probably behind him and he has been dead since 1995. Gidman has the best first-class average of any current English bowler (20.5), and also averages 35 with the bat. I have never seen him play live or on the telly. But those are some shiny numbers. Perhaps he is a high-end county trundler. Perhaps he is England's Vernon Philander. I would like Finn in the squad, but it may be better to give him time to repair himself after what will be seen as one of England's greatest-ever coaching bloopers. Anyone else who wants a game, drop a postcard to the ECB. Selection made with minimal knowledge of county cricket, and a personal curiosity to see how new players fare in the Test arena. Very much in the style of a 1980s England selector.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer