Ben Jones looks at how the summer’s new competition could be exactly what the England man needs.
Contrary to rumour, Dawid Malan has nothing to prove. Across several years, he scored mountains of T20I runs to force his way into one of the most destructive batting line-ups in history. He has made centuries and won matches for his country, at times standing out in a team filled with some of the best white ball batsmen of a generation.
The debates around his place in the England side have been based in reasonable concerns, but like a game of Telephone, those concerns have become distorted and imprecise. What is not up for debate is his inherent quality, with compelling arguments made that he is a better T20 batsman than Ben Stokes and Jason Roy. All that has been debated is his suitability for this England side, given his acceleration-based approach.
When a player is not a direct tactical fit for one of the most tactically specific teams in the world, they have to be playing at such a remarkable level that they rise above their role. For a time – a significant time – Malan was doing just that. For a time, the only worry was how long he could sustain it.
This year, his form has dipped, and his place has been put under greater pressure, pressure only heightened by the improved form of Liam Livingstone. The notion of a ‘first choice XI’ for a World Cup played across such wildly different venues is unnecessary, but three months out from the tournament, Malan’s exact place in England’s pecking order is unclear.
However, attention should now turn to the present. For Malan, the next few weeks represent a very timely, very important opportunity. This season, The Hundred offers Malan three vital things.
One, it offers him an opportunity to reinforce his quality, in broad daylight. It’s easy, when discussing a player purely in the context of their international side, to lose perspective. Being deemed fractionally not in the first XI of a team with full expectations of World Cup victory is not a damning indictment, but when you’re on the fringes of an exceptional group rather than at the centre of a lesser one, it can feel like one.
On Saturday, as Malan delivered a trademark 62* (43), guiding the chase against a floundering Southern Brave attack, that became ever clearer. Aided by Alex Hales’ early dismissal at the hands of George Garton, Malan stood out as the outstanding batsman on show in the Trent Rockets’ opening match. He may have stood out more obviously in a Blast match, but to stand out in a contest with the concentrated player-quality we saw on Saturday is a different beast. Six or seven more of those and that aura which accompanied Malan’s 2019-2020 T20I performances – and which has recently moved to Liam Livingstone – will return.
Two, it offers him an opportunity to win something.. Malan was part of the Middlesex side to win their only T20 honour to date, during his breakthrough season in 2008, but since then no county has a worse win percentage in the competition, despite Malan’s performances being superb for much of the decade. A move to Yorkshire in 2019 has seen as many wins as defeats, but team success still evades him. Trent Rockets are a very strong side on paper, more than in part due to Malan’s presence; they start the campaign with clear hopes of becoming inaugural champions. While he’ll be frustrated to be left out of the Test squad for the India series, his presence in the Rockets side for the entire competition only boosts those hopes. On a tactical level, a common explanation for Malan’s more sedate domestic strike rate is that, surrounded by lesser quality at Lord’s and Headingley, he takes on more responsibility and bats more cautiously in order to protect those around him. At Trent Bridge this season, he should have no need for such caution.
And three, it offers him the chance to prove something new. While Malan’s quality is not in doubt, there have been valid questions asked about how his method fits into England’s XI. Those questions are not as blunt as being about his strike rate (which despite having fallen recently, is still very good), but rather about the route he takes to that strike rate; starting much more slowly than his teammates, even in conditions which could allow for quicker starts.
To an extent, Malan destroying The Hundred with runs, runs, and more runs, may not actually do that much for his World Cup credentials. Everyone knows that he’s a top class batsman. England know that given the opportunity to get set in good conditions, he is as ruthless as they come. What England don’t know is if he can match that ruthlessness with willingness – and ability – to attack early on.
Eoin Morgan’s own slump in T20I form seemed to be arrested by a stint in the Abu Dhabi T10 League, an ultra-short form of the game which, in a time-honoured manner, appeared to force Morgan into batting on instinct, clearing his head and simplifying his technique. The Hundred is by no means on a par with T10 in its difference from T20 – indeed, in terms of pacing the difference is minimal – but you wonder whether the effect on Malan’s batting could be similar. Some bright starts against quality bowling could assuage the worries England could understandably have about Malan’s pacing.
Equally, the other big question over Malan’s game has been his ability to play quality spin, or to perform on tougher tracks. On the 15th August, Trent Rockets host Manchester. A function of the Blast’s regional structure is that Malan (who only joined Yorkshire at the end of 2019) has faced just two deliveries from Matt Parkinson, the Manchester leg spinner who starred in their win against Birmingham. Those two balls brought 1 run, and 1 wicket, with Malan finding the fielder in the deep, those enormous pockets of space at wide long-on which even Malan’s power struggles to clear. It is reductive to suggest that another failure v Parkinson would damage Malan’s World Cup chances, but success against him, Mujeeb ur Rahman (against whom he’s scored 10 runs from 16 balls, dismissed twice), and Adil Rashid (who he’s never faced) could certainly boost them.
If Morgan is true to his word when it comes to rewarding performances in The Hundred, then the tournament is a chance for Malan not just to bang down the door with runs, but to match team success with personal vindication. Blend his immensely valuable proven qualities with a sprinkling of new ones, and the debate isn’t about whether he’s on the plane to the UAE – he’d get to pick his seat.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.