Dawid Malan is currently ranked the world’s best T20 batsman. He is good value for it, having spent most of the last year dominating any bowler who has strayed into his field of vision. Yet Malan still vividly recalls the time, on his Middlesex debut, when he could barely lay bat on ball.
Just a few hours earlier, he had gone into the offices at Lord’s and signed his first professional contract. He was 18 years old and wet behind the ears. That evening, a Friday in July of 2006, he was selected to play against Surrey in the T20 Cup. The game could hardly have been any bigger – the London derby, at The Oval, in front of a packed house. “When you sign your first contract it’s obviously a really exciting time,” Malan says. “But the moment got to me.”
Middlesex batted first, Malan opened up but struggled badly against a high-class attack which included Azhar Mahmood, Tim Murtagh and Rikki Clarke. “I couldn’t get off the square,” Malan remembers. “I basically cost us the game.” He scored 11 from 21 balls, with a solitary boundary. He did not appear for Middlesex’s first team for another 22 months. “It makes you catch up quickly because you realise where you lack,” he tells Cricbuzz. “You realise what you need to improve by watching people.”
Even now, sitting in a Perth hotel room ahead of a Big Bash stint with Hobart Hurricanes, with a Deliveroo order on the way, Malan says he is still learning from watching others. “When Jos Buttler hits them and you’re batting at the other end, the sound it makes when he hits it, how clean it sounds. When [Eoin Morgan] Morgs comes in and hits his first ball for six, you think: ‘I’ve got a long way to go and a lot to learn’.”
Malan has already come a long way. Born in Roehampton, his formative years were spent in Paarl, in the Western Cape of South Africa. His father was good enough to make a few first-class appearances and, as a typical South African, instilled in his three children a discipline and competitiveness that all three still carry with them. “He always said if you aren’t going to make it, rather it be because you aren’t good enough than lack of effort,” Malan says across the video link. Games in the back garden were feisty. “You wouldn’t walk when you hit it, there would be arguments, the usual. You learn the hard way by playing a lot and having competitive games.”
The standard of cricket at Paarl Boys’ High School was high and Malan did well, progressing through the Boland age group teams. He actually made his first-class debut a few months before that T20 game at The Oval, for Boland against Border, in South Africa’s provincial competition. He made a half-century in the second innings but only played three more matches for Boland before heading to the UK for a gap year.Malan hit a memorable Ashes hundred at the WACA in 2017 but he was dropped the following summer ©Getty
At that stage, a county contract was a long way from his mind, let alone any thought of playing international cricket. He was playing for a club in Peterborough on the weekend and coaching at a local school during the week. That was about the sum of his expectations. Soon enough though, he was playing for MCC Young Cricketers and then Middlesex 2s. He scored some runs, showed some ability, and Middlesex picked him up by virtue of his British passport. It was a rapid rise.
From then on, however, not much has come easy. Malan’s story has been one of perseverance and determination rather than quick wins. He did not make his debut for England until 2017. In the eleven years between his first-class and international bows, he toiled away on the county grind. There were Lions appearances and plenty of Lions runs but no England cap. He took himself off to Bangladesh to play List A cricket for a couple of years, spending Christmas Day in a hotel room. He played in the Bangladesh Premier League and the Pakistan Super League as well. But still there was no England call.
What there was, however, was plenty of learning. After averaging 30 in the 2013 Championship, which carried on his middling form of the previous two years, Malan resolved to look at his approach to training. “In England, you net a lot and face bowlers a lot,” he says. “Sometimes the wickets don’t allow you to gain a lot of confidence in the nets so I made a conscious decision not to face bowlers in the nets, to do all of my work out of hand, drills, throws, the dog stick.
“I made sure that when I do a routine that I can keep my balance, keep my shape. I can keep my technique working in a way that I know works for me. That’s tough when you come back to a team that you have played so many years for and you just go, ‘Sorry I’m not going to net now’. The challenge then is to back it up. Luckily I scored some runs that year after.” Even now, the Yorkshire coaches speak of how particular Malan is about how he trains.
It was around the same time that Malan took himself off to Bangladesh to play for Prime Doleshwar Sporting Club in the Dhaka Premier Division. In 24 List A matches during the winters of 2013/14 and 2014/15, he averaged 56. It wasn’t a glamorous overseas assignment, but it taught him about pressure and expectation. “They expect you as an overseas to be the best in the team,” he says. “I was on a one-year contract so if you don’t perform for four or five games, you’re not going to come back next year.”
“I wouldn’t say that I feel I’ve had it harder than other people. Maybe I’ve had to wait longer to get an extended run but the only way you do that is by earning that.”
That sort of pressure ratcheted up a notch when he was signed for Peshawar Zalmi for the 2016 and 2017 editions of the Pakistan Super League. It was the first time Malan’s eyes were opened to the scrutiny of top-level cricket. It also made him realise that he needed to change his approach in the short formats. “When you play against really good players you can’t just see the good players off,” he says. “The first game I played against Islamabad United and they had Andre Russell, Shane Watson, Saeed Ajmal.
“As a guy that’s never faced them before, watching them on TV and then suddenly facing them, you think, ‘There aren’t any weak bowlers here’. There is no one that you can actually just take down. I learnt how to attack the best bowlers. When I was younger I used to see them off, let them bowl and then take down the weaker ones. But that was something that I had to learn really quickly. I found that quite hard the first year of PSL.”
Despite picking up some franchise gigs, international recognition proved elusive. In the summer of 2016, Malan scored 185 not out in a 50-over match for the Lions but was overlooked for their winter assignment. Ahead of the North versus South series in the UAE in early 2017, Andy Flower, the Lions coach, sidled up to Malan. “Are you angry with me?” he asked. Malan said he was disappointed, yes.
He asked Flower whether he was wasting his time. The message back was no, he wasn’t. Performances in the North against South series would be viewed positively. Trevor Bayliss, the England head coach, was coaching the South team he was in. Malan scored a hundred and a half-century in the three matches. “I scored a lot runs for Trevor Bayliss and I don’t know if that made a difference. I don’t know if he still knows my name or not. But I ended up getting an opportunity and from then it sort of snowballed.”
Four months later, Malan finally made his England debut. Against South Africa, in a Cardiff T20I, he smashed 78 from 44 balls. He had been told before the series by Eoin Morgan that he would play just one of the three games. He resolved to make it count by playing in the positive manner that Morgan expected from England. Batting at three, Malan was in from the third over. Second ball, he bludgeoned a length delivery over midwicket for six. He was on his way to the player of the match award.
In limited overs cricket, further opportunities were few and far between. He played just four more T20Is in the next 18 months. There were 15 Tests too, and a memorable Ashes hundred at the WACA, but he was dropped the following summer after, by his own admission, not scoring enough runs. It is only now, with a T20 average of 53.43 from 19 matches, that he is a fixture in an England team. It has been a long time coming, a lot of net sessions, a lot of stints on the bike and in the gym. Many hours spent away from home in hotel rooms. A lot of England squads he was overlooked for.
Did he have to do more than others to get a fair go? He pauses. “When you get opportunities later in your career you probably could say that but people don’t just get picked because they do something. They get picked because they perform in a place and time and it might just have been that at the time when people were picked I might not have been playing the right way. I might not have been scoring runs at the time for that certain period.Malan still vividly recalls the time, on his Middlesex debut, when he could barely lay bat on ball. ©Getty
“I wouldn’t say that I feel I’ve had it harder than other people. Maybe I’ve had to wait longer to get an extended run but the only way you do that is by earning that. You look at the guys that performed unbelievably well to win a World Cup for England. You know how hard it is to get in there. That’s the tough bit when you’re on the side lines. You know how tough it is to get in. You know you’re not just going to get a game for the sake of it. When you do finally get a game you have to make it count.”
Malan is certainly doing that. He has made nine half-centuries and a hundred in 19 T20I innings. One of those half-centuries was the 99 not out he made in the third game against South Africa in Cape Town last week. He says his run in T20 cricket has not come as the result of some magic technical adjustment or change in mental approach. Instead, he first cites good pitches and luck. In the innings at Newlands, he could have been run out by Temba Bavuma, he says.
Sometimes, when he has been in poor form, he has not been selected. Another slice of luck. “I remember one time when I genuinely didn’t know if I could score a run if somebody bowled me a full straight one,” he adds. “That’s how bad I was hitting at the time. Obviously you don’t tell anyone that but I didn’t end up playing that series. Then you get the chance at the right time.”
Malan is being modest. There is a reason he is above Babar Azam and Virat Kohli in the T20I world rankings. His form has been remarkable. Given the players he is currently looking down upon, it might be tempting to indulge in a moment of satisfaction but Malan seems particularly determined not to do that. Not yet anyway. He wants this run to go on much longer. His mantra, trotted out regularly in press conferences and interviews, is that the runs he scored last week or last month don’t mean he will be in England’s team next week or next month. He has toiled away too hard to let things slip now.
“The thing with this England team, there’s unbelievable players,” he says. “There are players that have done it for 10 years in white ball cricket so having a good eight months doesn’t suddenly make you a better player. The ranking is an indication of how consistent you’ve been which I am extremely proud of because it’s really hard to do in international cricket. But I am still absolutely in awe of the guys when I play for England.”
There are plenty who have been in awe of Malan’s recent form. He is rightly getting the plaudits now but it has been a long, and varied, journey to get to this point. “Where the time has gone I don’t know,” he says wistfully. But no matter how long it has taken, he is finally a fixture in England’s team. He is ranked the best in the world too. More importantly, he is determined to stay there.