Jos Buttler heads into his first Test back as England’s full-time wicketkeeper claiming to have a “nothing to lose” attitude and a refreshed mind following the emotional drain of the World Cup and Ashes summer.
Buttler’s first-innings 110 and some fine glovework behind the stumps were among the chief plus-points for England as they chewed over a slightly frustrating draw in their final warm-up before Thursday’s first Test against New Zealand.
The 29-year-old has averaged 36 with the bat since his recall to the side last summer and was their second highest run-scorer after Joe Root during this time. Yet with no defined role in the lower-middle order, he was also starting to look like a luxury that a flaky England line-up could not necessarily afford.
But Jonny Bairstow’s low-key summer against the red ball – and a desire by Ed Smith, the national selector, to convince the Yorkshireman his future lies as a specialist batsman – has opened up a second chance for Buttler as wicketkeeper.
And though he declined to issue any long-term targets here – perhaps in part due to Bairstow still coming to terms with the demotion, or his own previous struggle keeping in all formats back in 2015 – he feels energised by additional responsibility after five weeks off at the end of England’s epic home summer.
“I’ve nothing to lose with the bat or the gloves,” said Buttler, whose sixth first-class century allied attack with defence, spread over three-and-half hours but with 11 fours and four sixes. “It’s a great time to be involved with a new head coach [Chris Silverwood]. It’s a new challenge and I’m going to throw myself into it.
“It was a tough summer – physically and emotionally – great fun, a huge challenge and one you look back on with real fondness. But it took a lot out of most of us. The time we have had off has been invaluable.
“I had a couple of net sessions at Somerset with Marcus Trescothick during this time. I really enjoyed that and got a lot out of it. It gave some building blocks to come here feeling in good touch.”
Buttler was speaking after Engand’s three-day match against New Zealand A ended much like their previous visit to these shores: a lower-order rearguard leaving them two wickets short of forcing a win.
Back in Christchurch 18 months ago a Test series was lost 1-0 because of it. Here in sleepy Whangarei, Root’s men at least know it will mean little should they prevail come the main event.
Having posted 405 all out in reply to New Zealand A’s 302 for six declared on the opening day – something that ultimately made a game of it – the hosts began the final session on 129 for eight. Jofra Archer and Sam Curran had claimed three wickets apiece and with a mere 26-run lead on the board, victory was in sight.
But Will Sommerville and Ajaz Patel, two spinners with precisely zero first-class half-centuries between them, dug in for a stand of 22.4 overs and 40 runs that prompted handshakes once Root decided enough was enough. All five members of the attack attempted to pick the lock, as well as the captain himself, but none succeeded.
Now there is a caveat of course. England’s bowlers were never going to truly pop a lung so close to the main event, even if Silverwood had lobbied for the fixture to carry first-class status and thus ensure something was always riding on it.
But on a flat pitch, Archer’s importance as a potential game-breaker overseas stood out again, something slightly worrying in itself given the 24-year-old fast bowler is yet to even play his first Test match away from home.
Having already taken Hamish Rutherford out the game with concussion on day one, he nicked off Rachin Ravindra and new opening partner Tim Seifert before returning to have Tom Blundell – part of New Zealand’s main squad – caught on the pull.
Buttler described Archer as operating at “80 to 90%” pace, saving some back for Thursday. And in a match with more at stake, Root would likely have unleashed him on the ninth-wicket pair for more than just the three overs afforded.
Curran got the ball to move a touch too, just when fears over the left-armer’s efficacy as a third seamer with the Kookaburra ball were starting to creep in.
First innings centurion Glenn Phillips was strangled down leg and Scott Kuggeleijn missed a yorker from around the wicket. But Jimmy Neesham’s dismissal, caught behind, was a genuine outswinger as Buttler pouched a fine diving effort.
Jack Leach induced few terrors on the day three track, Stuart Broad was tidy enough for his one for 25 and Ben Stokes as whole-hearted as ever. But 14 wickets across 154 overs in the match demonstrated just how hard it will be to take all 20 in these parts unless Archer truly fires.