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Nathan Lyon: the world’s best spinner and an unassuming talisman

Nathan Lyon
Jo Harman by Jo Harman 8 minute read

Nathan Lyon’s five-wicket haul on day three of the second Test between Australia and India provided the latest evidence that he is the world’s best spin bowler, and able to prosper where so many others have struggled.

The defining image of an enthralling finale to the first Test at Adelaide was Nathan Lyon – eight wickets in the match, undefeated on 38 – down on his haunches, staring at the ground, wondering what might have been. Given the circus of the last nine months, imagine what a difference those 32 runs could have made.

Adam Collins, Wisden Cricket Monthly’s Australia correspondent (and aspiring photographer), captured the moment beautifully, captioning his photo, simply: ‘Nathan Lyon, brilliant in defeat.’

The photo received more than 4,000 likes on Twitter, with people, including at least one member of parliament, queuing up to show their gratitude to Lyon for restoring some pride to Australian cricket after a miserable chapter in its history.

On a slippery deck at the new Perth Stadium, the second Test was supposed to be all about the quicks – to the extent that India (or, perhaps more accurately, Kohli) didn’t see fit to pick a specialist spinner – but Lyon again emerged as the unassuming talisman for his side, becoming just the second bowler (Murali being the other) to take seven five-wicket hauls against India and put Australia marginally ahead in the match.

A former pitch curator at the Adelaide Oval, Lyon doesn’t immediately come across as a natural leader, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t possess leadership qualities. Mike Hussey saw them during their two years together in the national side, passing on the responsibility of leading the team song to Lyon when he retired in 2013. To those outside of Australian cricket, that might not seem like such a big deal. But this kind of stuff matters in the dressing room. Just ask Simon Katich.

“There was a lot of change in the team, so I wasn’t 100 per cent sure who was going to be there for the long haul,” Hussey recently told Wisden Cricket Monthly. “I based my decision on character. I looked at Nathan Lyon and I knew he played the game for the right reasons and respected the game and its history and traditions. I felt that some of the young guys – not all, but some – weren’t playing for the right reasons. They were playing for money or fame or the external stuff rather than a love of playing the game. And so I really wanted the person who led the team song to have those traits.”

In the leadership vacuum created by the absence of Steve Smith and David Warner, those traits have become all the more visible.

But to focus too much on Lyon’s character would detract from his skills as a bowler. The ICC’s rankings tell us that Lyon is the fourth-best spinner in the world (behind Ashwin, Jadeja and Yasir Shah), sitting in 14th place overall, but there is a strong case to be made that he is the best around.

On day three at Perth he ripped the heart out of India’s middle order, taking advantage of the extra pace and bounce in the pitch to precipitate a collapse from 173-3 to 283 all out, giving the hosts a vital first-innings lead of 43.

The key wicket of the well-set Ajinkya Rahane, who edged behind to a beautifully flighted delivery which held its line, was a particularly fine example of his craftsmanship.

Still Lyon wasn’t happy, arguing Australia could have exploited the conditions more effectively. “We know that come the second dig we can bowl much better than that, so we can take a few lessons off that first innings,” he said at stumps on day three. “It gives us a lot of confidence that we weren’t at our best and we were able to take 10 wickets for 280.”

It was the latest example of Lyon prospering in conditions where so many other spinners have tried and failed. Leading into this series, since the start of 2010 spin bowlers in Australia had averaged 48.25 in Tests, comfortably the highest figure in the world. New Zealand (45.77) is next highest, followed by South Africa (41.55).

Since debuting in 2011, Lyon averages 32.65 in Australia, and 26.05 on home soil since the start of the 2017/18 Ashes. For context, England’s spinners averaged 112.5 in that series.

And take a look at the records of those three spinners placed above him in the rankings: Ashwin averages 48 from seven Tests in Australia, Shah 84 from three, Jadeja hasn’t even been picked to play a match there.

“It’s a very tough place to bowl,” England’s Jack Leach told Wisden recently. “The argument goes that if you can bowl spin in Australia, you can bowl spin anywhere. I want to be able to bowl on any track on any pitch in the world. Not many people have been able to do that.”

Nathan Lyon is one of the select few.

Perhaps because of his unobtrusive nature (we’ll put his pre-Ashes trash talk down as an unfortunate one-off), there’s a sense that Lyon may only be truly appreciated, at least by the wider public, when Australia need to replace him. But at 31, he has already chalked up 331 Test wickets, placing him fourth on Australia’s all-time list, with third-placed Dennis Lillee’s tally of 355 well in his sights. Of the 10 Aussie spinners to have taken 100 wickets or more, only Shane Warne, Stuart MacGill and Hugh Trumble took them at a better strike rate.

By any measure, we are looking at one of Australia’s all-time bowling greats. If he can bowl his country to victory in the fourth innings at Perth, perhaps a few more people may start to believe it.

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