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T20 World Cup 2021

The Dawid Malan Paradox: Why the world No.1 T20I batsman is fighting for his England place

by Cameron Ponsonby 4 minute read

So here we go again. How do you solve a problem like Malan? Or more to the point, is Malan even a problem?

The case for the prosecution is that by starting his innings too slowly and placing the result of a match on his back, Malan increases the pressure on his teammates and is a high-risk, occasional reward pick. England are a great team. Share the load, minimise the risk and win it as an eleven.

The case for the defence is that by starting his innings slowly, Malan places the result of the match on his back, allows his teammates to bat around him and is an occasional-risk, high reward pick. England are a great team. And a large part of that is because Malan is a great player who often wins games for them.

We know all this. And it’s evidence of any nuanced debate that the same argument can be used by either party. “Be selfish” is the mantra often used for batting and any club cricketer will be familiar with being told to, “not leave it for anyone else”. Cricket is the team game for individuals, and Malan is the individual in England’s team.

But, T20 cricket is challenging that mantra. The shorter the format, arguably the more cricket becomes a team game as the value of each wicket lowers. It’s not that you’re trying to give your wicket away, it’s just you’re not that worried about losing it.

And this is where the debate around Malan lies. He is clearly an excellent player and would arguably be an automatic selection in any other side in the world. But England are really really really good. Their batting, in particular their firepower, is their strong suit and the need for an anchor like Malan arguably only becomes a necessity when your strength is your bowling. If you’re chasing 150 regularly because your bowling’s good, Malan being 10 off 10 isn’t much of a problem. If you’re chasing 200, well, it is. Or at least, that’s the argument.

But Morgan and England know all this. None of that is new information, and Malan’s relatively poor recent showings shouldn’t affect the fundamentals of his case for an England place. So what’s changed to lead to the debate again? Well, Liam Livingstone.

The series against Pakistan changed Livingstone’s standing from a player who was knocking on the door of selection to one who was already in the room and sat with his feet up. You have to do something really special to force your way into this England side and as it turns out a 40-ball ton, hitting the ball out of Headingley and bowling both leggies and offies counts as that. Which seems fair.

This emergence puts to test two of Morgan’s known qualities: first, that he’s fiercely defensive of his players and second that he’s not afraid of making a cut-throat decision which he’s unlikely to go back on. Just ask Alex Hales or Liam Plunkett.

Morgan is clearly happy with the “risk” that comes with Malan and so it’s hard to believe that Malan would be left out of the England side for a bad run of scores in the ethos of backing players to the hilt. Form is temporary, class is permanent and all that jazz. So what then becomes the point of contention is if Morgan believes there’s simply a better option available. A Jofra Archer compared to a David Willey type scenario for instance. Or a Liam Livingstone to a… exactly. Who gets left out?

Currently, an educated guess suggests that if Malan is selected it is a case of three into one out of Sam Curran, Moeen Ali or Liam Livingstone. If Malan isn’t selected, one of those names will still be left out. And can it really be Livingstone after his recent showings? And can it really be Moeen Ali who is one of the fastest scorers against spin in the world? And can it really be Sam Curran after his showings in the IPL? And can it really be Dawid Malan, the world’s highest ranked T20I batter?

Malan once again proved his class with an unbeaten 62 off 43 balls for the Trent Rockets in his opening innings in The Hundred and it’s only a sign of the luxury England find themselves in that a player of his class even has a question mark next to his name. But a question mark there is and it’s one that will most likely be there until roughly a minute after the end of the T20 World Cup final in November. And only then will we finally have an answer.

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