Buttler, Bairstow and Foakes – England’s embarrassment of adequacy

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“I’m putting a team together for a job.”

“You son of a bitch. I’m in.”

In heist movies, whenever they put a team together, everyone’s always the best of the best; the best there’s ever been.

You never make do with members of your heist team. You never settle. You don’t pick someone who’s competent at cracking safes, you pick the best God damn safe cracker who ever lived. You don’t pick any old thief, you pick a ninja who can pick people’s pockets while hanging upside down with his eyes closed.

Test cricket teams don’t work like this because Test cricket teams are based in the real world.

When you’re picking a Test team, you’re picking the best players currently available from your nation. The players you pick might not be the best in the world. And it’s highly unlikely they’re the best there’s ever been. Sometimes you just have to hope they’re good enough.

England currently have three wicketkeepers they could credibly pick: Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow and Ben Foakes. Each has his strengths but each also has his weaknesses.

Because there are three of them, and because each excels in some way or other, it’s tempting to see the situation as an embarrassment of riches. But it’s not that. It’s more an embarrassment of adequacy.

Jos Buttler is probably the best limited overs batsman England have ever had. He is a pretty solid stopper behind the stumps to quick bowlers but sometimes ropey when standing up for the spinners. He can play quite brilliant Test innings and temper homogeneity in the Test team – but then he often seems paralysed by the possibilities of Test cricket and he doesn’t score consistently.

Jonny Bairstow has a case to be considered England’s best ever one-day opener. He has scored six Test hundreds. It feels like he could average 40-odd in the longest format, but he doesn’t; he keeps getting bowled. His keeping is decent, probably splitting the difference between Buttler and Foakes.

Ben Foakes has a Test hundred. He is widely considered the best wicketkeeper of the three. But England feel he is vulnerable to pace bowling with the bat and the short ball in particular. They seem to think the flaw is sufficiently glaring that they’re only willing to pick him on the slowest, lowest pitches.

So who do you pick?

Well you could pick any of them. You could pick any one of them and it probably wouldn’t actually make an enormous difference when measured across a decent length of time. For the amount that it’s discussed, it’s probably not an especially important question.

Things would differ from match to match. The specifics would change. Buttler might miss a couple of stumpings – plus a couple more that only Foakes would have tried for – but then he’d probably also give you the occasional innings no-one else would have played. Bairstow would deliver ducks and the odd angry proving-his-doubters-wrong match-winning hundred.

None of these players is perfect so it’s not really fair to measure them on that scale. Also, because there are three of them, you can pretty much guarantee that one of the other two is a better option than the incumbent in any given area. The man in possession can never really win.

Promise and potential are the missing elements here, but maybe we should consider any uplift in performance a bonus. Take the man currently in possession of the gloves, for example. If Buttler doesn’t become what you want him to, he’s still okay. He’ll do a job and probably still give you an occasional taste of the finer things. That’s something.

Or maybe England should try and build a Frankenkeeper using the best elements of each: Foakes’ glovework, Buttler’s wrists, Bairstow’s white hot passion.

“I’m putting a team together for a job.”

“You son of a bitch. I’m in.”


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  1. I wonder whether Joss Buttler might be more effective a place lower down the order where his role would be clearer, ability to accelerate through the gears more often called upon, and the nature and urgency of his task more obvious. Conversely can’t help wondering what Woakes would average with the bat if he were one place higher in the order and had more time to get in and play like a “proper batsman”, like he does pretty well in first-class cricket. Swapsies?

    1. Buttler averages 43.50 at number six opposed to 30.90 at number seven. He scored his only 100 at number six and also has a higher strike rate at number six. Admittedly he has batted at six less than seven so the stats are based off of a smaller sample size but I think there is actually a case to be made that number six is his best position.

      1. Top statting. The strike rate difference is counterintuitive but pretty small and basically goes away if you merge the times he batted at 5 with 6 (and for fairness do the same for 7 and 8). The difference in average is pretty substantial though. Hard to know with batting positions in general how much the figures are skewed by players being shifted about in role or being moved up/down the order due to a change in their form/confidence, but that’s a big enough gap to look meaningful. Interesting that his returns batting at 5 – again with even smaller sample size – are so much worse (and slower), which might be the “trying too hard to play like a stereotypical Test batsman / not knowing how to pace the innings” effect I was thinking (or might just be the result of a low sample size).

        https://stats.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/player/308967.html?class=1;filter=advanced;orderby=default;template=results;type=batting in case anyone else wants to have fun proving anything with Facts.

      2. Top statting! Apparently stats guru links trigger the spam trap on here 🙁 Is there some way to exempt Cricinfo yer Maj?

        The strike rate difference is counterintuitivish (perhaps it reflects more time to get set before teeing off rather than scoring faster from the start?) but small and pretty much goes away if you merge his times batting at 5 and 6 (and for fairness merge 7 and 8). The difference in average is pretty big though. I always wonder with batting position stats how much they get skewed by the changing roles a player is being asked to play, and the way being moved up/down the order is often in response to rises and falls in form and confidence, but that’s a big enough difference to look meaningful. Interesting how much worse the stats are both for average and strike rate at 5: average 28.62, SR 53.6 versus high 50s everywhere else, excluding the two unsuccessful times he was used as an opener. That does look a bit more like I was expecting from the perspective of “trying too hard to bat like a ‘proper’ Test batsman” / “less clear how to pace the innings”, but could equally as well be nothing more than results from an even smaller sample.

      3. Thought it was only multiple links that triggered the spam filter. No idea why that’s happening. Will try and figure out out. Maybe try a shortcode in the meantime? Or just tell us and we’ll try and find and approve it.

  2. Nice Rick and Morty reference, there’s not a lot of Dan Harmon/Ben Foakes crossover in the world

  3. I miss Bairstow’s angry proving-his-doubters-wrong match-winning hundreds.

    England should pick Bairstow in every odd match (& drop him in every even match)

  4. I’m not an expert on heist movies, but in my limited experience of them, one key member of the team is almost always an older bloke who has proved it all and made his pile, but he is persuaded to participate in “one last heist, for old times’ sake”, with predictably tragic results.


    1. Are you saying they should pull Chris Read in if the series is on the line in the final test?

  5. Hypothetical situation No 94: would you choose Buttler, Foakes or Bairstow as your keeper/batsman if, for example, Ben Stokes, were unavailable for the rest of the test series? Show all your workings.

    (Asking for a friend).

    1. Stokes fills 3/4 important roles in the team.

      Vice captain – Jos Buttler (natural choice, he was almost effectively playing as specialist vice captain in many matches)

      Bowler – Stokes will not be missed much in this role.

      All rounder – Chris Woakes

      Top order batsman – I can only think of Bairstow or a promoted Pope or a demoted Root here

      1. ‘A promoted Pope’ can’t be a phrase that has been typed many times before, given that Pope is generally a role without much prospect of promotion.

  6. My understanding is that Johnny Bairstow was one of the most successful no. 7 keeper-batsmen England in the world for a period of about two years until it was decided that the existance of Foakes and Buttler meant he should do other things instead. He was less successful at the various other things and now we are sticking with someone slightly less good at the job he was doing fairly well at.

    With Buttler having show a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses we are now back to considering whether he can do other jobs.

  7. I do feel that Foakes hasn’t had any sort of run and his average in first class cricket plus his hundred on debut suggests he is at least someone worth giving a proper run too.

    I also wonder whether he is sitting in the dressing room willing Buttler to get out…

    I love Buttler and he often thrives under pressure, particularly in chases whereas he is not your man to score a first innings 120 – something that we know Bairstow can do (and does alot in first class cricket) – and something that Foakes has a better track record of doing to. Ponting always goes on about first innings runs being the most important runs and so perhaps this is something else to take into account.

    Either way, i’d give Foakes a run in the team as keeper and with Stokes out play Buttler as a batsman.


    1. Therefore giving Buttler a chance to prove he can score runs as well as Foakes a chance with the gloves. By the end of the series you therefore might be closer to the answer.

  8. There was a time when Bairstow was just about the ideal late middle order batsman, he didn’t get bowled abnormally often and scored loads of runs, even without being goaded by Vaughan. Everyone seems certain that this went away about the time he became a top one day batsman. I’ve never quite understood how this happens, but the facts to fit the theory.

    The selectors have given Buttler a considerably longer run to prove that he has something that they hope he has than they gave Bairstow to regain something he has proved he is capable of. This doesn’t seem right. It does have a whiff of Buttler being Smith’s colours which have been nailed to the test team mast.

    That said, I really like all three of them and want them all to succeed. Somehow.

  9. Foakes gives you strokes.
    Buttler is subtler.
    Bairstow is not being considered for selection at this time.

  10. What England need is a man who is a combination of the three and yet greater than the sum of his parts – a BairButtFoak. A man who can take it in and dish it out. And take it in again.

    1. I know this is a different sport, but I thought this rather anal fact might appeal to your sense of humour DC – the Finnish racing driver Valtteri Bottas is spelled subtly differently in Latvian. For reasons I wouldn’t even hazard a guess at, in Latvia he is known as Valteri Botass. A surname that discharges a degree of redundancy for the Mercedes Number 2. https://lv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valteri_Botass

      1. Don’t suppose there’s any point adopting a favourite driver, but if there were…

    1. This is remarkable.

      5000-6000 people are watching this match live. The commentary is quirky to say the least. More than half-decent filming quality – several camera angles, not just static cameras.

      Tiny live crowd, making very European sounding crowd noise.

      I could acquire a taste for this. Thanks Sam. It’s just a shame I have other things to do today.

      1. One can just imagine the crowd dressed in Lederhosen and berets, with onions around their necks and pencil moustaches, dragging on a cigarillo and shrugging nonchalantly as the BSV openers play out another maiden over.

        ‘Je ne sais pas ce qui se passe là-bas’ indeed.

      2. Now you can watch that live too, at https://youtube.com/watch?v=Wg1gkJbQ0t0 BUT despite being streamed by the same people, it’s only getting 1000 viewers. Presumably because it’s a women’s match, but it’s a bit sad that a German club match gets five times as many views as Germany’s women’s international team.

      3. Bloody Europeans…staying over there…not stealing our (non-existent) jobs…playing our national sport…

        …and they wonder why the UK voted to brexit!

      4. In 1908 the English football team, on a tour of the continent, beat the Austrians 6-1. The ground the match was played at was Cricketer Platz, Vienna.

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