Dawid Malan is a man who, more than most, is eager for the start of the 2019 county season and a return to cricket.
Marginalised by England since he was dropped – some would argue prematurely – after one Test match against India last summer, Malan suffered a further setback when he was called up to the squad for the T20 leg of England’s tour of the Caribbean this winter, only to not feature at all.
Was it at least good to be back in the international fold? Or frustrating to miss out on an opportunity to stake a claim for a spot in this summer of all summers – with a home World Cup and Ashes series on the horizon.
“It was obviously frustrating,” Malan told Sky Sports at the Middlesex CCC media day, ahead of the new season. “I’ve always just wanted a chance, and so to get another one would have been fantastic.
“To be back part of the group was really nice, really refreshing. But it didn’t exactly help, though, not being able to play, because with six players – or whatever it was – rested, you’re suddenly now even further down the pecking order.”
Malan thought he had finally got his shot (and taken it) when, after 11 years of toiling away on the county circuit, he was rewarded with a first England Test call-up against South Africa in 2017, trailing on the back of a first T20 cap.
His five international T20 innings have yielded an average of 50 – with four half-centuries registered – and a strike-rate of 150.60. The Test arena has proven exactly that, more testing, but it had looked like he had cracked it when finishing as England’s leading run-scorer on the torturous 2017/18 Ashes tour.
As Joe Root’s side were being thumped 4-0, Malan managed 383 runs at a respectable 42.55 average, with three fifties and a sublime 140 in the third Test at Perth.
But the subsequent two-Test tour of New Zealand and three home Tests against Pakistan and India yielded just one further fifty, with Malan averaging only 16.89 – enough to see him swiftly and unceremoniously axed from the side.
So what went wrong?
“It was a really tough time at the end of last year. Trying to work out how you’ve gone from being involved in all three formats, to being out of everything so quickly.
“That winter away – six or seven months – it was tough, so mentally tiring to be part of an international winter and, when I came back, I only had three weeks off before the season started.
“I was so desperate to do well that it almost became a downward spiral.
“I kept gearing up to play for England. ‘When am I next playing for England?’ was always my focus and, as a result, I didn’t pay enough attention to the smaller things.
“I got a bit carried away at certain times where I was experimenting too much with my game. The whole T20 campaign for Middlesex last year is a prime example.
“I was experimenting with having triggers, no triggers, big back-lifts, no bat-taps, different set-ups, all to see if it could make me a better player for the England games coming up.
“It didn’t help that I didn’t score runs while I was doing that. That probably counted against me.”
Malan averaged 22 from his six T20 Blast outings for Middlesex in 2018 and, added to his struggles in the longer format for England, national selector Ed Smith made the decision to drop the middle-order batsman.
The move courted some controversy at the time, with Smith seeming to suggest Malan was more suited to playing in overseas conditions.
It was a position Smith swiftly moved to clarify, saying: “He [Malan] showed with that excellent Test hundred at Perth that he can play very well on the international stage. Moving forward we talked about how his strengths could come into play, but in no way did I mean that line as an implicit criticism.
“He has scored over 10,000 first-class runs in England and the guy has shown he can play very well on different surfaces.”
Since Malan’s axing, however, the batting picture has become no clearer for England going into an Ashes summer. Ollie Pope, his direct replacement, came and went after two Tests (averaging 18) – the Surrey youngster identified more as one for the future.
Rory Burns and Joe Denly too have made their Test debuts, but are still to nail down a spot, while Ben Foakes – the biggest success of all – found himself back on the sidelines for the final Test of the tour of the West Indies, despite his ‘player-of-the-series’ turn in Sri Lanka pre-Christmas. Oh, and a certain Sir Alastair Cook and his 12,472 Test runs retired at the end of last summer.
With the gaping hole(s) at the top of the order, might a move up to open then be beneficial for Malan? Hampshire’s James Vince – another of England’s forgotten men from the last Ashes tour – has been convinced to do so following a chat with selectors.
Malan, though, is not convinced.
“The lesson I’ve taken from last time is ‘do what you need to do’ and just make sure you’re scoring runs,” he added. “It’s up to me now. If I want to play international cricket again, I’ve got to score big runs. It’s as simple as that.
“There has been a lot of talk about people being asked to bat in certain positions here and there to be ready for potential Ashes spots. But I don’t want to be in a position where I’m thinking about stuff like that.
“I haven’t had a chat with selectors about Test selection since I’ve got dropped but, as far as I’m aware, the message was pretty clear from Ed Smith then; ‘Go out and play well, score big runs and the door isn’t closed’. They were the words he said to me in that meeting and Joe Root said the same. ‘Your Test career isn’t over, you just need to score runs’.”
With the immediate focus of this summer being towards ODI cricket – a format Malan has yet to feature in – and England’s World Cup campaign starting in May, time is certainly on the Middlesex left-hander’s side to stake a claim before the Ashes gets under way at Edgbaston on August 1.
Malan could be set to feature in as many as 11 County Championship games for his county ahead of that first Test, starting on Friday at Northamptonshire as Middlesex push for an immediate promotion back to the top tier.
Also, could the visit of Australia and their fearsome four-man attack of Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon – an attack Malan impressed so greatly against 18 months ago – work in his favour?
“I’d like to think so,” Malan said. “It’s not easy to go to Australia and score runs against that bowling attack. If that doesn’t count for anything, I really don’t know what will.
“But, ultimately, no matter what I’ve done in the past, I think it all depends on what happens from now.
“If I have a good start to the summer, a good four-day season, there are opportunities to be had.
“But I’m trying not to look too far ahead. My aim, and my job, is to score as many runs as I can for Middlesex, to help them win trophies – across all three formats.