Ahead of England’s departure to South Africa on Monday, embarking on their first overseas tour in the age of Covid-19, Jos Buttler hopes the summer’s experiences hold them in good stead.
The men’s side are accustomed to bubble-life after two Tests, two one-day internationals and two T20i in the summer series at the bio-secure venues of the Ageas Bowl and Emirates Old Trafford during the summer. Many of those same players, including Buttler, were also part of the recently completed Indian Premier League in the UAE.
Though the rhythm of matches are largely as normal, even with the absence of fans, it is the time around matches that has often posed a greater challenge in these unusual, locked-in settings. It will continue to be so out in Cape Town, where England will be hosted for their six white-ball internationals – three in each format.
Consoles are high on the priority list when it comes to killing time, along with streaming services and books. But as players, staff (and, indeed, the England and Wales Cricket Board) discovered across a gruelling home schedule, keeping on top of your mental health is key.
“If you are feeling under pressure or not quite feeling yourself, it’s about having the confidence to open up and talk about it,” said Buttler, who is likely to finish the year as the English cricketer who has spent the most time in bubble isolation by the end of this five-week tour.
“All of us will go through it at different stages where you feel a bit homesick or you feel a bit claustrophobic by not being able to get out and about as you might usually want to, so we’ll just have to make sure we are very aware of that. One thing the ECB is excellent at is looking after the players’ wellbeing.”
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Though this will not be the usual tour of South Africa with safaris, the odd winery and, of course, golf, the players will have the “luxury” of not staying onsite. At Southampton and Manchester, this meant downtime at the end of play was tempered by having a window onto the very field where that day’s toil had taken place. In a sport where players are encouraged to seek as much time away from it as possible for their own mindset, it was counter-productive.
“I certainly found it was tougher to escape the game staying at hotels on the grounds in England,” Buttler continued. “They were high pressured matches and when you’ve put a lot into the game it’s nice to get away and relax. Looking out the window and still being on the ground makes it tougher to have your differentials between the game and your relax and recovery time.
“I found it easier in the IPL staying at a hotel away from the ground. There was a clear separation between the two which is great.”
Helping at the IPL was also the presence of Buttler’s family. He was able to have his wife and daughter with him which he regarded as “a huge plus for me and my mental well-being”. It is why he has no qualms in playing both series while Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer and Sam Curran – who also played in the IPL – will miss the one-day series to rest up.
Time away from family was an especially frustrating part of the summer. Buttler, for example, only an hour or so down the road in London when he was holed up in the Ageas Bowl. It was a quandary all who existed within these bubbles had to wrestle with, and something South Africa’s players will encounter over the next month.
Nevertheless, Buttler appreciates he is in a privileged position of being able to play as much as he had. Though there was a moment the tour looked to be under threat given the administrative instability at the top of Cricket South Africa, it seems those fears have subsided to the extent the ECB are confident all fixtures and agreements will be fulfilled. ECB director of cricket, Ashley Giles, has been in touch to reassure the players all systems are go.
There is plenty at stake for England one year out from a Twenty20 World Cup, which presents them with the opportunity to hold both international limited-overs trophies after 2019’s 50-over success. Many of those who have not made the cut for this tour are trying to gain the attention fo selectors in the Pakistan Super League, and the Big Bash League over in Australia.
“To go and win the series is the ultimate aim,” says Buttler. “We’re building towards a World Cup and what we did well in 50-over cricket was win and learn at the same time building towards a tournament.
“Of course winning gives you confidence, when you can play well and get clarity in the side. You want to nail down your 11 and squad of 15 building towards that World Cup. One thing we had in 50-over cricket was that the team almost picked itself towards the end of that cycle and that’s a great place to be. You get a lot of confidence from guys playing with each other and then going into the tournament and high-pressure situations you are very familiar with your own role and what you expect of your teammates.”
Also is the sense of duty to those at home who are enduring the second lockdown. Having filled a void in people’s lives during the summer, England are keen to do the same once more.
“‘It’s a big part of it,” said Buttler on the idea that lifting spirits will motivation over these six fixtures. “All of the live sport that has been on TV has been a big plus for everyone during lockdown. It’s a nice escape.
“We’re very lucky we are able to carry on and play professional cricket so we know it’s our duty to play well and put on a good show for those watching at home.”
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