Updated: April 8, 2021 9:40:49 am
Dawid Malan has been the ICC-anointed World No. 1 T20I batsman for the best part of a year. But he himself wears the tag lightly, neither as a burden nor a validation. “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. It guarantees nothing and I don’t worry or care too much. I’m proud of it but I will only really enjoy it after I retire from cricket, when I look back,” he once said at a press conference.
He could not have been more pragmatic in his self-assessment. For there still hangs a cloak of uncertainty over his spot in the side. After a relatively indifferent white-ball series in India, there suddenly are doubts on Malan’s proficiency against quality spin bowling, which he would encounter in abundance if he were to feature in the T20 World Cup later this year. Thus, his maiden IPL stint — with Punjab Kings — will have quite a few eager observers back in England.
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Beyond doubt, Malan has firmly entrenched himself as England’s No. 3 in T20Is. The numbers he has racked up in the last couple of years are staggering — 1,003 runs (the fastest to this landmark) at an average of 50 and a strike rate of 144. That’s an average higher than Virat Kohli and a pace more frenetic than Chris Gayle at the same stage of their careers. Anywhere outside Asia, where his exposure is negligible, Malan is un-droppable.
The big if
Though he did not resemble an absolute wreck, like some of his red-ball colleagues, when facing spinners, Malan was bogged down at the crease. He struggled to rotate strike, ate up too many dot balls, and sweated to summon the big strokes against them, apart from his 68 from 46 balls in the final outing in Ahmedabad, an effort in futility that was termed slow in quarters of the English press. It couldn’t help England over the line. Even during the knock, the left-hander was mostly one-dimensional, relying mostly on sweeps and reverse-sweeps, and just wishfully dancing down the track and swinging his arms. Three times in four innings, a spinner accounted for him. Some of the dismissals betrayed his desperation – like bowled around the stumps, and bowled attempting a reverse-sweep. Often in the series, Malan was clueless in deciphering the variations of leg-spinners Yuzvendra Chahal and Rahul Chahar. Often, he seemed to read them off the pitch, and not from the hands, which is a risk-fraught proposition in Asia (on any track, not just turners).
The big plus
At his best, Malan is a risk-free stroke-maker against high-quality pacers. Nurtured mostly on bouncy surfaces of the Western Cape in South Africa, he’s an instinctive destroyer of short-pitched bowling. Pace hardly frazzles him, as he recently illustrated against South Africa with an unbeaten 99 off 47 balls. Years of plying his game on the England county circuit has made his judgment of length immaculate. Unlike when facing spin, he not only has a broad canvas of strokes against pacers, but also rotates strike efficiently. In full flow, field restrictions barely matter to him, as he has a surgeon’s eye for finding the rope.
Ideally, England expect him to sustain the tempo furnished by the heavy-artillery opening pair of Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy, while infusing some stability too. Barring the series against India, Malan has performed the dual roles magnificently. But in spin, he has a nemesis, which could reduce his prospects of commanding an automatic slot. England possess a raft of big-hitters. They could wink in any one of Ben Stokes, Eoin Morgan and Jos Buttler, or even Liam Livingstone or Sam Curran. It’s just Malan’s consistency that’s keeping his spot. He could be the axis around which England’s no-holds-barred stroke-makers could express themselves. He gives them both liberty and assurance. But to replicate his pre-India series form, Malan needs to lift his attacking game against spinners by a few notches. His task is cut out: shine in the IPL, show his tools against the spinners and nail his T20 World Cup future. Lest, England would move on fast, spoilt as they are with batting riches.
Where he would bat for Punjab Kings is uncertain. It’s unlikely that he will get a chance in the top three — with Mayank Agarwal, KL Rahul and Chris Gayle already blending into their spots. So at best, Malan could bat at No. 4 and is is guaranteed to come up against the spinners. Should he falter, both his franchise and country could fix their gaze elsewhere. Thus, few overseas batsmen have their T20 World Cup fate so closely interlinked with their IPL fortunes.
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