From South Africa with love … again
“I think everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” Dawid Malan says, in what is not a broad South African accent, but not discernibly English either.
“If people want to give me stick about my old man moving to South Africa and taking me when I was seven, then so be it. I didn’t really have a choice when I was seven years old.
“If you did, you’d probably make a silly decision if you’re seven years old.”
To say Malan is the England Test squad’s newest South African isn’t quite right. Bowling all-rounder Tom Curran, called up this week to replace the injured Steven Finn, spent much of his childhood in Zimbabwe, but was born in Cape Town.
Malan, 30, was actually born in suburban London, but spent his formative cricket years in South Africa, where he made his first-class debut in early 2006.
However, if you thought the left-hander was plucked straight from Western Cape to the English Test XI, think again. He has grafted in county cricket since 2006, only making his international debut this year in a Twenty20 game against South Africa. Five Tests have followed, and while a maiden Test ton hasn’t yet been forthcoming, his Ashes tour has started promisingly, with half-centuries batting in the middle order in both of England’s first two matches.
Speaking this week, Malan, nicknamed “AC” in a nod to Italian soccer giants “AC Milan”, appeared laid back when discussing his first Ashes tour, and said he was expecting banter from n crowds used to making light of England’s propensity for picking players of South African background, with Andrew Strauss, Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior the obvious examples. “It’ll be good fun. I think it’s the whole challenge of an Ashes series,” Malan said.
“I grew up in South Africa, and I think ‘s pretty similar to that in terms of the make-up, and the outdoor lifestyle, which I thoroughly enjoy.
“And coming over here, I think no matter who you play for, whether it’s South Africa or India, you’re going to get abuse from the crowd.
“I’m actually looking forward to seeing what I get called, what sort of lines they have. They do say most of the lines are funny. I think you probably get the odd guy that crosses the line a few times. You’ve got to learn to deal with that.
“The best advice I was given was to stay away from the boundary,” he adds with a wry smile. “I’m putting my hand up to field at short-leg if I’m playing and hopefully stay there the whole game!”
It could cheekily be asserted that Malan – having grown up in South Africa – would have dreamed of playing for England. Of course that was not the case. He says he couldn’t have foreseen his ascension even 12 months ago. But that’s not to say he didn’t follow the Ashes during his youth. “My old man really loves cricket, and he’s constantly watching cricket,” he said. “Cricket was always on in the background somewhere in the house.
“My first real memories are of the 2005 Ashes. I was 17 at the time, or 18, and I remember coming back from school and you’d catch the last session every night. The Edgbaston Test, and the really close ones, that captured my imagination and I haven’t missed a game since.”
Malan had never been to before this tour, having turned down a chance to play with Sydney University. The eternal challenge for English batsmen Down Under is combating the bouncy pitches. England coach Trevor Bayliss posited that his men would actually be suited to the conditions, as they have tended to have more issues on slower decks. Malan, having been reared in African climates reasonably similar to those of , should theoretically be as well-placed as anyone to thrive.
Malan understands the notion, and said the wicket used in the Perth tour match was similar to the pitches of his youth. However he remains cautious about making public assertions of confidence. “We’ll wait and see,” Malan said.
“I think it’s a bit different when you’re 18 years old facing 70-80-mile bowlers than facing [Mitchell] Starc, [Pat] Cummins and [Josh] Hazlewood.
“It’s not going to be easy, Test cricket’s never going to be easy, and if it is, I think everyone would be playing it.”
He accepts that nothing will quite prepare him for facing ‘s fearsome quicks. “I think you can do as much preparation as you want. I don’t think there’s anything that really gets you close enough to that feeling when you’re facing really proper bowlers, high-quality bowlers in a high-pressure environment.
“You obviously do your homework, watch as many videos as you can and try to work it out, but without over-analysing, without looking into it too much, at the end of the day it’s still a ball coming down at you, and you still need to hit that ball, and you still need to score as many runs as you can with that ball.
“I think the main thing here is getting used to the wickets, and once you get used to the wickets, and you finally work out a way of playing on these wickets, that will probably be the key.
“Your first 30 balls here are the toughest and if you can get through that I think there are runs to be had in with the quality of the wickets.”
He knows the stakes are high, and the scrutiny is heightened, but the rewards will also be greater if he succeeds. “It’s the ultimate rivalry. It’s how you deal with those pressures and how you accept those challenges,” he says.
“If you do exceptionally well in an Ashes series I think it sets you with a little bit of cushion moving forward.”
So will Malan be England’s next South African Ashes hero? Accent aside, he certainly talks the talk of a man who wants to make his country proud. “I absolutely love England. It’s the place I call home, the place I’m going to live. I probably will never move back to South Africa, as much as I enjoy the country and as good as the country’s been to me, England’s my home and that’s where I see my future.”