Jos Buttler keeping wicket for Somerset - but is that role right for him?
21 year-old Jos Buttler may still appear relatively inexperienced, yet this precocious batsman is already showing signs of potential superstardom. England now seem to be investing heavily in young, raw talent - looking to develop nascent youths into assured international cricketers. Buttler certainly has all the necessary requirements to fulfil this path.
Buttler secured his place in the Somerset fist XI more by luck than brilliance. The county side found themselves without a wicketkeeper after Craig Kieswetter was poached by England's ODI team in the summer of 2010. Buttler had been awarded a small number of matches towards the end of the 2009 season, but indelibly marked his name in the starting X1 after Kieswetter graduated to the highest level.
Buttler took his chance, and particularly shone in the Twenty20 format. His explosive, dominant but also skilful batting was indicative of many of the young players now coached to play not only for five days, but also for twenty overs. However, there is something slightly special about this native West Country boy.
Success did not come straight away - though scoring six not out on T20 debut was never going to create headlines. Yet, his gradual progression through the 2010 season was evident, growing in confidence and assurance with every match.
It was also his remarkable temperament that caught the eye of myself and many other observers at Taunton. Quite often inexperienced players make injudicious, ill-advised decisions, seeking glory over productive pragmatism. Buttler was different. He was calculating, managing to be restrained if necessary whilst not ever letting the opposition dominate him. He has the ability to hit sixes for fun, yet is too smart to be complacent and take this risky option at every attempt.
His most desirable facet, though, is that he is a "big game player." It's a horrible phrase, but particularly relevant here. Batting at six means he rarely scores hundreds for Somerset, but he does make the most valuable runs.
This was first highlighted specifically last year - on a significant number of occasions. Having shown glimpses of genius in the past what he managed was not unsurprising, yet still highly impressive.
In the T20 quarter final against Nottinghamshire last season, a match Somerset were tipped to lose, Buttler was simply destructive. He only scored 34 runs, but it crucially came off just 18 deliveries. The most powerful player in the world, Kieron Pollard, was actually taking singles to enable his partner to have the strike and win the game. It was all the more commendable because of the intense situation, his side being all but defeated before his arrival.
This was not the only time, however. Buttler top-scored - hitting a professional 32 runs from 14 balls - in the subsequent semi-final against Hampshire, another game Somerset looked likely to lose but eventually won with a super over - Buttler was given the responsibility of opening in the single over shootout and scored 5 runs from 2 balls, including a first ball boundary. This was still not his most outstanding performance, though.
He saved this for the showpiece event of the county one-day season. The CB40 final at the home of cricket, Lord's, in September last year was the venue for his most wonderful performance; soaking up pressure like an experienced professional and hitting boundaries with sublime ease. With Somerset looking odds on for another final flop, Buttler hit a majestic 86 runs from 72 balls. It was all the more brilliant considering the disastrous situation, with Buttler, batting down the order, making 60 runs more than the next highest scorer in his side. That day he looked not only at home, but perhaps Somerset?s most treasured one day player - not an easy feat in a side including an opening pair of Marcus Trescothick and Craig Kieswetter. Despite being on the losing team, it was here that Buttler grabbed the attention of the wider audience.
However, although these sorts of performances have earned Buttler international call-ups - he has played eight international matches in total - there are still some major deficiencies in his game. The first most obvious one is his wicket-keeping skills, or lack of them. He started as a glove-man, yet this career path is evident to all observers to be ultimately incorrect. It would be wrong for him to consider this option full-time - especially as it might potentially jeopardise the further development of his prodigious batting talent. Although not being wholly inept behind the stumps, he has hardly mastered this position as he has managed to so brilliantly with his batting.
Also, while being a magician in the shorter formats, Buttler still struggles slightly in the first class game. His average in the four day form is less than half of what it is in the List A game - 32.08 compared with 67.05. Although this comparison is slightly distorted because of his outstanding limited overs record and also his low position in the Somerset order, for someone of his abundant ability - highlighted by the impressive one day statistics - 32.08 is too low.
Perhaps this is because Buttler appears to get caught in two minds. He has not quite managed to adjust his naturally aggressive game to the calmer and more tactical world of four days. No one doubts his talent, and his proven mental capacity and shrewd thinking suggests First Class success is imminent - though whether this will be at international level is less clear.
Certainly this success could come with experience - with just 27 matches under his belt Buttler is still a relative novice in this most challenging of formats. One does feel, though, that this approaching season will be crucial. He has successfully demonstrated his T20 game in the alternative conditions of India, having been a critical part of the Somerset side that reached the semi-finals of the recent Champions League tournament. He has also proven all his skills a number of times in England.
However, this forthcoming season will really test him. People will now look with expectation when watching him bat, a part of his mental game that has not been hitherto exposed. Many of the staff at Somerset and England will also anticipate a more successful First Class season - something that will be difficult to achieve, especially as he has precious little time to remedy the shortcomings which currently prevent the prosperity that appears his destiny.
Buttler's international potential will also be put on trial. In five innings for England he has scored just 33 runs. It would be deeply unfair to judge him on this period, but any matches from now on will be viewed with a greater scrutiny by many. If he wants to be involved in the T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka at the end of the English summer it is imperative he maintains his past limited overs domestic form, while also translating that into the tougher international and First Class arenas.
Buttler struggled to do this in the recent T20 matches for his country against Pakistan. Perhaps he was overwhelmed by the immense quality of the Pakistan bowling attack. Particularly at the end of the game, when Buttler usually arrives at the crease due to his low position in the order - at six - Pakistan excel, making batting incredibly difficult, especially considering he possesses minimal experience. Saeed Ajmal and Umar Gul are arguably the best death pairing in the world, so to expect Buttler to perform to his usual high standards in his first international tour abroad would be unreasonable.
Buttler's struggle could also be because he often found himself in difficult situations, which one only combats with experience. He usually started his innings at a time when England were starting to increase the run rate, though not so late in the game when losing his wicket became irrelevant. Buttler therefore had to assess whether to go all out to reach an outstanding total, or to preserve a good situation by taking singles. In the end he did neither, attempting to get in but giving himself far too little time, and eventually getting out trying to hit boundaries.
It should not be forgotten, though, that he was picked by the England selectors on the back of an impressive England Lions tour - which contained two centuries against Sri Lanka A in five 50 over matches. This proves his versatility in foreign conditions, and ability to cope with the step-up to, though not completely full international level, an opposition blessed with greater talent than a county side.
Success will be attained at full international level with time, however. Buttler has brilliant talent, and at just 21 years of age has plenty of time to develop and expand his game that already includes mental and physical strength far beyond his very few years. From now on, however, the comfort of being "a youngster" has gone. This is now the time when he will really be tested.