A Lot to Like

Taunton's well-honed image as a bowlers' graveyard is no longer as justified as it once was. For the last three or four years there's been noticeably more grass and bounce in the pitches, and they reward both skilful bowling and patient, discerning batting. In the old days it was usually a simple question of how many runs a side could make before it became too bored with the ease of it all to go on. Unsurprisingly, Somerset have never won the championship.

Now there is help there, although, as should be the way, you need to bowl well to find it. This season, with few exceptions, Somerset haven't been doing so often enough, and, when coupled with a general lack of form and runs from their batsmen, they currently look as far away from a maiden title as they have ever done.

The main exception has been a nineteen year-old from the north Devon coast called Jamie Overton.

Overton's bowling in Somerset's game against Warwickshire in late April, which was covered on Sky, led both David Lloyd and Mike Atherton to suggest that he could be a contender for next winter's Ashes tour, and Mike Selvey has recently joined this club of slightly breathless admirers. As Overton has played just eight first-class matches and taken 23 wickets, it instinctively feels as though people who should know better are getting just a little carried away.

There is, though, a lot to like about Overton.

For a start, unlike so many bowlers of his age, he doesn't look as though the kind of icy wind which plagues the county grounds of England at this time of year will pick him up and carry him over the nearest sightscreen. Overton is bulky, robust, muscular. In the old-fashioned way, he is built to be a seam bowler. Built for hard labour on capricious English tracks. And, from a well-balanced, high, rhythmical action, he has pace. Mid to high eighties with ease, and the ability to make the ball bounce and move away. He keeps his slips on their toes. Although his Cricinfo profile describes him as a medium pace bowler, he is nothing of the sort.

With any bowler of Overton's age, whatever their potential, the uncertainties of future form and fitness hang as heavily in the air as a lower-order hitter's skyer descending to earth; until their potential is realised or they fade from view, nobody can be certain what will happen.

With Jamie, whose name I've known since he and his twin were tearing up the Devon youth circuit as eleven year-olds, I have a hunch that he's going to be good.

Really, really good.


Danger: Genius at Work

Towards the end of March I saw Jos Buttler at my local rugby ground. The Exeter Chiefs were playing Leicester in the Aviva Premiership and he was standing close to where I can usually be found on Devon winter Saturdays, frequently struggling to retain feeling in my limbs as the estuary winds blow in. He was among a group of lads his age and a couple of older men, one of whom I took to be his father. He was relaxed, happy, smiling. He didn't stand out, other than for the lush appearance of his skin, which spoke of time spent far from the grim, biting greyness of the British winter months.

In many ways, Jos Buttler is characteristic of his cricket background. Somerset players, whatever their gifts - and Marcus Trescothick is the ageless template here - tend to be unpretentious and self-aware, mistrustful of metropolitan slickness and artificiality.

Talk is cheap. It is what you do on the pitch, with bat or ball in hand, that matters.

This is Buttler. When interviewed he is quietly spoken, modest, a little reticent perhaps. He doesn't stand out. Except in the way he uses his bat.

After Sandy Park, my next sighting of Buttler came at Taunton during Somerset's first home Championship match of the season against Warwickshire. He made a fluent, easily commanding 119 not out from number six, putting on a creamy 193 with Alviro Petersen. For Buttler, whose name has largely been made in the limited-over game, this was an important innings, showing as it did the level of restraint and shot selection - though never excessive conservatism or lack of fluency - which he is going to need to regularly display if he is to press his claims to be among England's future plans in Test as well as one-day cricket.

At the wicket Buttler has the stillness and capacity for late movement which distinguishes the very best. With a full slip cordon in place and the ball moving, he can be vulnerable, as the quality of his eye and hands can lead him into unwise temptation and misjudgement. However, such is his class, he can usually ride the danger. As with other players of genius, what is almost certain to be fatally inappropriate to a lesser mortal is usually just the simplest way to accrue runs. The difficult and unwise is, in his hands, made to look easy and prudent.

However, it is in the short-form arena that Buttler's virtuosity has its clearest expression. Here he can do what he does as well as any player on the planet. He can innovate and extemporize, and he can bend any bowling attack to his will. The coruscating innings of 89 from 51 balls which he made for Somerset against Yorkshire at Headingley yesterday was simply the most recent example of his gifts. There were the ramp shots to both sides of the hapless wicket-keeper, played with unnatural consistency of timing - the difficult made to look easy - and there were the lofted on-drives, hit with merciless power. But there was also more: lofted off-drives (though in truth they were more like tennis shots) played with a lazy, elastic whip of the arms, subverting the textbook's imprecations to keep the left elbow high and enabling the ball to be directed to parts of the offside boundary which cannot easily be defended by a captain with only nine fielders at his disposal.

Many of Buttler's early games for England were characterized by an air of diffidence which is never apparent when he is playing for his county. Until he made 32 not out off 10 balls in a T20 game (which was reduced to 11 overs per side) against South Africa at Edgbaston last September, there was a sense that he was wondering to himself whether he was good enough. Since then he has appeared more confident and has been marginally more influential, although, as Bob Willis, who, in his mad Uncle sort of way has become Buttler's greatest champion, has said, he needs to bat higher in the order.

Buttler is a one-day player in the modern idiom. As everyone knows, in modern limited-over cricket, reputations are won and lost in the IPL. Because Buttler has never played in the IPL there are wide swathes of the cricket world who don't yet know how good he is. At Headingley yesterday the applause he received when he left the field was hesitant. While this can be attributed at least partly to partisanship, you can be forced to conclude that it is not just on the Indian sub-continent that people are yet to really grasp how good Buttler is.

Before long, you can be sure, they will.

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