Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98
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In the first season of the Hundred, Trent Rockets got stuck on the launchpad. They made it through to the knockout stages thanks to an impressive bowling line-up, but they were the slowest-scoring team in the powerplay across the men's competition; in the eliminator, they folded for just 96 against Southern Brave.
This year, their approach with the bat has been completely transformed: their powerplay run-rate has jumped from a cautious 1.36 runs per ball to a tournament-high 1.77, and they have posted two of the four 180-plus totals, including a successful chase of 190 against Manchester Originals.
"We're not only talking about intent here," Andy Flower, Rockets' head coach, tells ESPNcricinfo. "We're talking about form. They both feel very confident at the moment, and they're well-balanced when they're hitting the ball."
Flower feels that Hales has reverted to playing "good, strong cricket shots" rather than "only hitting the ball in a certain way, opening up his front leg" and looking to hit over the leg side. "It's a much better way to go about building an innings - even if you're building it at a strike rate of 200. It serves him much better because he can play conventional cricket shots."
Malan batted at No. 3 last season, with D'Arcy Short opening alongside Hales, but has returned to his preferred position at the top of the order this year. The decision to shuffle him up has paid off in style. "It's definitely helped him," Flower says. "That's Dawid's preferred spot, and it's allowed him to go in and set the standard straightaway."
He has made a significant change in his approach, batting with more intent at the start of his innings: his strike rate in his first 10 balls has jumped from 97.52 in 2021 to 140.85 in 2022 across all T20 cricket, and from 107.04 to 163.16 in the Hundred. "It's transformed his game," Flower says.
Kunal Manek, Rockets' analyst, has found that Malan's record across his T20 career is significantly better when he scores an early boundary. "He's definitely been doing that this season," Flower adds. "He seems very comfortable at the moment, as a man and as a batsman, and very confident in his game. It's wonderful to see him be so aggressive, so early."
Rockets' coaching staff discussed average totals - and average winning totals - from the Hundred's first season with players before the start of the season, but Flower says they do not have specific targets in mind when batting first. "Looking at a pitch and trying to be a clairvoyant, saying 'a par score on this pitch is X' - I think that's total bullshit, to be honest. You could lose two wickets in the first over, or hit it for 20. I want our guys to remain very flexible."
Rockets have also been well-served by a plethora of allrounders, a trademark of Flower's short-form teams which has offered them both batting depth and flexibility with the ball. Against Birmingham Phoenix, Lewis Gregory and Daniel Sams added 92 in 46 in an unbroken seventh-wicket partnership, the highest for any wicket across the season, having come together at 53 for 6, and they have always had at least six bowling options available.
"I have read that occasionally, about me going for a bank of allrounders," he says. "It's not as black and white as that because each recruitment situation is different. But there's no doubt that, as a batter, when you look down the order and see that you bat to No. 9 or 10, you feel a greater sense of freedom to attack. In our recruitment, that was something that was important to us.
"It's likely that someone will be hit or have a bad day, so you want that extra bowling option to go to. That gives the captain maximum flexibility with his tactical game, which he's trying to manage in the moment out there on the field. And if that sixth bowling option turns the ball in a different way - or angles the ball in a different way, as a seamer - to the rest of your bowling attack, that's really useful."
Flower has brought a familiar face into Rockets' backroom staff this year, working with Graeme Swann - their new spin-bowling coach - again after coaching him for the majority of his England career. "His spin bowling and cricket knowledge is one thing," he says, "but he's got a brilliant energy about him. He's a very positive thinker and has a really positive effect on the group."
Rockets play London Spirit, unbeaten in their first four games, on Saturday night, and will bring Rashid Khan back into their squad for his second and final appearance of the season. It is a vital game: the winner of the Hundred's group stage qualifies directly to the final at Lord's, only 24 hours after the eliminator between the teams who finish second and third in Southampton.
"Each team is desperate to be in that No. 1 slot," Flower says. "Given the travel situation and the schedule, that team will have a much better chance of being fresh and ready for the final. Having Trevor [Bayliss] and [Eoin] Morgan coming together has done something for them: they haven't lost a game yet. Our job is to change that."