Ben Jones assesses Malan’s claim on a place in the Test side.
Folks, we’ve got clamour. Clamour for Jack Grealish, clamour for Jadon Sancho, clamour for Dominic Calvert-Lewin. The European Championships brings football selection speculation into the mainstream, and suddenly the question of whether Gareth Southgate should go for a back-three feels like perfectly adept small-talk.
Of course, like everything that football does, cricket does it better, but in a way that’s less acceptable to just bring up at a barbecue. Your mate’s new boyfriend is more likely to look quizzically at your assertion that no matter what, Ollie Pope cannot bat No.3 against India, than they are at your mumbled idea that Grealish is a game-changer, but it doesn’t mean that groundswell of popular opinion isn’t out here. The aftermath of an English batting collapse is never fully complete without the proposal of a player from the domestic circuit, the designated county cricket sacred cow who will solve all this in the blink of an eye. In the last few weeks, it’s been Dawid Malan.
Since England relented against New Zealand, the former Middlesex skipper has been the fan-favourite to make the first Test against India in a month’s time. It’s not hard to see why. In the last three domestic seasons, Malan’s average of 56.88 is the fourth best in the country for those who can play for England; the men above him on the list have all played Test cricket in that period. His immediate case for selection is emphatic.
So let’s check our clamour a moment. Malan moved to Yorkshire at the end of the 2019 season. Since then, he’s batted six times for his new county. Scores of 30, 73, 9 and 1 in that first season were capped off with 219 against Derbyshire, before starting this season with 199 against Sussex – the latter’s attack consisted of a 16 year old, two 19 year olds, and a 20 year old. Talents no doubt, in particular Jack Carson the right-arm spinner, but it’s hard to imagine a place less similar to Test cricket. If Malan had tried to comfort his vanquished opposition with a few drinks at an All Bar One in Leeds, they wouldn’t have been let in.
It’s an issue deep-rooted in county cricket, this wild fluctuating of quality and style. Indeed, there is a substantial school of thought which suggests that the cricket played in the County Championship is so different from that played in Test cricket, that success in one is simply not indicative of potential success in the other. It’s not simply a question of quality, or standard. This is based on the assumption that county pitches are so seamer friendly, and the bowling so unrecognisable from that at the top level, that techniques which score runs in those conditions may even be less likely to succeed in Test cricket. It’s the school of thought which saw Zak Crawley picked with a FC average of 31, with attention paid to his physical attributes and technical base, both of which were earmarked as making him better ‘suited’ for Test cricket than county cricket.
And equally, despite his impressive recent returns, it’s also the school of thought which is calling for Malan to be brought into Root’s side. Malan’s excellence in T20I cricket – undisputed, remarkable – is a clear boost to his case for Test selection. One could argue that being able to cope with the pressures of international cricket (be they tactical, technical, or mental) is a better indicator of potential success than scoring runs against 75mph trundlers in county cricket.
Yet we have been here before. Malan has already played 15 Test matches, a not inconsiderable number, with a batting average in the mid 20s. Much-mocked and much-moved Jonny Bairstow has an almost identical record over those four years. When Malan was dropped, Ed Smith was the subject of much mockery for suggesting that Malan may be better suited to Australian pitches than home ones; Smith’s been removed from his position before he had the chance to put his Moneyball where his mouth is. While the criticism around Smith may have been about his willingness to disclose his logic publicly, rather than the logic itself, eight home Tests with an average of 20.27 is very poor for a specialist batsman, and it’s not whacky to suggest it indicates an issue with home conditions. Malan clearly had skills to offer the side, but the same could be true of Ollie Pope, selected ahead of Malan in that 2018 summer, and who boasts superior averages in English Tests.
What’s more, this isn’t a quirk of Malan happening to struggle in Tests which happened to be played at home. Malan’s Test record against good length balls is rough – properly rough. Against anything pitching 6-8m away from his stumps, Malan averages less than 9 runs per wicket. In the entire CricViz database, there have been 147 men to face as many good length deliveries as Dawid Malan in Test cricket, and only one – Keaton Jennings – averages less against it. In his 15 Tests, Malan has been historically, exceptionally bad against these deliveries.
42% of pace deliveries in England pitch on that length, more than any other country in the world; silly old Ed Smith, with his theories. Malan has the quality to come good in English conditions, but it should be no surprise – or criticism of him, in truth – if he doesn’t. And yet, Australia ranks eighth on that list. The bounce in Australia generally forcing bowlers fuller, or shorter, intimidating the grill or the outside edge. The conditions England will face this winter naturally removes Malan’s biggest weakness, shown both in the numbers but also the bare facts of runs.
Yet for all this, it would be hugely surprising if Malan didn’t start the series against India, most likely in place of Zak Crawley. If England are keen on using this summer to plan for the winter, then it makes even more sense. Malan’s scoring zones, emphasis on a back foot approach, and inherent pedigree all point towards his success in Australia being sustainable. He should go, and he should play.
As such, if he played five Tests against India then he would essentially double his recent red ball experience. It would be an investment for the winter, while hopefully offering enough in the summer to justify his selection. Equally, from a cynical perspective, Malan trying and failing at No.3 is going to do much less long-term damage than either Pope or Dan Lawrence being pushed up out of their natural position, and struggling to adapt.
As Michael Atherton has often said when discussing Malan “if you can make a century at the WACA, you can bat”, and while the relative merits of success in different conditions are clearly a matter of debate, the ability to score big runs on hard bouncy wickets does suggest a particular sort of robust technique. While the (frustratingly predictable) catastrophising from elements of the English media only illustrates their lack of perspective, England are not in a place that they can turn their nose up at a player like Malan. The current structures of management in the England set-up demands short-term success; Root will not survive another poor Ashes tour, and with no selectorial shield, neither may Silverwood. For all the youth, England need to win now. Pragmatic, experienced, primed and ready – Malan could be the one to help them do it.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.