When first chosen for Tests, cricketers, even some of the most confident, speak of harbouring doubts about their ability to perform at that elite level. The step-up in class can be significant, daunting, and players frequently find that bridging the gap is not that straightforward. Some admit to a sense of inadequacy, of feeling like an imposter intruding on a domain they have no right being a part of.
Often, this self-doubt is not assuaged until their first significant performance — a five-wicket haul perhaps, or maybe a century. “Afterwards I had a feeling of relief,” revealed former England batsman Nasser Hussain upon scoring his first Test century against India at Edgbaston in 1996. “I had a Test hundred and nobody could take that away from me. More importantly, I now knew I could score a hundred at that level, and once you have done something once you feel you can do it again.”
After playing at the first-class level for over 10 years, 30-year-old England batsman Dawid Malan made his debut in July against South Africa at The Oval. His very first try ended in some ignominy when he was left sprawling by a scorching Kagiso Rabada yorker that disturbed his stumps. He had made one. From there, things never really got going. In his seven Tests prior to Perth, the left-hander totaled just 297 runs at an average of 24.75.
His selection for the Ashes was not met with unanimous approval. That was fair enough since even he would agree that he had not set the cricket world alight. Improvements were certainly required if he fancied of a lengthy Test career.
This Ashes series, then, was do-or-die for the batsman. He began well enough, scoring 56 during the first innings in Brisbane. But it is at Perth that he took a stand for his team and for his career. Joining the fray at 115/3, which soon deteriorated to 131/4 when Mark Stoneman was dismissed under controversial circumstances, Malan weathered a searching short-pitched onslaught from Australia’s phalanx of lightning-quick speedsters on a surface with pace, bounce and carry.
The ball rose predictably from the pitch. But, that did not diminish the degree of difficulty, as Stoneman discovered when one bouncer smashed into the grill of his helmet, or when he fended off another screaming delivery that Nathan Lyon just failed to grab, or the ball that was adjudged to have grazed his glove on its way to the keeper.
It was the kind of assault Malan would hardly have faced before. It was therefore gratifying for the batsman, for the selectors who stuck with him, and for his team, that he managed to emerge unscathed from such a demanding examination. “You play county cricket,” Malan said after day one, “and you're more worried about your front pad being blown off or nicked off with 78mph dibbly-dobblies. I've really enjoyed the challenge. They test you in different ways — not only technically but your heart as well.”
Malan’s hundred came when he pulled the 159th delivery he received to the square-leg boundary. He was granted a life on 92, put down in the slips off Mitchell Starc immediately upon Australia taking the second new ball. Earlier, he had survived a few miscued shots as well, such as a top-edged hook for six.
But a few instances of good fortune do not detract from the high quality of the innings. He strode confidently forward to drive through off whenever the bowlers pitched the ball up and he took balls expertly off his legs whenever they strayed slightly in line. Lyon was difficult to negotiate in Brisbane and in Adelaide. In Perth, where he elicited less turn, Malan and the other English batsmen were quick to advance down the pitch and to employ the sweep. As a result, the off-spinner was much less of a threat, ending the first day without a wicket off 19 overs.
Malan ended the day unbeaten on 110. At the other end stood Jonny Bairstow on a well-played 75. After the first two games the calls for the wicketkeeper to move up the order to number six were deafening. England listened and were rewarded with a partnership that was worth 174 runs at stumps on the first day.
As his parents watched from the stands, Malan would have felt relief upon reaching his hundred. He admitted to doubts about making it at this level after he experienced what South Africa had to offer: “After those first two games, I never thought I'd score a run in Test cricket to be honest. It was quite tough facing that [the South African attack]. Luckily, I've adjusted my game here and there to work at Test cricket.”
The uncertainties that would have plagued his mind before now had to give way to the realisation that he had the game to thrive at the highest level. An Ashes Test, at Perth, against a menacing Australian pace attack that brutally blew them away on the last morning in Adelaide just over a week prior, is as tough a battlefield as there is in the game. Placed in the thick of the battle, Malan not only survived, he also inflicted serious damage on his opponents.
On the second day, he stretched his total 140 before he was brilliantly caught at backward point after venturing out to Lyon, aiming a hit in the direction of midwicket. Bairstow made a century as well and their union was worth 237 at the time they parted company. England will hope that their partnership will mark a turning point in the series.
Malan will go from here confident that he belongs at this level. He knows he has the game for Test cricket. No longer does he need to feel like an imposter. Things will still be difficult as he goes forward in his career, but, like Hussain, he will know that what he did once he can do again.