Buttler promises to be next T20 star
It has been almost 40 years since Sir Ian Botham announced himself as a cricketer of rare character and skill. Confronted with an all-but-hopeless situation in a 1974 televised Benson & Hedges Cup quarter-final between Somerset and Hampshire, the 18-year-old Botham reacted to a crushing blow to the mouth courtesy of a fearsome bouncer from Andy Roberts by phlegmatically spitting out some teeth and turning the game on its head with an outrageous display of calculated aggression that was to become delightfully familiar over the next decade or two. A star had been born.
Only time will tell if the third ODI between England and New Zealand proves a similar launch pad for Jos Buttler. It would be asking a bit much to expect a career to rival Botham's, but Buttler's dramatic contribution at Trent Bridge did confirm him as a batsman of special talent.
Ahh, but it was only 16 balls, some will say. And it is true that Buttler will have to contribute more often if he is to be considered a viable international player. But the power of his strokeplay, the audacity of his shot selection, the calmness of the execution and the range of his options did illustrate a talent that, in England at least, is precious and rare. It is precisely because he can change a 600-ball game in only 16 balls that renders him so special. The thought of Buttler, Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan in England's middle-order is mouth-watering.
The Somerset link between Botham and Buttler may be more than mere coincidence. Born and educated in Taunton into a close-knit cricketing family, Buttler is steeped in the culture of Somerset cricket. Even his birth linked him to the club: born by an emergency Caesarean section, Buttler's mother was driven past the county ground by police escort on the way to the hospital.
He grew up watching the side, playing on the outfield and then representing the youth teams. He cites his role model as Steve Waugh, who played for Somerset before Buttler was born, but he will also have seen such big-hitting heroes as Graham Rose, Ian Blackwell and Marcus Trescothick. It doesn't take a genius to spot the influence.
Like Sachin Tendulkar, Buttler started off as a fast bowler. Drafted in to the Cheddar Under-15 side in an emergency when he was just seven or eight, the opposition batsmen laughed when he was brought on to bowl. But the smiles had disappeared a couple of balls later when Buttler took his first wicket, caught by his older brother, James.
It was a familiar pattern for the young Buttler. Achievement came easily. He played rugby in the schools final at Twickenham, he won the 100 metres at school and, underlining the fact that sometimes life just isn't fair, he gained As in all his GCSEs. He was and is a young man with options.
But his future was always going to be about cricket. Nurtured at Kings College Taunton by Dennis Breakwell, a member of the glorious Somerset teams that also boasted Botham, Viv Richards and Joel Garner, Buttler broke into the senior county side at 19 and was soon creating a stir not just for his runs, but the manner in which he made them and the circumstances in which they were made.
Somerset have always had talented cricketers. All too often, though, they have lacked the hard edge required to thrive in the heat of battle at its most intense. It may well be no coincidence that they have finished as runners-up so often in recent years. More often than can be ignored, they seem to wilt under the spotlight.
But not Botham. And not Buttler. Buttler forced his way into the England reckoning with an innings of 55 from 23 balls against Nottinghamshire in the 2010 semi-final of the Friends Provident t20. Still only 19 years old, he thrashed two key members of England's World T20 winning side, Stuart Broad and Ryan Sidebottom, into the stands and earned his side a place in the final. Broad, soon to be appointed as England's T20 captain, cited the innings when selecting the national side.
He followed it with a contribution of 86 from 72 balls the 2011 Clydesdale Bank 40 final - an innings made while his colleagues floundered - and, despite some difficulties in his first England outings in the UAE, he hinted at what was to come with an innings of 54 from 30 balls, his maiden international half-century, against New Zealand in a T20 in Hamilton in February.
First impressions can be deceptive. Buttler is modest and softly spoken with just the hint of a lisp. If you hadn't seen him in action, you might conclude he would go the way of so many of his Somerset predecessors - Mark Lathwell, et al - and struggle in the sometimes brutal world of international sport.
That would be a mistake. Like Joe Root, another 22-year-old taking his first steps in international cricket, Buttler's boyish exterior conceals an inner steel. His good manners hide a confidence and a drive that may be more obvious in the likes of Tiger Woods or Pietersen but are no less real for all that. You do not play strokes such as the reverse-scoop off Kyle Mills just from talent: you play them because you have worked on them for many hours, you have confidence in your technique and your ability and you have the courage to try and fail. You only play shots like that if you have the temperament of a champion. If you could invest in young men, you would put your shirt on Buttler and Root.
It won't always work out. Buttler is a developing cricketer with bat and gloves and, as a missed stumping on Wednesday showed, the rough edges are still visible. It is highly relevant that he came in with only a few overs remaining on Wednesday and his side in desperate need of quick runs. He had "licence" to rampage.
"I haven't quite performed as I'd have wanted in the one-dayers so it was great to put in a performance like that," he said. "I'm confident in my own ability and it was great to come in and show that. I had a licence to go out and express myself at the end of the innings."
England's captain, Alastair Cook, was another impressed onlooker. "It's not going to happen every single time," he said. "We know that. But it's great to have the talent, potential and firepower to do that. We've seen him do it a number of times for Somerset and we're going to see him do it a lot more for England. It's a special talent and a talent he's worked very hard on. It's great credit to him because it's a skill that needs to be practised."
Buttler's contribution in the third ODI will probably make him wealthy. England players, due to their limited availability as much as anything, will rarely be top of the shopping list for IPL owners but Buttler has a skill that will have earned him a hefty price tag. Whether Somerset allow him time off to attend the IPL remains to be seen - they will take some convincing - but he is unlikely to want for suitors. The conundrum of who should keep wicket at Somerset - Craig Kieswetter remains first choice in their Championship side - may prove relevant in due course, too.
Buttler's contribution on Wednesday was all the more remarkable for the context. Going into the series, he could have been forgiven for having his mind on other matters. His baby nephew, Edward, lay in intensive care in a Somerset hospital having just undergone open heart surgery recently to correct a congenital defect, Tetralogy of Fallot, that could have been an immediate threat to his life. Watching Edward fight for his life would have been an agony that many would have found impossible to bear.
Fortunately, due to the skill of his surgeons, it seems Edward is now assured a happy, healthy childhood. He was able to spend part of Wednesday in his mum's arms watching his uncle's innings on television in the hospital. Ignoring the fact that the relative of another patient, not knowing to whom he was speaking, started a conversation with the line "Don't you wish they picked Matt Prior to keep wicket for England in all formats?" it was a wonderfully happy day for the entire family.
No young life and no sportsman's career come with guarantees. But it now seems safe to assume that young Edward will spend a fair portion of his early years watching his uncle winning cricket matches for Somerset and England.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo