Dawid Malan hopes temperament offsets lack of recent red-ball cricket in Leeds recall

Dawid Malan pulls during net practice
August 24, 2021

Like many things in life, your perspective on Dawid Malan's recall to the England side probably depends on whether you are a glass half-full or a glass half-empty person.

The glass half-full type will look at Malan's first-class batting average for the season - an impressive 199.00 - and conclude he is in fine fettle. The half-empty type will note that average was achieved in just one innings, against a Sussex side which finished bottom of Group Three in the County Championship, and represents Malan's only first-class outing in the last 12 months.

The seasoned England supporter, meanwhile, will eye the glass nervously in the expectation it will explode at any moment and blind all around it. Experience has taught them to be a cautious bunch.

Either way, Malan returns to England's Test side for the first time in three years having enjoyed less than perfect preparation. Quite apart from only having had one red-ball innings this year, he has played just four first-class games since September 2019. And while his record in those is encouraging - he's scored 418 in his two most recent first-class innings - he is the first to admit that big scores against Sussex and Derbyshire do not necessarily prepare for life against arguably the best seam attack India have ever produced.

Oh, and he's being asked to bat at No. 3 which, in his words, "is not something I've actually done a lot in my career in red-ball cricket".

It doesn't sound ideal, does it? But beyond those concerns, Malan is a perfectly pragmatic choice. He has made a Test century against an outstanding Australia attack - albeit in Perth, where conditions could scarcely be more different to Leeds - and has shown an increasingly tight technique over recent seasons. Since the start of 2019, he averages 56.78 in first-class cricket with six centuries and four half-centuries from 29 innings.

His success in white-ball cricket is not irrelevant, either. While the white ball tends to provide very little lateral movement for bowlers compared to the red, Malan's rise to No. 1 in the ICC's T20I batting rankings demonstrates an ability to deal with the pressure of the international environment which bodes well for him. Where once he seemed to allow failures to eat away at him, he now appears relatively sanguine about the inevitable stumbles he will encounter. He seems a calmer, wiser man who is better equipped for the mental challenges he is about to face.

"Is my lack of red-ball cricket a concern? Yes, it is," Malan admitted on Tuesday. "I think we all know how tough English conditions can be at times. Not playing a lot of red-ball cricket probably doesn't help with the rhythms and the flows of Test cricket, but that's the challenge that we as players have.

"A good 30 or 60 is not good enough, really. You want to score those big hundreds and to do that you have to bat for a day or a day-and-a-half. That's where the challenge comes when you don't play a lot of red-ball cricket.

"I'd say from a mental point of view it [playing limited-overs internationals] helps slightly to be used to the pressure that comes with it [Test cricket].

"You can play all the domestic cricket you want, but it's such a totally different game. There's totally different intensity, totally different scrutiny and totally different bowling, whether in white or red-ball cricket. Playing white-ball cricket at that level, under that pressure and scrutiny - I think that does help you to stay in and around the mix.

"I definitely think I'll cope better with the demands of Test cricket this time. I remember going to New Zealand [at the start of 2018] and having a bad first Test, and then in the second Test getting nought. And it sort of led on from there.

"I wanted it so badly and I tried so hard that even in the lead-ups to Tests, I was burning myself out from a mental point of view trying so hard at training and batting for four hours endlessly doing things to try to get better. Hopefully I've learned from that and I'm beginning to accept that I will fail in cricket. I'll probably fail a hell of a lot more than I'll succeed. Even the greats have failed more often that they've succeeded.

"Cricket is not an easy game. I just accept that and when I get another opportunity make sure what's happened is in the past and play the way I play. If it's good enough it's good enough and if it isn't it just wasn't meant to be."

Ed Smith, the national selector at the time, made a memorable observation when Malan was dropped in 2018, saying "…it may be that his game is better suited to overseas conditions." To be fair to Smith, the statistics suggest he might have a point - Malan averages 20.23 in eight home Tests and 35.46 in seven Tests away - and we ask our selectors to justify their opinions: his candour was welcome at the time.

He might reflect, however, that such candour can also alienate players. He made similarly critical comments about Moeen Ali and James Vince at times when they were not selected, too.

Players tend to remember such things and Malan certainly does. And while he accepted he hadn't scored enough runs in the Tests running up to his dropping - he had reached 30 only once in 10 innings averaging 15.70 in the process - he said Smith's comments served only to "derail" his career for a while.

"I think at the time when you get dropped you're very emotional," Malan said. "But once the dust settled you look back and go 'you know what, I didn't score enough runs there, especially in those last four or five Tests'.

"But the comments didn't help. You work your absolute socks off in your career to earn the right to play for England and you get that call. To then have comments that derail you slightly as a player and get pigeon-holed into things.

"It's amazing how it leads to every single Tom, Dick and Harry having an opinion on you. Whether that's on social media or what have you, I wouldn't say I was abused by that stuff but every time you nick off it comes back to bite you.

"It probably did affect me for the next four, five or six months, especially when I went away and played some tournaments and I just couldn't get in the right head space after all of that.

"But then having a bit of a break and gathering my thoughts after all of those comments I found a new lease of life and realised what I'd done wrong the first time. Luckily enough I was still in and around the white-ball teams to put some of that into practice. So hopefully this time around the stuff I've learned puts me in good stead."

It sounds as if Malan is well prepared mentally for his second chance in Test cricket, but whether that can make up for the lack of red-ball cricket remains to be seen. Going up against this attack on a sluggish-looking surface which is likely to provide assistance to seam bowlers could ask plenty of him technically and temperamentally.

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