The first inkling that Tuesday was going to be Jos Buttler’s night, and not that of his counterpart Kane Williamson, came in the sixth over of the game when a catch tumbled out of the latter’s palms. The New Zealand captain had run almost 10 yards, judged the flight of the ball precisely and lunged perfectly, but the greasy ball just did not stick in his hands. Nor could he cling on to the rebound. Buttler, then on nine and looking scratchy, raised his game by a couple of notches, survived yet another life and bludgeoned 73 runs. The innings formed the back-bone of England’s total of 179, of which the Kiwis fell short by 20 runs.
For much of the opening exchanges, Buttler was a passive onlooker. His partner Alex Hales was not only hoarding the strike but also propelling the run-rate of the must-win game with lusty blows. He saw off a slithering over from Trent Boult, and an inside-edge just changed direction on an off-stump bound Boult rocket, before he latched onto Boult’s swing ally, Tim Southee. The masterful seamer was off-kilter, spraying numerous long hops and length balls and missing the usual accuracy.
England flogged 48 in the powerplay; 37 off Hales’s blade. The most pugnacious stroke was a charge-and-hammer six down the ground off Southee. That same over, he cracked successive fours over cover as well. Buttler had then faced just 11 balls, of which he had eked out 10 runs.
But Buttler was to switch gears, assuming the difficult task of counterpunching New Zealand’s enforcer Lockie Ferguson, the meanest and fastest in their stable. So the third ball of the over, he tiptoed to the middle-stump, harnessed his pace and ramped him over fine-leg. An incredible shot in isolation for the sheer audacity of Buttler to even imagine, let alone, execute it smoothly. The shot did not spark a deluge of boundaries. It’s not Buttler’s game—he does not try to carnage every ball. He waits for moments. He waits for bowlers.
A captain’s knock 💪
— ICC (@ICC) November 1, 2022
After two tight overs, that trickled just nine runs, he reverse-swept Ish Sodhi, who was purchasing innocuous turn, for a momentum-changing four. He repeated the shot an over later, even though he had lost Hales for 52. He then lost another partner in Moeen Ali, whose promotion seemed utterly ill-advised. Then came another confirmation that it was Buttler’s night when Daryll Mitchell dropped him the ball after he had pummelled him through mid-off. He rubbed salt into the wounds of Ferguson by slapping another couple of boundaries, the first was a full-bloodied slap over mid-off, the second a cross-court forehand off a slow bouncer. Their most lethal bowler dismembered, New Zealand let the guard down.
Boult faces finishing blues
As a last-gasp effort to pull things back, Williamson summoned Boult. Buttler greeted him with a pair of powerful boundaries. Buttler is such a versatile player that when his touch deserts him, he could rely on his brute strengths, those thick forearms and robust shoulder generating ridiculous power. None as ferocious as the sledgehammered six in Boult’s next over. He picked the ball from the sixth stump and tugged it over long-on, over the sight-screen. Then came the only moment of the night when luck deserted him, when Williamson stopped a fierce strike from Ben Stokes at extra-cover and fired in a flat throw at Southee, who ran Buttler out. The under-firing middle-order seems to be England’s grey spot—only Liam Livingstone managed a double-digit score—but on Tuesday. Buttler and Hales glossed over it with their shimmering stroke-play.
For New Zealand to out-run England’s versatile crew of bowlers—a right-arm swing bowler, a left-arm seam exponent, a tearaway, a leg-spinner, an off-spinner, a part-time spinner who could bowl both, a hard-length basher—they required a quick start. But all they managed was 26 runs in the first four, and forty in the power-play. But Glenn Phillips, New Zealand’s man of the tournament, flickered embers of hope, in the company of a resolute Williamson. Dropped on 15, by Moeen Ali at extra cover, he began to punish the Englishmen, who for a few overs, let themselves be panic-stricken. His strokes were precise and powerful. He was especially ruthless on Rashid, who he pillaged for 17 runs in an over. The captain struggled to pierce the gaps, but demonstrated his doggedness to steer the team forward. At one juncture, when on 114 for 2 in 14 overs, they seemed like they could hunt down the target. But England bargained a wicket apiece in the next four overs to stub out the chase.
Our boss ❤️
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) November 1, 2022
How they claimed those four wickets underlined the depth of their craft. Stokes foxed Williamson with extra inward movement off a short ball; Mark Wood hurried Jimmy Neesham with pace and bounce; Chris Woakes deceived Daryll Mitchell with a cutter that stopped a bit after landing; Sam Curran undid Phillips with his clever mixing up of angles and pace, and reaped the reward. When Phillips departed for 62 off 36 balls, New Zealand were still 44 runs adrift of England’s target, and they did not possess the lower-order ammo to mount a late charge.
In the end, Buttler was a much relieved man. “We needed this win after the Ireland defeat. But it is still tricky,” he said during the presentation. The win takes England to the second spot, courtesy a superior run-rate to Australia. But all top three teams are locked at five points, which means all three would have to not only win their final game but also accomplish that at a healthy run-rate. In short, England would need another Buttler night.