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Jos Buttler: 'Managing risk is a big part of T20 batting'

England's white-ball captain opens up about the evolution of his short-form game

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Jos Buttler has evolved into one of the most formidable openers in T20 history  •  Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Jos Buttler has evolved into one of the most formidable openers in T20 history  •  Alex Davidson/Getty Images

The stage is set for Jos Buttler. He turned 32 last month and is at his peak as a T20 batter heading into the World Cup in Australia, his first as England captain. He is mentally fresh after a calf injury and if he finds his best form, he has the ability to win the trophy almost single-handedly.
He spent England's recent tour to Pakistan throwing balls and carrying drinks but is expected to return to the side in Perth on Sunday, the first of four warm-up games - three against Australia, one more against Pakistan - before the main event. Even for a team with England's batting resources, his return will be transformative.
"I've had confidence in my game for a while now," Buttler tells ESPNcricinfo. "I feel like I have good experience and a good understanding of the T20 game." Earlier this year he produced one of the greatest-ever IPL seasons, scoring 863 runs including a record-equalling four centuries, and his career record now compares favourably with the format's all-time greats.
When Buttler broke through at Somerset over a decade ago, it was his innovation that set him apart. He played the most audacious shots English cricket had seen since Kevin Pietersen, reverse-slapping spinners and paddle-scooping seamers to create gaps and leave opposition captains feeling one fielder short.
But since he started to open the batting on a regular basis in 2018, he has become more orthodox, particularly against the new ball. In the World Cup, you are much more likely to see Buttler finding a gap in the off-side ring with a back-foot punch or a cover drive than shuffling outside his off stump and ramping over short fine leg.
"It's changed because of where I've batted," he says. "When you're opening the batting, you don't need to take as big risks to get the same reward. Obviously in the powerplay, there's only two fielders outside the 30-yard circle so the bowlers' hands are tied in that sense and if you beat the infield, there's nobody on the boundary to stop it.
"You don't have to take such big risks in the powerplay to be able to score at a certain rate. It's one really good thing for my game that I've spent a long time in the middle order and now a reasonable chunk at the top of the order as well: I feel like I can try and marry the two areas of the game up and try and bat for a long time in a T20 game."
Buttler has enjoyed remarkable, sustained success at the top of the order. Chris Gayle is universally accepted as T20's GOAT but Buttler has the superior record as an opener: he is more consistent (averaging 43.04 to Gayle's 37.94) and more destructive (striking at 149.34 to Gayle's 146.67).
In the IPL, he came close to achieving batting perfection as he took Rajasthan Royals to their first final since 2008. "I had some really good chats with Kumar Sangakkara [Royals' director of cricket] about waiting for the time when you feel in, and understanding that you can still catch up after that if you need to," Buttler recalls.
"That period might come within five balls, but sometimes it might take 15 or 20 balls. We spoke about not worrying about that, knowing that I'm able to catch up later on if I have to, and that I can play differently once I feel more comfortable at the crease.
"I think a lot of that is about swallowing your ego as a batter: not feeling like you're out there having to prove anything, but just playing what's in front of you and what's required on that day; not looking back and thinking 'I got runs yesterday, I must go and do exactly the same thing today'. It's very much playing the game in front of you."
There were two clear features to Buttler's approach in India. The first was a tendency to give himself three overs to get 'in' before accelerating during the second half of the powerplay, a method informed by conditions and by Royals' lack of batting depth, with Trent Boult often carded at No. 8.
"Early on in the tournament, it felt like the ball swung a lot more so it felt like it was a hard time to bat in the first couple of overs," he says. "So tactically, it was about trying to come through that period of time, not to take too many risks when the ball was moving about and then cash in at the back end of the powerplay if there was less movement. Managing risk is a big part of batting."
The other was his ruthless targeting of bowlers, particularly when he spotted an inexperienced player he felt he could take down. Across his 17 innings, there were 12 occasions in which Buttler scored 15 runs or more in a single over, and four when he scored 20 or more.
"It's certainly something I've thought more about: those big overs, and trusting my six-hitting ability; looking at the West Indian players and, in general, how they hit more sixes than other teams. I've seen that as a huge positive and a way to take pressure off myself: to know that I have the ability to hit sixes.
"That probably means I don't take as much risk at certain stages because I feel like at any point in an innings, I could hit two sixes in a row and I look at what that would take my score and strike rate to. That's been a way my batting has developed: I've certainly looked to back my six-hitting capability more than I used to in the past, or I wait for a ball that's in my area."
Buttler has also changed his method while chasing, viewing a target in terms of how many boundaries he needs to hit rather than worrying about the required rate. "I heard a few guys talk about it like 'there's eight overs left, if we hit five sixes in that time, we'll win the game'. It's just a different way of thinking.
"It actually came from Darren Bravo in the Bangladesh Premier League. He was in my team and I remember him running out and saying that to Marlon Samuels. I'd never really thought like that before. I'd always be thinking about how many runs we needed per over. I've just found it's a way of taking pressure off."
The next step in the evolution of T20 batting, Buttler suggests, could be batters turning down singles to stay on strike when they think a match-up is in their favour. "It's something you see at the end of an innings quite a bit - [MS] Dhoni used to - but maybe you'll see that early in the innings as well."
"I'm sure that will happen more and more often: when someone does it with good success, it will give other people confidence," he adds. "The question is who wants to be the first mover." Don't bet against it being Buttler himself.
Jos Buttler was speaking on behalf of, whose new research shows over half of cricket fans would travel over 3,000 miles to watch their team.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98