(Photo: Getty Images)
By Jeremy Blackmore
In an Ashes series where few English batsmen emerged with credit, Dawid Malan was a rare success. Facing up to Australia’s pace battery, he finished as England’s top scorer, including a battling 140 at Perth.
Now, back home, Malan’s penchant for a challenge is again proving an advantage. For he faces not just two tough home Test series, but also takes the reins as Middlesex’s new captain with the task of leading a promotion drive.
It’s clear that the left-hander is far from complacent about either job. He has embarked on a change of culture at Middlesex as they look to put last year’s relegation heartache behind them at the same time as he targets further improvements in his Test batting record.
He was the first of England’s top six to record a century this season. However, he began the winter with much to prove after a modest start to his Test career. “I was under a hell of a lot of pressure in Australia, so it was really nice to get some runs,” he said.
“I was a bit disappointed I didn’t get more. There were times when I was in and I got out at crucial times when it was probably the best time to bat, so if I’m being harsh on myself, which I always am, I could probably have got another 80 to 100 runs and helped us get into better positions.
“But overall it was nice to show that I can play and to do it against those guys in Australia.
“It was a new experience, playing against guys that are that quick. Going from county cricket, where you’re used to facing 80mph on a good length, suddenly you were facing guys who could do that, but at 10mph quicker, so it was a massive challenge and adjustment.”
Malan famously hit his second ball in England colours, in a T20, for six. I ask about his approach to batting in Tests where he has offered stability at number five. Has that meant a change in mindset?
“A little,” he says, but adds: “I go out and try to play the same way in all three formats. Obviously, I’m a bit more selective in the longer format, but I try my best to look to score off every ball.
“The times I’ve let myself down in Test cricket is when I’ve gone in with a negative mindset of looking to survive instead of looking to score and got myself out before I really got in.
“So, it’s about finding the balance. I got that right in maybe three or four innings in Australia where I was attacking enough to put them under pressure, but also not too attacking to give them a sniff of getting me out.”
Of the Ashes, he says: “We went with really high hopes of winning and we didn’t play well enough as a team. We didn’t recognise crucial times where we could put our foot down and we probably let ourselves down in situations when we let Australia get away.”
Pakistan and India represent strong challenges in their own right this summer, says Malan, who warns against under-rating either team’s bowling attack.
“It’s still going to be a massive challenge for us, but we have to find a way of scoring. In the winter we didn’t score 400-plus scores enough to help our bowlers bowl teams out.”
Turning to Middlesex, Malan said: “It’s a real honour to captain the team and to potentially be part of the history of this club, especially if I do well and help the team achieve things that I know we can.”
His to-do list includes two significant entries: firstly, to adapt quickly to life back in Division Two and challenge for promotion and, perhaps a tougher test, to transform Middlesex’s white-ball fortunes after a decade without a title.
Despite a faltering start to the Championship campaign, a positive approach has already been in evidence at Lord’s including enforcing the follow-on in the draw against Gloucestershire.
Malan said: “In the past we’ve probably been guilty of taking a backward step when there are times to drive games. We’ve decided that we have to recognise times where we have to put our foot down and make the move to get ahead.”
There will be nothing but respect for the opposition and no-one is taking promotion for granted.
“There are very few draws in Division Two. So, if you play to survive and to draw, you’re going to lose. So, it’s always about getting yourself into a position to win.”
With a busy summer on England duty, he has an able deputy in Sam Robson.“Sam is a fantastic bloke and player,” he says. “It helps that he’s established at Middlesex and really respected. We have a similar mindset, which is key. The last thing you want is two different captains with two different approaches, which can confuse players.
“We’ve got a really good balance and structure. We’re all on the same page.”
Middlesex have been plagued by injuries of late, but Malan maintains that there is plenty of strength in depth, including Steve Finn who will deputise in the one-day campaign.
Malan called on the ECB last month to experiment with a pink ball in the Championship to prevent more matches falling prey to bad light. Middlesex’s change of approach with the white ball will be no less radical: “It’s a massive priority. It’s been really frustrating for the last ten years. We have a team on paper that we think can push in one-day cricket and we just don’t perform as well as we should.
“So, the challenge is to start performing. People are going to have to be held accountable. We’re not just going to play the same guys every year, because we need to start winning and we need to start maybe trying other players if that’s not the case.
“It’s important that we find an identity for ourselves in white-ball cricket and a template that we can stick to.”
Malan holds the unusual distinction of representing his country in Tests and T20s but has yet to play what he sees as his best format. “England’s 50-over team has done exceptionally well and to get opportunities is really tough,” he says. “Hopefully I can keep scoring runs every opportunity I get, whether that be in Test cricket or T20 and I can break my way into the 50-over squad.”
*This article originally featured in The Cricket Paper on Friday, 18 May 2018. Subscribe to read the paper all year round: www.bit.ly/TCP-Sub