It has been a slow summer for Jos Buttler
and England in white-ball cricket but on Wednesday night in Bristol, everything seemed to click into gear.
This was the first of 13 T20 internationals in the build-up to October's World Cup in Australia, while most of those involved will also play at least eight games in the Hundred. "There's a clear path for us now," Buttler said. "There's no more ODI cricket in between so we see this as the start of our lead-in proper to the World Cup."
Asked to bat first by David Miller, they racked up 234 for 6, their second-highest T20I total of all time; they hit 20 sixes in all, their most in an innings and only two short of the record. They were clinical with the ball and in the field despite a scare from Tristan Stubbs, closing out a 41-run win to start a series with victory for the first time in their four attempts at home this summer.
's return to the middle order after he was rested for the India series meant a glimpse at something approaching England's first-choice batting line-up, albeit with the lingering question of where Ben Stokes might slot in. It was a similar formulation to the one they used in last year's World Cup, but with Sam Curran replacing Eoin Morgan - a change which gave them an extra bowling option without losing much batting.
England doubled down on their decision to bat Bairstow at No. 4, and it worked. His 90 off 53 balls included eight sixes and was his first half-century in the role since his initial shift back down into the middle order some 18 months ago (also against South Africa). The move came about as a result of Buttler's transformation into a world-class opening batter and Dawid Malan
's form at No. 3 rendering him undroppable, but also due to Bairstow's prowess against spin in the middle overs.
It backfired at the World Cup, when he struggled to find any kind of rhythm on slowish pitches with vast boundaries: he managed only 47 runs off 42 balls in the tournament, and moved up to open in the semi-final when Jason Roy was injured. But Buttler was unshaken, backing Bairstow's ability against spin. On the night, he clobbered 51 off 27 balls against South Africa's slow bowlers, including 29 off 11 against Tabraiz Shamsi (albeit six of those came via one of several howlers from South Africa's fielders).
South Africa picked a team featuring only five frontline bowlers and were punished for it. England targeted Shamsi mercilessly: Malan worked out that he would bowl into the pitch in an attempt to protect the short straight boundaries and clobbered his first ball over the short leg-side boundary for six. Shamsi leaked 49 runs in his three overs - his fourth was offloaded to Stubbs, whose part-time offbreaks cost 20.
Buttler also showed more flexibility than he had in the series against India. Moeen Ali
, used as a floating spin-hitter throughout the World Cup last year, had been left at No. 6 throughout that series but was promoted above Liam Livingstone in Bristol, ostensibly to target the slower bowlers and ensure a left-right combination, with one boundary significantly shorter than the other.
"It was for the left-right [combination]," Moeen explained. "But it wasn't just the short side - bowlers' plans change. Me and Livi play in the Hundred together and we did the same there. It's a really good wicket and it's a nice-sized ground for someone like myself who isn't a massive hitter of the ball."
In fact, he faced only five balls from the spinners, but cashed in against Andile Phehlukwayo: he was constantly a step ahead of him, working out his plans from the angle of attack and the way the field was set. Moeen hit the six balls he faced from him for six, four, one, six, six and six as he looted the fastest half-century in England's T20 history, off 16 balls. His partnership with Bairstow was worth 106 in 35 balls - the second-fastest century stand ever
and the fastest by a full-member nation.
Both moves - the decision to keep Bairstow at No. 4, and to promote Moeen to No. 5 - stemmed from the same school of strategic thinking. At times, England have been inflexible with their T20 batting orders, which have resembled a hierarchy of their best batters in order; this was a shift towards a more modern deployment, using players in specific roles to target specific bowlers and phases. Buttler had hinted at it before the India series, saying England's batting order would be "dependent on what the game needs, trying to match people up best against the opposition" but this was the first clear on-field evidence.
Of course, conditions were starkly different to those that England will encounter in Australia later this year: Bristol's straight and square boundaries barely measure 70 metres, a snip compared to those Down Under, and pitches at ICC events have tended to offer more for bowlers than this flat surface did.
But this remained an intriguing night for England's evolution as a T20 side under Buttler. If they can repeat the trick in Cardiff and Southampton on Thursday and Sunday, they will go their separate ways for the Hundred with a renewed confidence that they can impose themselves on the biggest stage later this year.