On a chilly night in Canberra, a few days before England’s T20 World Cup campaign started, Matthew Mott was asked if he and Jos Buttler had finalised a first XI for the tournament. “We’ll always rotate because I think that makes sense under different conditions,” the head coach said. “It’s a funny one because no matter what the first XI is, it doesn’t mean it’ll be the XI in the next game. It’s not as big an issue as it might sound.”
Since then England have played three games, one on a cool night in Perth, another on a rainy day in Melbourne and one on a humid evening in Brisbane. They have named the same team. Combined with the way they took on their run chase against Ireland – with the apparent certainty they could pace themselves over 20 overs, when a glance at a weather forecast or, for that matter, the sky would have suggested a completely different approach – the unchanged lineups suggested this was a template team, with an inflexibility of approach that runs contrary not just to common sense but to their coach’s public statements.
Against New Zealand on Tuesday they became something different. There was a fluidity to their batting lineup and an unpredictability to their bowling changes, an apparent commitment to reacting to each moment rather than sticking to a script. Even if England get knocked out of the World Cup by losing to Sri Lanka on Saturday it would not alter the significance of that performance as a marker of Buttler’s development as a captain, four months after he was chosen to replace Eoin Morgan.
“The last game was a big one for him as captain and he came through it really well,” Chris Woakes said on Thursday. “He made some big calls, big decisions, and played fantastically well himself.
“Taking over the reins from Morgs, who had a successful reign as captain and has done so much for the game, he must have felt the pressure of that.”
The first sign something different was afoot came before the game began when Buttler told his side that should he win the toss he would choose to bat first. “We’ve always been a bowl-first team – the majority of T20 teams around the world have been,” Woakes said. “But he was very clear he wanted to bat first. That’s quite a big call.
“Just naturally I can definitely see a confidence with him about how he’s going about his business and the way he talks to the group. The Jos that I know, the confidence he has as a player, he’s showing that as a captain.”
Buttler led England 14 times before his appointment as Morgan’s full-time successor, but his permanent captaincy got off to a dismal start as his team lost seven of 10 white-ball games in the English summer. One of the key changes since then came on the tour of Pakistan in September, when Buttler was present but not playing as he recovered from a calf injury.
Moeen Ali filled in, was widely praised and is now established as Buttler’s right-hand man – sometimes literally as the first-choice slip fielder. Working as a double act has meant Buttler spends much less time running from behind the stumps to deliver messages to bowlers. “Coming from wicketkeeper all the time is quite challenging, rather than just being at mid-off and talking to the bowler,” Woakes said. “Having that dialect with Mo is really important and has worked really well.”
A succession of injuries, culminating in knee surgery in July, forced Woakes to miss the entire summer, so he had no direct experience of Buttler’s first steps in full-time captaincy. But Tuesday made it clear that even at 32, long established as one of the world’s great T20 batters, and a veteran of 333 matches in the format, 100 of them internationals, he is still learning.
“There’s definitely been a change over the last month or so,” Woakes said. “I wasn’t around over the summer so I came into the team after that transition had some time to bed in, but it definitely feels like Jos has stamped his authority on the team a bit more. It gives us a lot of confidence as a team moving forward that we were able to beat New Zealand in that sort of manner.”