(Photo: Stu Forster / Getty Images)
By Chris Stocks
The mental side of the game is often the hardest thing for an international cricketer to master and Dawid Malan admits thoughts of this winter’s Ashes left his mind scrambled when he began his Test career earlier this summer.
Malan, who celebrated his 30th birthday on Monday, put Australia to the back of his mind after he scored the grand total of 35 runs in his first four Test innings against South Africa.
Results since, with the Middlesex batsman scoring two half-centuries in the first two matches of this series against West Indies, have been encouraging, even if his second-innings 61 at Headingley, which spanned almost five hours, was hard to watch.
The Ashes are now a live possibility again for Malan, even if the man himself is still trying to avoid thinking about them.
“To be fair, I have been trying to get it out of mind especially after the first two games against South Africa,” he says.
“At the time, I was looking a bit far ahead and I’ve tried to bring it back to game by game, finding a way to score runs, be it sticking in – it’s about runs at the end of the day.”
Malan believed that his Test career would be short-lived because of the presence of Gary Ballance, who lost his place at No.3 thanks to the fractured finger he sustained in the second Investec Test against South Africa but was touted for a return at Malan’s current position of five.
“I always thought Gary was going to come back,” says Malan. “I replaced him because he was injured. I thought I’d have one or two Tests, then he’d come back in.
“Fortunately, the selectors gave me a bit of a run after the South Africa series, and I managed to get 60 in the first Test against West Indies at Edgbaston. I was disappointed not to get a hundred there, because it was a good wicket, but at least I found a way to get to 60.”
Malan was born in Roehampton, south-west London, but raised near Cape Town and it was watching the 2005 Ashes on TV as a teenager in South Africa that fuelled his ambition to play for the land of his birth.
“My father has always watched cricket,” he said. “During the 2005 Ashes, I was still at school in South Africa and I always came home and caught the last session.
“The hype that had was probably my first real experience of the Ashes. To see how 2005 changed English cricket was fantastic.”
The hardest thing Malan has found about the step up from the county game to Test cricket is the pressure and relentless dissecting of a new player’s technique. Both Malan and Tom Westley have been on the receiving end of that sharp focus since both made their debuts against South Africa at The Oval in July.
And Malan says: “There’s more sustained pressure. It’s not too different but there’s more discipline required. Bowlers don’t bowl as many bad balls, but if you get to 20 it becomes easier and you try and exert yourself.
“If you fail in the County Championship you go home and you don’t have to read or see anything, you know you are backed and supported, guys have seen you for years and know what you can do.
“But in Test cricket people haven’t seen you as much, the commentators, and they analyse your hands, feet, head. I found that hard the first two games but I’ve tried to make a fresh start, do what I do at county cricket and try and adapt as I go along.
“I speak to others, Joe Root and Alastair Cook, how they have adapted to make them so successful, it’s trying to pick little bits of that and trying to add where I feel I need to.
“You do see the scrutiny on TV. We don’t have the volume up, but you know they’re trying to compare you with what Cook’s doing, or another left-hander.
“But you’ve also got Cricstat where you can sit down and do a slo-mo and see if your movements are okay, compared with the innings before or with Middlesex.
“At the end of the day you either get a good ball or play a bad shot – it’s pretty simple.”
Malan certainly feels his T20 debut against South Africa at Cardiff in June, when he scored a fine 78 in his first international innings, is more representative of his ability than the two stodgy half-centuries in the Tests at Edgbaston and Lord’s.
“I haven’t felt l’ve played as well as I can play,” he said.
“I’ve found a way to get two scores, which for me is a plus point: if I’m not feeling good, I can still find a way to score runs. That has made me feel a lot more comfortable.”
l Investec is the title sponsor of Test match cricket in England. For Out of the Ordinary thinking visit investec.com/cricket