Batter’s safety-first approach barely registered as a Test asset before his recall in August
Until his recall against India last summer, it barely seemed to register that that same trait might actually be rather more welcome in the game’s longest, most measured format. “I thought I would never play another Test again,” he admitted on the third evening at the Gabba, after playing an innings that might yet reignite England’s Ashes campaign.
At the age of 34, Malan knows his game, and England’s Test team is all the more grateful for that fact. With a compact stance, a fondness for the drive, and a slight propensity for a nibble outside off that is no more pronounced than many of the miscreants who have tried and failed to fill the No.3 berth since his last Test in 2018, he produced an innings of 80 not out that has lifted his Test average in Australia to a heady 46.90 in six Tests. And to judge by the size of his last four first-class centuries – 199, 166, 219 and 199 – he’s got the staying power to make this start count.
“You can do as well as you want in Twenty20 or 50-over cricket, but you’re judged a lot by your Test career at the end of it,” Malan said. “For us, an Ashes series is the biggest series of our calendar so to come here and get runs against this really good attack is very satisfying.
“I actually said to Rooty when were on 40 or 50 and the Barmy Army were singing, ‘I’ve really missed this’,” he added. “I’ve missed having someone trying to blow my head off all the time, the crowd going and the adrenaline going, playing against the best bowlers going around. Test cricket is the pinnacle.
“To be able to stand out here in an England shirt…I’m so proud to do that. Especially to do it here at The Gabba in front of everyone. It’s just really good fun.”
Malan’s innings might also have vindicated the former national selector, Ed Smith, who – on taking over the role in the summer of 2018 – mitigated his decision to axe Malan after a fallow start to that summer’s series against India by suggesting that his game might be “better suited to overseas conditions”.
Smith later clarified that his comments had been well-intentioned and a tribute to his ability in “alien” conditions such as Perth, where he made a fine 140 on the 2017-18 Ashes tour. His intention, he added, was to widen the pool of options to make England more competitive overseas, including the subcontinent, where another of Smith’s selections, Durham’s Keaton Jennings, played a key role in that winter’s 3-0 win in Sri Lanka.
Malan, however, was less impressed at being “pigeon-holed”, as he admitted in an emotional press conference after his recall for the Headingley Test last summer. “You work your socks off to earn the right to play for England but then you get comments that derail you,” he said. “It probably did affect me for four or five months and every time I went away for tournaments I couldn’t get in the right head space.”
For this trip, however, he seems to have found his equilibrium, even after a loose first-innings poke that contributed to England’s first-morning meltdown, as he was second man out in their collapse to 11 for 3 inside the first six overs of the match. He did at least make early amends in the field, with a sharp low slip catch to give Ollie Robinson England’s first breakthrough of the Ashes… which also went some way to atoning for his glaring misses off Virat Kohli at Edgbaston in 2018, a brace of drops that probably condemned him every bit as much as his summer’s tally of 74 runs in five innings.
“The first innings was obviously a disappointment,” Malan said. “We hold our hands up. We weren’t good enough and whether the wicket did a little bit or not, we’re better than being bowled out for 140. So for us to come in after a day-and-a-half of hard fielding and do what we did here today was fantastic. But that’s only half the job done.
“We spoke this morning and said we wanted to express ourselves. The last thing we want to do is just be sitting ducks and go out and not score. So the chat was about playing the way we want to play. If they bowl good balls, defend them but if they bowl bad balls make sure that we still have the intent to score.
“After what we did in the first innings we needed to park that and put that aside. This needed to be a fresh innings. It’s really probably poor of me to say it, but we started so badly [that] we had to park it. The only way forward in this Test was to forget what happened in that first innings and hopefully put into practise all the things we’ve worked so hard on in those quarantine periods. That was the key for us.”
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket