It always comes back to Australia. The tour that was, the home series to come. Every two years, a relentless obsession for English cricket. A trap.
E adesso, with only two and a half Tests left of the summer before a possible winter tour down under (Covid permitting), thoughts intensify. Performances count double through a baggy-green lens. Inghilterra, despite a confusion of planning – at times too clever by half – of who to rest and when, the Ashes roadmap unfurled, seem to have fallen on their feet. A No 3 has appeared. È stato, it turns out, hiding in plain sight all along.
On a Headingley Thursday, at his home ground, Dawid Malan looked exactly the player England have been looking for at the top of the order. A man put together in a spanking new European factory, with well-oiled arms and legs, programmed to play correct-looking shots to bad looking balls. A technically organised efficiency saving, a knee-bobbing, eye-widening, lip-licking, batting machine. The landlord of a charming cover drive and flashing cuts past backward point.
He seemed as at home with the becalmed Haseeb Hameed as a rampant Joe Root, who soon overtook him in the race towards a century, the two of them grinding India’s hopes into the Headingley clod with a partnership of 139. All too much for Virat Kohli, who pulled down his sunglasses at second slip even as Leeds gloomed.
It was not until the last ball before tea that Malan had a legside dart at Mohammed Siraj and feathered the ball through to a grateful Rishabh Pant. Root, watching the big screen for the review, tipped his head back in disbelief – as much as anything because a Malan dismissal had seemed so unlikely.
In the course of this summer, England’s No 3s have scored 63 runs at an average of eight. In that context, 70 is purest gold dust – though Malan did have the advantage of coming in with the scoreboard reading a comfortable 135 for one: unlike Zak Crawley, who had to march his young legs down the steps at 4-1, 49-1, 72-1, 0-1, 0-1 e 37-1; while Hameed, in his Test return, faced 23-1 e 1-1. Malan knows what it is like to succeed on an Ashes tour. He was the leading scorer on England’s last long-haul yomp around Australia with 383 runs at 42.55, Compreso 140 at Perth, his maiden Test century and the highlight of a 4-0 thrashing.
He also knows what it is like to be dumped on a mixture of whim – then-chief selector Ed Smith rolling up his pale blue shirt sleeves and looking for a scapegoat for England’s batting woes – and sticky statistics. He averaged only 20.23 in his (seven) home Tests.
Not a man to let his feelings lie, he had a pop at Smith at the time, the second Test against India in 2018, the two of them having a frank two-hour chat. An avalanche of abuse on social media followed, which was hard to take. “You work your socks off to earn the right to play for England but then you get comments that derail you and make you pigeon-holed,” he said earlier this week. “It’s amazing then how every Tom, Dick and Harry has an opinion on you and every time you nick off, those comments come back to bite you.”
Ma, time heals. E, despite the less than ideal preparation of four first-class matches since the start of 2020, his chance came again. And this time, unlike last time, he believes that he is good enough. Forse, adesso, England do too.