Dawid Malan landed in South Africa unsure if he would play, but he has left with a greater sense of belonging, both in terms of his place in England’s best Twenty20 team and the No 1 tag that previously left him feeling embarrassed. A 14-day quarantine period in an Australian hotel room now beckons for the 33-year-old in preparation for a season with Hobart Hurricanes in the Big Bash League and with it plenty of time between bursts on an exercise bike to reflect on his achievements.
Scores of 55 and 99 not out powered England to a 3-0 series clean sweep and their new position atop of the T20 international rankings and made him become the first batsman past 900 points in the batting stakes in the format. Averaging 53, striking at 149 and with 10 scores above 50 in 19 outings, surely he now feels a fixture in the first XI?
“I’ll say, probably,” says Malan before his flight. “Coming here, I wasn’t convinced I was going to get a game with the top-order players we have. Now, if selected for the next tour, I’d probably have half an eye on being in the team.
“I sat down with [the performance director] Mo Bobat, [the head coach] Chris Silverwood and [the national selector] Ed Smith in Loughborough ahead of the trip and they asked me what a good winter would look like. My answer was to be one of the main picks in the T20 side – that was my goal. Hopefully I’m one step closer to it.”
This represents progress, even if the Roehampton-born left-hander cannot quite bring himself to simply admit he is now locked in. The caution is both a reflection of his character and his experiences to date, having made his T20i debut in 2017, fired from the outset and yet had periods on the bench when the big guns from the all-conquering 50-over side have been around.
“When Joe Root was back at Yorkshire last season we had a chat and he said: ‘The tough thing is, you weren’t in the [50-over] World Cup, not associated with that fantastic team and so people will doubt you,’” Malan says. “He told me to keep proving people wrong. It was amazing to hear from a player I respect and someone fighting for the same spot. It put me at ease. And I’d rather earn it than be handed a cap. Doing it the hard way has stood me in good stead.”
During this battle there has been swirling chat about his relationship with Eoin Morgan. It was notable that after missing out on his century at Newlands and blaming poor maths Malan added he “didn’t know how it would go down” had he turned down the single that wrapped up the clean sweep. This was in reference to the unbeaten 103 he blazed against New Zealand in Napier last year; a maiden T20i that still earned a rebuke from Morgan for dozily declining to run a bye off the last ball of the innings. Coming in the same week he left Middlesex for Yorkshire mid-contract, was there more to Morgan’s frustration?
“I didn’t know Morgs had an issue until the next day,” says Malan. “He told me: ‘This team takes every run – look at how close the World Cup final was, make sure you push next time.’ I accepted I’d messed up. I genuinely thought there was another over. I even asked for new gloves with a couple of balls to spare and [New Zealand’s] Tim Southee told me where to go.
“Morgs told me some comments from him may appear in the press and before the next game I read them, they came across a bit differently, so I approached him for another chat and to apologise again.
“I always play for the team and in this setup, you won’t last long if you don’t. It’s a non-negotiable. We’ve drawn a line under it and moved forward. It does make me laugh though, the talk I’ve not been picked more because Morgs doesn’t like me. It’s amazing what gets fabricated. We’ve not raised our voices to each other in 14 years, yet suddenly we hate each other. It’s not something I’m aware of and Morgs is the type of captain who would tell you directly if there was an issue.”
Back in the present, there is much to savour. The homecoming at Paarl last Sunday, scene of his first-class debut in 2006 before returning to the country of his birth in his late teens, brought a reunion with two of his old coaches, even if his parents, Dawid Sr and Janet, could not attend. His half-century on a tough pitch was a fine display of mind over matter and knowing when to truly launch.
But it was Tuesday’s incendiary showing at Newlands, a blaze of 11 fours and five sixes, that surely ended any debate about his position. Malan laughs about surviving a run-out chance on 36 – “only a clown takes on Temba Bavuma” – and a wish that Jos Buttler had turned down the final run.
“I don’t really look at my score,” Malan says. “When I get in the zone I only know what we have to do to win. I messed up, but I’m not fussed about milestones, it’s about the result. The way we won stamped our authority, which is what we like to do.”
And the No 1 ranking? “When it came at the end of the summer I didn’t agree. I looked at guys like Virat Kohli and Babar Azam and felt a bit embarrassed by it. But coming here with the tag and performing, I’m becoming a bit more comfortable with it.
“It guarantees nothing and I don’t worry or care too much. The hardest part is how much it gets mentioned. Even walking out to bat it comes up on the big screen and you think: ‘Give it a rest, guys.’ I’m proud of it but I will only really enjoy it after I retire from cricket, when I look back.”
Malan credits time in the Pakistan Super League for strengthening his T20 game – “Playing against four overseas players and maybe eight internationals overall meant learning to take down the best” – and after the Big Bash he will put himself forward for the Indian Premier League auction following permission from Yorkshire.
Typically, he plays down the chances of being picked, but adds he has entered only once, having preferred to focus on the four-day game at the start of the English season and push his Test claims.
Not that this dream is over, with sights on next year’s Ashes, following his maiden Test century in Perth three years ago. “I’ve not spoken to England – I’m not the type to push it – but I’m available. I heard talk about Rooty being picked for the next T20 World Cup in India after doing well there four years ago, so maybe I’ll get on a similar bandwagon [for the Ashes].
“I’ve put the numbers on the board since being dropped in 2018, but there’ve been some fantastic players come through since. Who knows?”
Such thoughts can wait, with Malan now heading to Australia to continue his impressive T20 form and more talk about his No 1 billing.