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Is Dawid Malan in England’s First-Choice Team?

Ben Jones analyses the case for including Malan in the T20I side – and how it could be done.

Dawid Malan is on the charge.

It’s been a fight for him to get this far. He may have made his T20I debut against South Africa back in 2017, but after a brief stint in the side Malan then missed nine consecutive T20Is, and seemed to have been cut adrift from the white ball set-up. This was partially a consequence of England using the format as part of their ODI World Cup preparation, a campaign Malan was never going to be involved in. Yet it also reflected the fact that Malan was, to all intents and purposes, on the periphery.

However, since that World Cup, with England’s focus shifting back towards T20, Malan has become a regular once more. He’s been involved in 10 of the 13 T20s England have played across the last year, and in those matches has averaged 51.37, the most of any England player. Through sheer weight of runs, Malan has forced his way into England’s World Cup plans. From competing with the likes of James Vince and Sam Billings to be the reserve batsman, Malan has moved right to the front of the queue not just for a squad place, but for a place in the side. According to our Batting Impact model, Malan has been England’s most valuable batsman since the 2016 World T20; given the situations he’s batted in, Malan has been worth 8.8 runs-per-match more than the average batsman.

His average against pace is particularly remarkable – no batsman in T20I history has faced as many deliveries from seamers, and averaged more than Malan’s 117.66 runs per dismissal. The next best average, unbelievably, is Kevin Pietersen’s 63.25. You would unquestionably expect Malan’s to fall, but equally, it could halve and still be among the best in history.

There is an overwhelming sense of Malan as being The Coming Man. Asking most England fans whether he is deserving of a place in the T20I side, you would likely be met with a swift “yes”, and perhaps a touch of surprise at anyone thinking otherwise. It’s understandable enthusiasm – Malan’s form has been remarkable.

The harder follow-up question – “And so who are you leaving out?” – might take a bit longer to draw a response. Because while it may appear otherwise, there is no vacancy in that England top three. If Jason Roy had not been ruled out of this T20I summer due to a side strain, England’s likely top three for this series would have been Roy, Jos Buttler, and Jonny Bairstow. Malan has seized his opportunity with both hands, but he is still not first choice. To get him into that XI, with everyone fit and available, England need to make changes.

The easiest way to get Malan in, and the way England can do it without making too many difficult decisions regarding personnel, is to drop Buttler down to No.6, thereby having Malan in the top three with Bairstow and Roy. Of course, that isn’t happening – Buttler is currently the second highest averaging opener in T20I history, and scoring at 9.5rpo with it. Right now, you doubt England would compromise Buttler’s form for even the most established member of the side, let alone someone who may not be in the first-choice XI. As a result, England are left with a straightforward selection shootout, for the two available spots in that top three. Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Tom Banton, Joe Root, and Malan himself are the ones fighting for that spot. 

These are serious players. With the next World Cup in India, you’d be foolish to disregard Bairstow’s remarkable season with Sunrisers Hyderabad last year, where he accrued 445 runs at an average of over 55, scoring at 9.4rpo, blisteringly quick runs all made at the top of the order. Only five T20 openers score quicker than Bairstow since the start of last year, and none of them average more than him. Jason Roy, in his last five T20 appearances for England, has scores of 67 (31), 69 (36), 70 (38), 40 (29) and 7 (4). Banton and Root’s claims on the jersey are slightly less grounded in numbers, but the point remains – dislodging either of those first choice top order players is not a given, even with Malan’s fantastic record.

One thing in Malan’s favour is that England’s batting order, with Buttler opening, is divided rather sharply between right-handers at the top (Buttler, Roy, Bairstow) and left-handers in the middle order (Morgan, Stokes, Moeen). This may not be a concern to England, who could well just see it as the necessary cost picking their best players, but Malan does remove the problem if he plays. The benefits of RH/LH pairings were clear in the second T20I, as Malan and Buttler skilfully managed the match-ups against Australia’s finger spinners, singles coming off the first ball from four of the six spin overs they faced. Evading dangerous match-ups, and manipulating the opposition’s bowling choices, is much easier with a left-hander in the top three. Right now, Malan would undoubtedly be that left-hander.

One obstacle for Malan is that England’s typical team structure negates one of his primary strengths – control. In this current figuration of the England team (bowling heavy, with Tom Curran at No.7) Malan fits in perfectly, because with just six frontline batsmen, there is a greater emphasis on wicket retention. For all Malan’s late-innings explosiveness, control is among his best attributes, and he performs the role of anchor very effectively, grooved by years as the fulcrum of Middlesex’s fragile T20 batting order. Since the start of 2018, the only England batsman to play with a lower false shot percentage than Malan, is Buttler.

And yet, England are unlikely to go with this bowling-heavy set-up once Ben Stokes is available again. The fact that Stokes can be relied upon for at least two overs removes the need for a Tom Curran-type in the top seven, with Moeen Ali likely sliding down one spot. With that slightly longer batting order, the benefit of Malan’s control is decreased, and the downside of his slower starts is increased. 

Those slow starts are still the main concern with Malan. It’s important to be precise here – the criticism is not that Malan scores slowly, but that he does so at the start of his innings. Malan’s T20 scoring rate in the first 10 balls he faces is 6.8rpo, significantly lower than the other top order batsmen England could opt for. He has the gears to ‘catch-up’ later in the innings, without question, but the concern is that if dismissed early on, he can do damage. In T20 cricket, 15 (13) in the Powerplay, with all the scoring opportunities that fielding restrictions bring, can be a significant drain on a team’s performance.

One other complicating factor for England, in their assessment of Malan, is that his performances in England colours are not entirely representative of his broader output. According to our model, Malan performs significantly better for England than he does for other T20 sides in the last few years. In essence, the Malan you see if you only watch him for England is much better than the Malan you see elsewhere; his Impact for England is higher than for every domestic team he’s played for since the World T20, apart from Cumilla Warriors in the Bangladesh Premier League. 

You can interpret this in two ways. You can admire and praise Malan’s ability to raise his game for the big occasion, and to perform in international cricket which, while not always a higher standard than some domestic leagues, does demand different things from batsmen, and provides different pressure. If you’re picking a player for T20 internationals, then excellent performances in that format – even if much better than elsewhere – cannot be ignored.

Alternatively, you can say that England T20Is make up just 15 of the 98 matches Malan has played in the last four years, and that the larger sample may in fact be more reflective of his “actual” ability. He may average 55 and score at 8.8rpo for England, but for all other T20 sides since making his international debut, Malan averages 29.3 and scores at 8rpo. Very few observers, Malan’s most ardent supporters among them, would suggest that his T20I average and strike rate won’t suffer a drop off before he hangs up his England boots. It’s the selectors job to work out when that drop off – to use the dreaded phrase, that “regression to the mean” – will happen, and how steep the drop will be.

Fundamentally, Malan has spent the last 12 months making it harder, and harder, and harder for England to leave him out. He’s gone from being on the fringes of the squad, to the fringes of the team, to a regular, and now to a place where he has a claim on the first-choice jersey. Tactically, it’s hard to shake the sense that England don’t want to pick him, and that they would rather place their faith in Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow, and in their World Cup winning experience and ability. It speaks volumes of England’s top order riches that Malan can perform this well, for this long, and still not be able to definitely dislodge the first-choice batsmen. Ultimately, Malan’s greatest achievement of the last 18 months is not that he’s dislodged those riches, but that he’s now considered as being one of them.

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Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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