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Jos Buttler feels the white-ball heat amid struggles for ODI relevance

New captain endures tough baptism as whirlwind itinerary leaves England in a spin

Jos Buttler had a lot on his mind during the ODI leg of the English summer  •  Getty Images

Jos Buttler had a lot on his mind during the ODI leg of the English summer  •  Getty Images

Jos Buttler had his backpack on when he walked into Sunday's press conference. Like an exchange student on the London Underground, he was not entirely sure where he needed to be next but knew he had to get there in a hurry.
It's been quite the whirlwind for England's new white-ball captain. No sooner had he come back from a tour of Amsterdam, he was at Edgbaston during the India Test match at the start of July to perform his first media engagements following Eoin Morgan's impromptu retirement. Later that week he began the first of 12 white-ball matches in the space of 24 days taking him to Southampton, Birmingham, Nottingham, south London, north London, Manchester, Durham, Manchester again and then, here, Leeds. By this time next week, he'll have done Bristol, Cardiff and Southampton once more. He'll have ticked off so many cities, you may as well call him Greyhound.
One day he'll get home, but even when he does take his shoes off and grip his toes into a familiar floor, his mind will be trying to untangle the last month like wire headphones from a pocket of his mind. And among the nagging will be what to make of this ODI side.
All told, it's not a pressing matter, with a T20 World Cup far sooner than the 50-over one exactly a year later, in October 2023. But it'll be there, dripping like a faulty tap, bearable for now but eventually needing to be addressed, for his own peace of mind at least.
It might help that this ODI series with South Africa was a little too abstract. A Proteas-instigated blowout in baking heat in the first, a 29-over haymaker counter in the second, before this third and deciding fixture was washed out inside 28 overs.
Throwing back a little further to the 2-1 defeat to India helps add some meat to the bones of any analysis. But not necessarily in a good way. A side whose superpower was big scores only made it past 270 once - in that opening defeat by 62 runs to South Africa. Only Jonny Bairstow averaged more than 27 (27.20) with just three fifty-plus scores shared among him, Joe Root and Buttler.
"I don't want to sound like a broken record," Buttler began when pushed on what he had learned from the five completed ODIs, seemingly bored with himself when talking about the batting blunders. "But it's a strength of ours for a long time, and we haven't quite lived up to the standards that we know we can."
There is some mitigation to that. The pitches, to borrow a phrase Root used after the defeat at Durham, have been "unusual white-ball wickets". The modern English game has been grooved on flat decks, so it was no surprise to see the tyres struggle when this juggernaut of a top six was taken off-road. "It's been conducive to a very different kind of cricket," said Root. "I prefer to face a red ball in the last series [against New Zealand and India] rather than the white ball. They seem to be doing all sorts."
Good batters can adjust, but England's good ones couldn't. And were it not for four blockbuster chases in the Test matches leading into this period, this might have been a line about batters simply not having the wares to tailor their aggression to a bit of sideways movement.
The only standout performer has been Reece Topley, and maybe that's not a coincidence given where he is in his career. A series that was made to feel like an afterthought was only likely to be treated that way subconsciously by some, whether that was those with Test cricket on their mind or others trying to spread their energy levels accordingly.
Topley, however, is as strong, hungry and in form as he ever has been. The 11 wickets across five matches - at 12, and an economy rate of 4.28 across 30.5 overs - were mostly prime cuts: notably Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma twice each, including getting them both in the career-best six for 24 at Lord's.
Buttler described Topley as a "great find" before correcting himself given the 28-year-old has been around the set-up since 2015, even making the squad to India for the T20 World Cup six years ago. Topley probably won't mind if people had forgotten he was part of the 2016 tournament given his collective figures of 4.1 overs, one for 55 across the group matches against West Indies and South Africa. Even given the injuries that followed, it was a period that changed him going forward. He learned not to cloud his mind with too many thoughts or outside noise, and in turn has never been more diligent in his preparation and more believing in his output.
Evidently, England are struggling to replicate their pre-2019 form, and don't even look like a facsimile of the dominant group they were when losing just two one-day series in the four years prior to earning their tag as World Champions. And the real fear is the recent defeats, while often pinpointing weakness and encouraging improvement, are so late in the cycle that only so much can be done.
It's important to say they have not sleepwalked into this position, but rather have been frogmarched by the pandemic. The separate Covid squads in the 2020 summer, then the Pakistan series in 2021 that required a full line-up change after an outbreak in the first-team group could have highlighted some of the issues around a lack of incision in the attack (ergo, pace) and the need for as much of the regular XI as possible to consistently tick over their 50-over work in order to retain muscle memory.
No doubt all this reads like a list of excuses, but that does not make it any less relevant to the current uncertainty. The global apathy to the format, in part because of the schedule and some high-profile detractors, has filtered into the changing room. And because of the T20 World Cup taking most of the focus, so much of the last two weeks is, with all due respect, an irrelevance.
Perhaps that right there is the only thing Buttler should heed going forward. The tactics, the personnel are likely to work themselves out. His focus should be on reminding his players - even himself - that ODIs remain a format of substance.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo