Jos Buttler was the mastermind and the master technician as England ripped up both rulebook and form guide in Brisbane to derail New Zealand’s runaway train and reignite 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 for Sydney and their final fixture against Sri Lanka with confidence high and the semi-finals in their sights.
When Buttler won the toss and chose to bat first – a common enough decision by captains across this tournament but one he has rarely come to – it was an indication that he was approaching this game with a fresh outlook. And having hauled his team towards a total of 179 with an innings of 73 off 47 – though he was dropped twice, on eight and on 40 – he led them on to the field and produced a display of captaincy that fed to the shredder a template he has often followed to the letter.
Moeen Ali did not only bowl – for the first time in the tournament – he took the opening over; Mark Wood did not touch the ball until the last over of the powerplay, by which time both Sam Curran and Adil Rashid had had a go. Moeen and Liam Livingstone, who Buttler had acknowledged in the buildup had not been given enough of a chance to influence games with the bat, came in at three and four respectively. This was the night the Elton John tribute band turned in a surprise jazz-funk set.
“To score some 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 till the cows come home but I think the feel is really important. My own captaincy journey is still pretty young, and as it evolves I think I’ll get even more of a feel for what I like. I came off having batted and thought that Moeen should bowl the first over – I didn’t think that leading into the game, but it’s important to see what’s in front of you, to trust your instincts and your experience.”
By the end even the decisions forced upon him were paying off: Livingstone felt some soreness in his ankle and spent the last few overs off the field, allowing Chris Jordan to come on and take up position at long-on. Daryl Mitchell and Glenn Phillips duly sent the ball soaring straight to him, and the resulting catches effectively settled the contest. “I said to CJ, I think any time the ball goes up he’d be my No 1 pick in the world to be under it,” Buttler said.
New Zealand’s captain, Kane Williamson, had a few surprises of his own. There had, for example, been much attention in the buildup on the potential for England’s middle-order left-handers to punish his 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 directed at Buttler and Alex Hales, the right-handed openers.
During this period England’s innings lost its way a little, and they scored 37 runs, and only three boundaries, off those first 36 balls of spin. Meanwhile Moeen, whose reputation against spin is unrivalled in this England team, watched from the sidelines, padded up but sitting down. Halfway through their innings England had lost no wickets but scored only 76, and at the drinks break they clearly discussed a change of tack. 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 to the one after that, stumped after skipping down the pitch to Santner. For all that England never significantly 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 round to it.
On the eve of the game Buttler might have been a bit spooked at the prospect of outmanoeuvring Devon Conway, hero of the Kiwis’ thrashing of Australia; Finn Allen, their powerplay 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 those only Phillips really fired, savaging 62 off 36 after being inexplicably dropped by Moeen when he was on 15. The match finally turned on a run of four wickets in as many overs from as many bowlers, between the 15th and the 18th, of which Phillips’ was the last.
His departure spelt the end for New Zealand, and for England perhaps a new start. For them this was a night when all that mattered was winning, but they emerged from it with fresh confidence in their ability, in their approach – and in their captain.