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Match Analysis

Jos Buttler dredges deep but can't block out reality as England come crashing down

Tide finally goes out for England despite wicketkeeper's valiant attempt to avert defeat

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
There is, as everyone is probably aware, a rather explicit message written onto the top of Jos Buttler's bat-handle. It's meant to serve as a reminder not to take this game too seriously, to keep a grip on his freedom of expression while navigating the sport's ups and downs. It wasn't meant to be a comment on the state of the game as he faced up to his opening delivery.
For Buttler had an awful lot to ponder as he braced for the incoming Ishant Sharma in what was already an agonising rearguard. His arrival at the crease had been telegraphed by Jonny Bairstow's departure from it 20 minutes earlier - pinned plumb lbw by Ishant on the very stroke of tea, to leave England listless at 67 for 4, with another 38 overs to come.
Before Buttler had faced a ball, Joe Root was gone too - that man of every key moment of the day, Jasprit Bumrah, finding his edge with a snorter before Root could find his post-prandial footing. And as Root traipsed back to the pavilion, with 213 runs for the match banked but still 205 left out there, way, way beyond England's collective reach, Buttler could at least take solace in the clarity of his renewed job spec. Block for your life, and then block some more.
For it's not always been obvious quite how Buttler's meant to approach his Test batting. Circumspection has gnawed away at his natural, ball-striking game - and for all the advice staring up at him from that handle, a Test average of 33.65, and a strike-rate of 56, speak of a player trapped between mindsets, unable to unleash because the pitfalls of doing so can be bottomless in this format.
At Trent Bridge last week, he played an awful, agonised prod to the 18th scoreless delivery of his innings, to trudge off - sixth out - for the third of England's four first-day ducks. It epitomised how trapped his game was feeling in a team that's been set up to fail, with neither faith nor foundations on which to build a substantial whole.
Three years ago, in the corresponding series against India, Buttler's counterattacking game came good for England on numerous occasions, often from similarly backs-to-the-wall situations. But India's bowling was not as relentless as it is now, and nor were England - with a spine of unimpeachable Test experience stretching from Alastair Cook at the top through Ben Stokes and Root in the middle, right down to James Anderson and Stuart Broad - quite so nakedly clueless as they have been in the clutch moments this year.
But here, the narrative of England's struggle was set in stone from the first ten balls of their reply. Ducks for Rory Burns, caught off a leading edge as Bumrah hooped one back from outside leg, and Dom Sibley, ripped asunder by a staggering ball from Mohammed Shami, served due notice of what was to come for England. And Buttler's only role - lonely but essential as it was - was to present a firm bat, straight back down the line, and hope not to snick one.
Not for the first time, his stay didn't start promisingly. Virat Kohli informed Buttler shortly after his arrival that "this was not white-ball cricket", but Kohli himself then missed a glorious opportunity to provide his own punchline by dropping a clanger at slip as Buttler nibbled - in loose, lofty, one-day fashion - at a short and wide one outside off.
But by degrees, he began to epitomise the hope that can spring eternal in Test cricket even on the darkest, most soul-searching days. For two-and-a-half hours of stoic crease occupation, first with Moeen Ali, and then - after Sam Curran's awkward week had been ended with the first king pair by an England batter at Lord's - with the impressively obdurate Ollie Robinson, he presented the broadest bat he could muster, and dredged his technique and ticker for every residual ounce of gumption he could find.
And as India's quest for wickets slowed with the final hour approaching, the countdown was truly on. With 16.4 overs to come, the graphics gurus at Sky Sports offered a cheeky nod to the zeitgeist by flashing up the fact that there were "100 balls remaining in the day", and Buttler, self-evidently, needed to face the vast majority of them.
On the fourth day, a huge and ironic cheer had rung around Lord's when Cheteshwar Pujara - with what hindsight now proves to have been a pricelessly dour innings of 45 from 206 balls - notched up his 100th delivery, for the cost at the time of 12 runs. And for as long as Buttler was lingering with similar resolve, the great escape was still on - much as it had been all those years ago at Cardiff in 2009, when "Brigadier Block", Paul Collingwood, had seemed to be England's only hope until Monty Panesar and that man Anderson held the line in the frantic denouement.
But suddenly, and inexorably, the end hove into view. Robinson, who had been greeted by Kohli as a "boring big mouth", had once again displayed a rare aptitude for the Test battle before being found out by arguably the ball of the day from Bumrah, a stunning pacy offcutter that foxed even umpire Richard Illingworth as it smashed him on the back leg, halfway up the stumps.
And with that, the spell was broken. Moments later, in the same over that could have delivered his 100th ball, Buttler prodded outside off to the relentless Mohammed Siraj to trudge off for 25 from 96. And as the tide went out for England with Anderson's wicket three balls later, the shoreline showed a familiar pattern of beached, inadequate performances - and a familiar name poking fractionally higher than his team-mates.
For even on a day when he failed by his own relentlessly high standards - and even on a day when he accepted personal responsibility for the abject hour of bowling chaos that had gifted India their route back to the ascendancy - it was Joe Root, rather than Buttler, who stood out in the final analysis with his 33 calmly crafted runs. His contribution was an echo of what could have been, even into the teeth of an outstanding, unyielding India attack, had there been an iota of similar knowhow from the men around him.
"I expected us to be able to bat out the last two sessions and it's disappointing that we didn't," Root said at the close. "There's no hiding from it, we need to get better. The guys all know that. Everyone is hurting. It's very raw right now. I feel the same as every single player in that dressing room, it is a missed opportunity. But it is not time to panic."
It might, however, be time to let out a rather large oath.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket