It is Sunday morning at the County Ground in Taunton, in England’s lush south-west. The sky is an anaemic shade of grey, and, although the weather forecast is good, light rain begins to fall. As it does, the players of Somerset and Lancashire go through the elaborate warm-up routines which distinguish the modern professional cricketer from his predecessors. Some run after a football as a means of shedding Saturday night’s sleep from their eyes, while others work on specific skills.
They bat, they bowl, they catch, they field.
As the rain begins to get heavier, the players drift without purpose towards the Andy Caddick Pavilion. It is starting to look as though play will not start on time, and there seems little need to go through the motions. It is time for rest and contemplation. The toss, and play, will come later.
A young man with light brown hair, sharp, expressive eyes and the lithe, muscular build of the natural athlete moves among the Somerset players. His white T-shirt, bearing a time-honoured red rose, distinguishes him from his former colleagues. A glance here, a chat there, a hug, followed by a roar of laughter, somewhere else. This, if ever there was, is a local boy made good.
When Jos Buttler left Somerset to play for Lancashire at the end of the 2013 season, there was no animosity. Everyone, from the players who shared his hopes, fears and triumphs at the closest of quarters, to the rootless drinkers who occupy the Old Pavilion bar from start to stumps every day, knew that it was just business. In time, he would be back, and he would be welcomed. This is that time.
Eventually the rain clears and the toss is made. Buttler’s county captain, Glen Chapple, chooses to bat. Chapple has pounded the county beat with unrecognized distinction since Buttler was a young child, and he grew into the professional game at a time when Taunton pitches were synonymous with runs.
Times have changed, though, and modern Taunton pitches offer help to bowlers who know what to do. The Somerset attack is aware of this, and all of them, from the ageing but eternally competitive Alfonso Thomas, through the coolly flamboyant Peter Trego, to the young Devonian confrères Lewis Gregory and Craig Overton, make the ball bounce and move. Batting is difficult.
Mid-afternoon, 47 overs gone, Steven Croft plays a poorly-judged slash at a ball from the young Irish spinner George Dockrell and is caught behind It is time for Buttler, batting at six, to come to the crease.
The Taunton crowd is knowledgeable and loyal. It is customary for Somerset players to be greeted with warm applause but this courtesy does not always extend to the opposition.
When Buttler emerges on to the playing surface, things are different.
The applause builds in rhythm and volume to the point where the announcement of his name is hard to hear. But it is, of course, unnecessary. Everyone here knows who Jos Buttler is, and what he has
For a brief moment there is the feeling that Buttler might, like Bradman in 1948, be applauded all the way to the middle, but, as he reaches the edge of the square and confers with Paul Horton, who has been batting since the start of the innings, the applause begins to die away.
Normality reintrudes, but the thought occurs that Buttler, although he is simply a young man doing his job, would need to have a heart of stone not to have been moved by his reception.
Buttler’s innings is an uneasy affair. As ever, he wants to dominate, but he is forced on to the defensive by the sluggishness of the pitch and the accuracy of his former team-mates. There are hints of his characteristic fluency of timing, but he finds the fielder too often, and even his two sixes are not quite struck with his usual robust clarity. At one point Thomas makes as if to Mankad Buttler, before embracing him to show that he wasn’t serious. The crowd laughs along, but Buttler doesn’t crack a smile. He was unhappy about what happened to him at Edgbaston and he is well aware that he needs to concentrate harder, both when backing up and when facing. This is especially true today, but, when he has made 18, Gregory gets one through his defence and shatters his stumps. The cheers of the crowd are even louder than the applause he received on the way to the wicket.
Jos Buttler knows what it is to walk through the Long Room at Lord’s with the cheers of the crowd ringing in his ears, and, before he is done with the game, he will know what it is to be applauded from the field at many another of the world’s great arenas. For all his quietly-spoken modesty he is still at an age where action and achievement are everything and nostalgic reflection is for the future. Sport as a job demands that.
However, we that have been around for longer and have never had to depend on the bounce of a ball for our living can reflect on the significance of what we have seen. It has been a demonstration of the common humanity which, particularly at the heart of the county game, still suffuses cricket.
One day Jos Buttler will do the same.
Brian Carpenter has been watching Somerset at Taunton since 1991. He writes the cricket blog Different Shades of Green (http://differentshadesofgreen.co.uk) and he was the inaugural winner of the Wisden Cricket Writing Competition in 2012.