Somerset look set to lose Jos Buttler when his contract expires this winter – with the decision to select Craig Kieswetter as wicketkeeper in Twenty20 cricket understood to be the decisive factor.
Buttler was given the gloves for Somerset's opening two Friends Life t20 games – victories over Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire – but has been overlooked in favour of Kieswetter for the recent defeats against Glamorgan and Worcestershire.
Buttler, who is out of contract with his home county this winter, is desperate to stay with Somerset. But he had sought – and received – assurances he would be keeping wicket for them in 20-over and 40-over cricket this season.
The 22-year-old, like Kieswetter, is eager to enhance his England prospects by keeping wicket at county level. Buttler is England's incumbent limited-overs keeper – both in 50-over and 20-over cricket – having replaced his county team-mate last winter.
Somerset – who had been able to dodge a potentially awkward situation in their opening eight YB40 games while Kieswetter recovered from a broken thumb – have been faced with a dilemma since the Friends Life t20 kicked off earlier this month.
After Buttler wore the gloves in the opening two games, it is understood he was informed on the day of the Glamorgan match, last Friday, that Kieswetter would be reinstated. Kieswetter is expected to retain the gloves at Northamptonshire this evening for the t20 clash. Buttler, who has been offered a contract at Taunton but was waiting to see how much time he spent behind the stumps this summer before deciding whether or not to sign, will understandably be frustrated at losing the gloves.
He is now considering his future at Somerset – and is likely to seek advice from England one-day boss Ashley Giles before making a final decision. Although no other counties are yet allowed to approach Buttler, he is likely to have his pick of a number of Test-venue counties, eager to secure his outrageous talent with the bat.
In Neil Fairbrother, Buttler has an agent who understands the machinations of professional and international cricket and seeks to put his players' long-term interests above the possibility of short-term financial gain.
If Fairbrother and Buttler get the impression from Giles that Buttler must keep wicket at county level in order to do so on the international stage – an entirely reasonable request from the England management – then his Somerset departure would effectively be sealed.
At Somerset's pre-season press launch in March, Buttler said: "It's a situation that is ongoing and one we're working out. [But] the opportunities that have arisen for me [with England] have been down the wicketkeeping route, so it's obviously something I need to pursue."
The potential loss of the county's most exciting young player is likely to enrage Somerset members and supporters – who not only see Buttler as a once-in-a-generation talent but also as a symbol of the club.
Buttler was born in Taunton and raised in Wedmore – and grew up idolising players such as current captain Marcus Trescothick.
Somerset director of cricket Dave Nosworthy compared the county's wicketkeeping dilemma to "having Adam Gilchrist and Mark Boucher in the same squad" and stressed they want Buttler to stay beyond the end of this season.
"We want him to stay and we have chatted to him and he has got to make a decision," said Nosworthy. "Jos is a Somerset lad and we would hate to lose him – but he has got to do what's best for his career and we find ourselves in an unbelievable situation.
"It really is like having Gilchrist and Boucher in the same squad – what do you do? Craig is a top keeper and people tend to forget he has played for England very recently. Jos, similarly, is a top keeper and is just getting his opportunities at international level now.
"What do we do? They are equally good fielders, they are equally good batters, and that's the situation we are in. We have to select from game to game, as we see things."
Somerset take on Northamptonshire at Northampton in front of the Sky Sports cameras this evening (6.30pm), desperate to bounce back from successive Twenty20 defeats.
Somerset (from): M Trescothick (capt), C Kieswetter (wkt), P Trego, N Compton, J Hildreth, J Buttler, C Meschede, Y Arafat, A Thomas, M Waller, S Kirby, G Dockrell, A Dibble, J Overton.