Jos Buttler was the mastermind and master technician as England tore up both rulebook and form guide in Brisbane to derail New Zealand’s runaway train and revive their own hopes of winning the T20 World Cup. A game they could not afford to lose was won by 20 runs and will allow them to head to Sydney and their final game against Sri Lanka with confidence high and the semi-finals in their sights.
When Buttler won the toss and elected to bat first – a common enough decision by captains in this tournament but one he has rarely made – it was an indication that he was approaching this match with a fresh outlook. And after dragging his team to a total of 179 with an innings of 73 off 47 balls – although he was dropped twice, on eight and on 40 – he led them onto the field and displayed captaincy that fed the shredder a template he has often followed to the letter.
Moeen Ali not only bowled – for the first time in the tournament – he took the opening over; Mark Wood didn’t touch the ball until the last over of the powerplay, when both Sam Curran and Adil Rashid had had chances. Moeen and Liam Livingstone, who Buttler had admitted in the build-up hadn’t been given enough chance to influence games with the bat, came in at three and four respectively. This was the night Elton John’s tribute band delivered a jazz funk surprise.
“To make a few runs for the team and then a couple of times you make a decision and it comes off straight away, it’s always nice when that happens,” he said. “You can look at numbers until the cows come home, but I think the feeling is very important. My own captaincy journey is still quite young, and as it develops I think I’ll get even more of a feel for what I like. I came out after batting and thought Moeen was going to bowl the first over – I didn’t think that led into the game, but it’s important to see what’s in front of you, to trust your instincts and your experience.”
Towards the end, even the decisions forced on him paid off: Livingstone felt some soreness in his ankle and spent the final overs off the pitch, allowing Chris Jordan to come in and take up position at long-on.
Daryl Mitchell and Glenn Phillips lofted the ball straight to him, and the resulting catches effectively decided the contest. “I told CJ, I think every time the ball goes up, he would be my first choice in the world to be under it,” Buttler said.
New Zealand captain Kane Williamson had a few surprises of his own. For example, there had been much attention in building up the potential for England’s left-handers in the middle order to punish their spinners, so Mitchell Santner came on early, Ish Sodhi joined him not long after, and of the first six overs of spin all but two balls were targeted against Buttler and Alex Hales, the right-handed openers.
During this period, England’s innings dropped a bit, scoring 37 runs, and just three boundaries, off the first 36 balls. Meanwhile, Moeen, whose reputation against spin is second to none in this England team, watched from the sidelines, padded but seated. Halfway through their innings, England had lost no wickets and scored just 76, and at the drinks break they were clearly debating a change of batting. It was time to go big or go home, and Hales went with option two.
He reached his half-century off his next ball, top-edged for four, and was out for it after that, stumped after jumping down the pitch to Santner. For all that England never really accelerated, the feeling as their innings ended was that having put themselves in a position to post a genuinely daunting target, they never quite got there.
On the eve of the match, Buttler may have been a little daunted at the prospect of outmaneuvering Devon Conway, the hero of the Kiwis’ knocking out of Australia; Finn Allen, their power play tornado; Phillips, whose century anchored them to victory over Sri Lanka, and the twin terrors of last year’s semi-final, Mitchell and Jimmy Neesham. But of them, only Phillips really fired, smashing 62 off 36 after being inexplicably dropped by Moeen when he was on 15. The match finally turned on four wickets in as many overs from as many bowlers, between the 15: e and the 18th, of which Phillips was the last.
His departure meant the end for New Zealand, and for England perhaps a new beginning. For them, this was a night when all that mattered was winning, but they came out of it with renewed confidence in their ability, in their approach – and in their captain.
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