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Malan's miscue undermines a mighty effort

Dawid Malan walks off after making 140 Getty Images

Like complaining about having too much money, it seems churlish to take issue with Dawid Malan after his maiden Test century.

Malan had not only made England's highest score in a Test in Australia since January 2011 (since Alastair Cook made 189 in Sydney), but contributed to England's highest fifth-wicket stand in Ashes history (237) with Jonny Bairstow. They had steered England from the rocks of 131 for 4 to the relative calm of 368 for 4.

He played beautifully, too. He took on the short ball with uncomplicated relish and he unfurled a cover drive that could make the sunset jealous with its beauty. He deserves all the credit and praise that will come his way.

But

It wasn't enough: 368 for 4 was just a platform and, with England's tail as brittle as a poppadum, their middle-order needed to take the responsibility for taking the score to 450 and beyond. On this pitch, with this outfield, such a score might be considered no better than par.

There was no hurry. Bearing in mind the state of the series and the state of the pitch, there might even have been a case for trying to bat into a third day. It is an unusual ploy but the effects of tiring - even dispiriting - an opposition in such circumstances are understated. The surface was already starting to crack, meaning it is likely to become more difficult to score runs later in the game, and if any seamer can be pushed into a fifth, sixth and even a seventh session, it might compromise their effectiveness for the fourth Test starting on Boxing Day. All these options were available for England.

They had done the hard work. They had seen off the relatively new ball - it was eight overs old at the start of play on the second day - and the bowlers at their freshest. Mitchell Marsh, a decent bowler but not a patch on his seam-bowling colleagues, had already been introduced and withdrawn from the attack, the pace of the other seamers had dropped a little and the off-spin of Nathan Lyon had been introduced on a pitch offering him little. The cracks in the attack and the pitch were just starting to widen.

Here was the moment England had been working towards all series. Here was their opportunity. Here was the moment for the ruthlessness they have often talked about but which we have seen most obviously this series when Steve Smith was grinding out his match-defining century in Brisbane, or whenever Australia's seamers have been bowling to England's tail.

Instead Malan attempted to hit Lyon over mid-on - against the spin - and without getting anywhere near the pitch of the ball. Instead the ball looped towards backward point.

Now, we have to be careful not to criticise on results. England won praise on the first day for their positivity against Lyon. Whereas, in the previous Tests, they had allowed him to settle into spells without much disruption, it was noticeable here that Mark Stoneman looked for every opportunity to sweep while the likes of James Vince skipped down the pitch to unsettle his length. It would be hypocritical to praise such intent when it brings runs but criticise it when it brings a wicket. You have to take the rough with the smooth to some extent.

But on the first day, Lyon gained almost no turn. And on the first day, Malan rarely, if ever, tried to hit over the top. He attempted to sweep once and generally looked to skip down the pitch to drive Lyon on the ground. And even if the choice of shot was understandable, the execution was poor. It looked, perhaps understandably, a weary stroke from a man who thought his work was done.

It wasn't. England didn't have enough. And Malan's departure opened the floodgates. Australia's seamers, sensing blood, went for the kill. England's final six wickets fell for just 35 runs to leave them with a total that allowed Australia back into the game.

Perhaps 'allowed' is the wrong word. Mitchell Starc gained just enough swing to punish Bairstow for playing across the line and Josh Hazlewood produced a perfectly-directed short ball to which brought a defensive prod to short-leg from Craig Overton. It was terrific fast bowling.

But they might not have had that first sniff of blood had it not been for Malan's error. And this was a reminder to him that, in Test cricket, when the opportunity comes to shut the opposition out of the game, you have to take it. It was a reminder that life is nearly always harder for the new batsman and that, when you have a fragile batting line-up, you have to take responsibility for the team when you are the man who has built the platform.

There was a frustration, too, as Malan had been in this position before. In Brisbane he and Moeen Ali were on the verge of establishing a strong foundation for their side when his top-edged pull ended a fifth-wicket stand of 83. Again, his wicket precipitated a collapse and England lost their last six wickets for 56 runs. He has to learn from these experiences. He has to understand how brutal and tough Test cricket is. He has to be more ruthless.

There are, of course, those far more culpable than Malan for England's lack of runs in this innings and in this series. Moeen Ali, who is having something of a horror tour, played the softest of shots - a weak prod at one he could have left - and Chris Woakes flicked to deep fine-leg in thoughtless fashion. Bairstow, who also played beautifully but again found himself left with the tail after Moeen, Woakes and Malan departed, will also reflect that he would have been better served attempting to play the ball that dismissed him through mid-on rather than midwicket. Of course Malan isn't responsible for all England's failings.

But his wicket was the turning point of the day and perhaps the match.

If Dennis Amiss had been dismissed for 140 (he made an unbeaten 262) against West Indies in Jamaica in 1974, England probably would have lost. If Mike Atherton had been dismissed for 140 (he made an unbeaten 185) in Johannesburg in 1995, England probably would have lost. And if Gary Kisten had been dismissed for 140 (he made 275) in Durban in 1999, South Africa probably would have lost.

Of course it is harsh to criticise Malan. His 140 was a brilliant innings. But if he'd made it into 240 England would have been safe in this match and might well be in a position to push for a win. As it is, the game is evenly poised with Smith looking menacingly well established.