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Pieter Malan rises to prominence after hard graft in the backwaters

Pieter Malan celebrates after scoring a half-century AFP / Getty Images

Pressure, to (mis)quote Keith Miller, is not what Pieter Malan experienced at the crease on the fifth day of the Newlands Test. Faced with the task of batting out the day to save the Test against one of the most vaunted attacks in world cricket, debutant Malan showed nerves of steel.

"That's not pressure, that's privilege," he said after the match. "Pressure is playing out there in the semi-pro game, nobody watching, fighting for your career. Being out there, with the Barmy Army, Jimmy Anderson running in, it felt like a video game at some stage. It was unbelievable. I felt very privileged to be in a position to fight for the team and try and bat long and just be there for as long as I can."

Malan has played his fair share of semi-professional cricket (the provincial tier below franchise cricket in South Africa's domestic scene). Ninety-five matches to be exact, most recently in November. While his younger brother Janneman was blitzing through the Mzansi Super League, Pieter was grafting hard in the backwaters of East London and Kimberley for Western Province. That's pressure.

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Trying to stay motivated when the cameras and the big bucks are elsewhere. Trying to catch (at that stage, non-existent) selectors' eyes through performances. Trying to justify your career choice when you could be part of a fourth of the country's domestic cricketers unemployed because of a possible restructure. That's pressure. It could've become too much for Malan to handle, but it didn't.

He didn't blame the structure nor the competition, but recognised that the fault was with his own commitment. "I don't think I did myself any favours when I was younger. I took a lot of stuff for granted and didn't put in the hard work that, in hindsight, I needed to put in," Malan said. "It was also a matter of opportunities being limited and me not taking them."

In 2013, Malan moved to the Cape and was fourth on the provincial run charts the 2014-15 season. In 2015-16, he was third on the charts, and hit the high notes in 2016-17, finishing on top of the list with 1069 runs at an average of 118.77.

This allowed him to graduate to the Cape Cobras franchise, and even nail a spot. He literally barged the selectors' door by finishing third on the run charts in 2017-18 and 2018-19, but the national call-up remained elusive.

At the time, Aiden Markram had just taken over the opener's mantle from Stephen Cook. Malan, like Cook, was nearing the 30s and had begun to accept that an international call-up may have bypassed him. "I thought it was never going to happen."

Malan continued to churn out runs for Cobras and credits former international Ashwell Prince for keeping him in good space. "He has been massive in my career," Malan said. "He played 60-odd Tests, averaged over 40 and scored hundreds so when he tells you something, you listen. We work on small technical stuff that we just keep refining.

"It's a bit of a cat-and-mouse game, where you improve something, then the bowler spots another weakness, and you end up going back and forth. He is very good with that. And then also from the mental side, he pushes all the time and I enjoy that."

Specifically, the pair worked on Malan leaving the ball. "In the last three or four years, that (leaving) has been a massive part of my game, leaving the ball well and eliminating dismissals that I felt were soft. As a new-ball player, you want to make the bowlers bowl at you.

"In South Africa, it's tough opening against the new ball, there's a lot of things happening, there's nip, there's bounce, so the less you can give the bowlers, the better. In their third and fourth spells, that's where the real runs are."

At Cape Town, that showed. Malan's intricate knowledge of his off stump was underlined by his emphatic way of shouldering arms. Malan's biceps caused a social-media stir, even though he maintains they are not the body parts he puts the most work into. "I've seen that photograph. I don't do a lot of arms actually," he quipped. "They should have taken a shot of my legs, that's where I spend most of my time."

"Being out there, with the Barmy Army, Jimmy Anderson running in, it felt like a video-game at some stage." Malan's reflection of his Test debut

Perhaps that will change now, and Malan will actually end up spending most of his time with the national side. One Test is never enough to tell, but he has already demonstrated the temperament to play at the highest level.

Though Malan missed out on a century, he spent six hours at the crease standing up to the England attack. He was challenged by unpredictable bounce and movement off cracks on the pitch that occasionally saw the ball leap up. He was hit on the chest by Ben Stokes, and he saw his team-mates, most of them senior in terms of international experience, unable to show the same resilience.

Most of all, he embraced being in the cauldron as it reminded him of the rewards that come from withstanding pressure. "When I walk down the stairs [at Newlands], I always take a second or two looking at the mountain, appreciating where we play, because then we end up playing in Kimberley and there's nothing to look at.

"It's been a long road but its a road that I am glad I've been on because I am a better cricketer, I am a better person and its made me appreciate playing for the Proteas. It's been tough but it has been been worth it."