Wisden Cricket Monthly editor-in-chief Phil Walker talks to Dawid Malan, and wonders if his wicket-preserving instincts might be precisely what England’s band of dashers need.
It’s 48 hours before the first game yet no one knows. England’s XI will only be revealed after the final training session, a day out from the first hit against West Indies. There’s only one sure bet to play, says Dawid Malan, speaking to Wisden from this week’s opulent prison, and that’s the skipper (whose own place is of course the subject of hot debate). Malan will confess to “a few sleepless nights” waiting for the nod. He’s 34, on the cusp of his first world tournament.
“The tough part is the waiting,” he says. “But then that’s the beauty of this team, I wouldn’t say it’s all kept under wraps, but with so many options to choose from, it keeps us all on our toes.”
You might think that the world’s No.1 ranked T20I batter – with his average well north of 40, and his strike rate superior to that of Bairstow, Morgan and Moeen, and the career equal of Buttler – would be inclined to back himself a bit more. But that would be to misunderstand the dynamics of England’s remorseless white-ball culture, not to say the tangled complexities of the man himself.
Malan played both warm-up games, made 18 (18) and 11 (15) from No.3, and turned his phone off. It’s something he’s been doing for a while now, come rain or shine, pruning his interactions to a point where he can function at something like full tilt, detached from the din; “away from the noise” as he puts it.
Those practice knocks were his first loosely competitive hits since early September, following his decision to take a break from the game rather than join up for the IPL. For Malan, a multi-format player in high demand, it was felt to be essential. He speaks of having felt drained at various points last summer, of bubble-darkness, and a sense of fighting against himself. “You see it now with guys pulling out of big tournaments, lucrative tournaments. Especially the guys who have done it a lot, they just can’t do it any more. You just can’t perform. There’s no release.”
His self-imposed breather gave him the chance to process a summer in which he returned to the Test side after three years, looked the part, and is now tentatively established in the Kryptonite slot at No.3. He returns to Australia next month – to the scene of his first overseas Test tour, where he scrapped to the top of England’s list of series run-scorers – a more rounded player, more expressive, less obviously self-conscious, and a wiser player of the other game, the one raging beneath the surface.
When Malan came back in last August, he’d racked up 51 caps across the formats, helping to kindle some of the confidence that was in scarce supply first time round. “Back then, I was suddenly sharing a field with Broad, Anderson, Cook, Root – guys I’d looked up to for years. The biggest question for me was whether I belonged or not.” After that promising Ashes series, he retreated into himself. He recalls his final Test knocks in the summer of 2018 as tortuous affairs, the mind playing tricks, his game out of whack. “I was trying too hard,” he says. “And I froze.”
He wasn’t about to let that happen again. “This time I just thought, if it’s there I’m gonna hit it. And if I don’t score any runs then I’d rather have given myself the chance, playing the way I play, and if I’m not good enough, then at least I can walk away knowing that for sure.” His assured 70 on his return at Headingley, cut short by a catch down the leg-side, silenced more than a few voices inside and out.
Still, he’s wary. “I’d love to say it gets easier. The more you play, the more you find ways to cope with it. But it does get to you at some point, especially when you see people going with the flavour of the month and they throw you under the bus, if you want to put it that way.”
It’s a familiar refrain, that of the wronged cricketer, and one that provokes claims of preciousness from certain quarters. But Malan, the T20 numbers machine, doesn’t have to bow to anyone. “The thing that gets me the most about it all is this: Joe Root’s the No.1 ranked Test player in the world – because he’s an unbelievable cricketer – and it’s all bigged up, and rightly so. I’m ranked No.1 in T20 cricket and people are saying, ‘He doesn’t even deserve his place in the team’. Whether I’m selected or not, my only job is to help us win that specific game. If my strike rate has to be 90 to win those games then so be it.”
Malan’s overall T20I record is superb. He has five Player of the Match awards from 30 games. He has featured in just one lost series, against India last spring, in a 3-2 defeat in which he hit 68 (46) in the decider. His overall numbers in 2021 have dipped: across 11 matches, his strike rate rests at 115 and his average at 27. Those crazy early numbers, which propelled him to the world summit, have begun to recalibrate. It has left him going into this tournament with a merely excellent record.
The case has been made that Malan’s style, bluntly defined as slowish to start before expanding in the mid-to-latter stages, may be unsuited to the requirements of this particular tournament; that the lowish surfaces and preponderance of spin place even greater emphasis on pulverising the opening six overs. As always, of course, there are counterpoints: most obviously, if 160 is a winning total on these surfaces in the lowest-scoring country in the world T20 game, and if the ball is swinging early, especially when it gets dewy, then perhaps an ‘anchor’ – or a ‘wicket preserver’, if we’re indulging the latest parlance – is precisely what this team of dashers needs.
Malan was once a cricketer with a reputation for being too intense for his own good, driven by the kind of desire that doesn’t always chime with the more clubbable coasters of county cricket’s union. He acknowledges that he has not always helped himself; also, that working with a few psychologists in recent years (“I used to think it was all just a fad”) has helped him “get some techniques” to ride out the sweeping anxieties that come from a life lived in cricket.
Like many cricketers, he’s a curious mix of acquired wariness locked in conflict with the urge to let loose. This is the line the cricketer walks. Push your case too hard and you’re self-serving; brush it away and you’ve something to hide. Act superior, walking tall among the phoney swaggers and hollow boasts of a game where everyone’s faking it to one extent or another, and you’re riding for a fall. Excessive modesty, and you’re a pushover.
Certainly he is more at ease in his story now. He has played over 50 international cricket matches, hanging in there, riding a few storms, and grafting his way back to a point where he could become England’s next legitimate Test No.3. (As he cracked to Ollie Pope before the cancelled Old Trafford Test last month, no one else wants to bat there, so at least he’ll get a game or two.)
“I trust my game more now,” he says. “And I trust myself to be true to it.”