There will be nights when English batters have found run-scoring much easier than Buttler did against Sri Lanka in Sharjah but none has paced an innings better, nor executed such a calculated takedown of an opposing attack. The majority of games to date in the Super 12 stage had been decided by the toss; this was decided by the Jos.
To comprehend Buttler’s innings requires an understanding of conditions in Sharjah. Ever since the pitch block at this intimate venue was relaid earlier this year, pitches have played slow, with low bounce from a good length its defining feature. This was the third time that this strip had been used in eight days and its skiddy nature rendered timing near-impossible before the dew took over.
Buttler’s innings had started with a shot that has quietly became a trademark since his promotion to open in T20 cricket, a compact back-foot punch through the covers off Dushmantha Chameera which earned him three runs, he struggled early on, inside-edging Lahiru Kumara for four past short fine leg.
An undervalued skill for T20 openers is the ability to judge conditions early on. It has proved particularly tricky in this tournament, with teams batting first regularly losing their openers early due to movement off the seam and often undershooting as a result – particularly given the advantages chasing teams have enjoyed after dew has taken over.
“You’re trying to get a read of the wicket, and looking for a number or a score,” Buttler explained in an interview with the Telegraph last week. “After an over or two, you get a bit of a feeling of what the wicket might be like. The skill is you’re trying to work that out as you’re going along and still trying to put pressure on the opposition and play well.”
Perhaps that was the one area of the evening where Buttler fell short of his usual standards. “We were in a bit of trouble [but] the guys were relaying back to the dressing room that 110 might be a good score,” Paul Collingwood, England’s assistant coach, said at the interval; Buttler managed 101 on his own.
The second half of his innings was a devastating assault on Sri Lanka’s seamers, with Charith Karunaratne and Dasun Shanaka’s medium pace – splitting the fifth-bowler allocation between them – coming in for particularly rough treatment. Buttler spotted the weak links in the attack and pounced, punishing anything full or short.
Karunaratne was thumped through and over midwicket with a strong bottom hand and Shanaka, left to bowl the 18th over after going in for an early kill with his main bowlers, came in for particularly harsh treatment: a length ball at 81mph/131kph disappeared over midwicket; his response, a late-dipping slower ball, was bludgeoned back over his head and into the stands with a whip of the bottom hand.
Buttler made a rare misjudgement in Chameera’s final over, top-edging a pull to deep square leg. But Pathum Nissanka put down the catch, charging in off the rope, and after two mistimed shots, Buttler rolled his wrists to clip a full toss off his pads for six, joining Heather Knight as the second England player to hit international hundreds in all three formats.
All told, Buttler managed 12 runs off 24 balls against spin, but 89 off 43 against seam; after taking 45 balls over his first 50 runs, his next 51 took just 22. His average as an opener in T20 internationals is now 60.50 with a strike rate of 149.17, a remarkable cocktail of dependability and destruction.
“I found it tough early on, the spinners especially tricky with the low bounce and they were hard to get away,” Buttler told Sky. “So I’m really pleased to keep a calm head and work through it, back myself to come good at the end and start to target certain bowlers and at certain ends with a shorter side on one side.
“I felt like I used a lot of experience. I remember saying a while ago, if I can put both parts of my game together then I think I’ll be getting in a really good place with my T20 batting: I’ve had a lot of experience batting in the middle and to put that together with the top, I can back myself to catch up at certain times and [rely on] the death hitting of my game which is a strength.”
His near-perfect night even extended into the field: in the first over of Sri Lanka’s chase he effected the run-out of Nissanka, whipping the bails off after Morgan’s clean throw; in the 18th, his direct hit left Shanaka short of his ground to effectively seal England’s successful defence. “The run-out was the best feeling on the field today,” he smiled after.
The brevity of T20 World Cups means that certain factors can have a huge impact on outcomes: a streak of consecutive toss wins, or several tight decisions going in a team’s favour. Equally, it allows a purple patch of career-best form by one of the world’s best players to lift a team to a trophy: England might be two nights of Buttler brilliance away from the World Cup.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98