Jos Buttler has racked up 824 runs at a strike rate of 151 so far in IPL 2022, with one innings left to play, but he came into the season with "very low expectations". He said as much after his bruising, unbeaten, 60-ball 106 on Friday to take Rajasthan Royals into just their second IPL final.
"I came into the season with very low expectations, but a lot of energy and excitement for the tournament," Buttler told host broadcaster Star Sports. "To still be here now, and the season I've had with such a great team, and to get ourselves into the final, is incredibly exciting."
In what has been a season of two halves for him, Buttler came into the playoffs without a half-century in over three weeks. In this period, he made three single-digit scores and had a highest of 30. This "distracted" him. The more he tried to suppress the pressure his dip generated, the worse it got. This is when "honest conversations" with people around him came to his rescue.
"I've had some really honest conversations with some close people around me, and with Kumar Sangakkara (Royals' director of cricket) and Trevor Penney (assistant coach)," he said. "I was actually feeling a bit of pressure. I was getting distracted, and I tried to suppress it, but it wasn't until a week or so when I actually opened up and started talking about that and it made me feel a lot better. I went to Kolkata (for Qualifier 1) a lot more relaxed and obviously that innings gave me a lot more confidence today."
Against Gujarat Titans, in Qualifier 1, he made 89 - an innings where he started well against pace but struggled for rhythm against spin, especially against Rashid Khan, on a tricky surface. However, he more than made up for it in the death overs, hitting 50 runs off 18 balls himself from the 16th over onwards. That effort wasn't enough to win them the game, Royals eventually failing to defend 15 off the final over. Two days later, he arrived in Ahmedabad all charged up, knowing very well he had the best possible preparation.
"I think I came in today just so excited," he said. "The thought of playing in front of 100,000 people was amazing. We've had two years of playing in front of empty stadiums. This is what the IPL is about, their incredible support, a fantastic stadium and a brilliant game of cricket - I enjoyed it so much."
Sangakkara, who has had a prime view of Buttler the T20 cricketer over the past three seasons, was effusive in his praise. Buttler's attacking intent, Sangakkara said, was just one aspect of his game; the ability to curb certain shots in certain situations, while being intuitive about the team's needs, make him stand out.
"I think some days I was a bit slow to start with. I wish it was never like that. I wish you can play fast all the time, but certain times I've had it tough and maybe a younger version of myself would've just gone for a big shot and got out."
"I think it's just his overall game," Sangakkara said, when asked about Buttler's strengths. "He's got some pretty potent strengths, and once he recognises that and trusts those strengths, he then manoeuvres the rest of the bowling to go more and more into his strengths.
"He's great against spin, he has got all the shots, and he chooses on certain days which shots to play and which shots to put away for a while. The good thing about Jos Buttler is that he can accelerate at any time. He can be 30 off 30 and then suddenly get to 80-90 off 50.
"It's hard to describe what he has done for us this season. I think he started off so well, had a little bit of a flutter at one point in the tournament, but he calmed himself down, had good conversations rather than just training. He accepted he's mortal, he's human and he can't have that high level of excellence every single day.
"And to understand how you kind of reach that level at every game in different stages... Some days you have to fight and look ugly, other days your rhythm is there. The reality is you can't fight that condition, but fight what's happening on the day. You have to settle into it and build an innings. He can accelerate at any point, has all the strokes and understands the game really well. I can't remember anyone batting this well in the history of the IPL."
For his part, Buttler put his measured approach down to the pursuit of a larger goal: to be a match-winner for the team.
"I'm always trying to play (according to) the game. What is the game asking me to do at any particular time and then what skillset do I have to try and use on that particular day," he said. "I think some days I was a bit slow to start with. I wish it was never like that. I wish you can play fast all the time, but certain times I've had it tough and maybe a younger version of myself would've just gone for a big shot and got out, but it's something Sanga has been saying to me: the longer you stay there, at some point it will come."
Buttler was part of the victorious Mumbai Indians squad in 2017, when they beat Rising Pune Supergiant in a last-ball thriller. Since 2018, Buttler has been with Royals, and the franchise retained him ahead of this year's mega auction in a massive show of faith. The chance to now win them their first title since 2008 has him excited.
"There's great excitement to be able to have the opportunity to be in the final in the biggest T20 tournament in the world," he said. "Shane Warne was obviously such an influential figure with the team, having led them to success. We all miss him dearly, but I'm sure he's looking down at us with a lot of pride today."