Ben Jones looks at the Australian spinner’s problems at the end of matches.
Twice, in their last 11 Tests, Australia have bottled a fourth innings with the ball. Twice, with a high-profile series poised after two matches, Australia have found themselves in a position where winning was the only option, and then have not won.
Australia had to defend 359 to win at Leeds; they couldn’t do it. Australia had 131 overs to bowl India out at Sydney, perhaps even only to take nine wickets; they couldn’t do that either.
Lightning strikes, Importance of Being Earnest, etc and so on, but the point stands; when something exceptional happens twice in the space of 18 months, to the same side, you have to ask questions of their approach.
You can rightly point fingers at the captain, but to an extent that’s an intangible which is hard to measure, beyond poor DRS choices (and a certain level of behaviour) which plagued both occasions. You could point at the two seamers who played in both matches; while Josh Hazlewood took 6-124, Pat Cummins took 2-152 across the two matches, highly surprising figures given his generally excellent second innings record. Yet Cummins’ underlying numbers (false shots forced, Expected Average) suggest he was unfortunate to have done as badly as he did.
And then, your eyes turn to the spinner. In the fourth innings’ of Leeds and Sydney, Nathan Lyon made identical contributions: 2-114. A sum total of 510 deliveries, and four wickets. A wicket every 128 balls, on Day 4 and Day 5 pitches, as the pressure came on. The burden of wicket-taking doesn’t only fall on the shoulders of a spinner just because the game is deep, but spinners do affect the game more the longer it goes on. When Australia needed Nathan Lyon, he went missing. Twice.
Now, his defenders – of which there will rightly be many – could point out that Lyon did have Rishabh Pant dropped three times on the final day at the SCG. This is true, and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. However, if the only player you’re consistently drawing edges off is the lad trying to slap you out of New South Wales, then your attacking skills are still up for debate.
So what did Lyon actually do during that India blockout?
Well, during the final day at the SCG, 38% of Lyon’s deliveries were short. That doesn’t mean drag downs, but balls literally pitching short of the optimal length for spinners in Test cricket. It’s not always an error; it’s a tactic you could use to bring leg slip, for instance. However, it’s a tactic Lyon does not tend to use, as shown by the fact he’s only once bowled shorter in the fourth innings of a Test.
On top of this, 60% of Lyon’s deliveries to India’s right-handers pitched in line with the stumps. That is extremely straight bowling, and in one interpretation of this approach, extremely defensive bowling; only three times has Lyon bowled straighter in a fourth innings. Throughout the five days Lyon was bowling to a legside field, often with a legslip and a short leg in place, but even so, it is quite literally an unusual mode of attack for him. To head back to Yorkshire, during that memorable Stokes-fuelled chase, Lyon bowled extremely quickly and did not vary his pace at all. Only two deliveries in his entire innings were below 83kph, less than 1% of his total deliveries. Slower, flighted deliveries were nowhere to be seen. Neither of these choices are necessarily defensive, but more often than not, that is how you would view them. Line, length, and speed – when Lyon is put under pressure in a fourth innings, he has headed to the extremes, and generally in a defensive direction.
Perhaps on this occasion he wouldn’t have gone in this direction, had he been bowling better in this series. Because that 128 figure is haunting Lyon, it seems; his strike rate this series is a wicket every 128 balls. He has never recorded a worse strike rate in a home series; only once has he recorded a worse strike rate anywhere in the world, back in 2014 in the UAE when he took just three wickets in 111 overs. This is, for Lyon, an almost unprecedented lack of attacking threat. His average has soared. He has not bowled well.
The fact is, Lyon isn’t creating chances. Just 8.9% of his deliveries this series have been edges or misses, his fourth worst series ever on Australian shores. He has been unlucky with fielding – just 60% of the chances off him this series have been taken, lower than the 75% average for his career – but you could forgive Australian fielders for not exactly expecting the edge.
There are some technical factors in play, not least that he’s found little to no drift since India landed. Lyon’s average movement through the air, 1.48 degrees, is low; only once since the start of 2016 has he found less drift in a Test series, adding weight to suspicions he hasn’t been at full fitness, perhaps not completing his action with that renowned energy and vim. While Lyon isn’t typically a spinner who gets a lot of drift – at his best, it’s the dip he finds which really sets him apart – but losing almost any sideways movement is an issue, for obvious reasons. While the pitches this summer have turned consistently, they have been predictably docile at the start of the match. Without assistance of the pitch, the lack of drift affects things more greatly.
It’s worth saying – he’s bowling to some decent players. In the two years prior to this series, India averaged 53 against spinners in Test cricket, more than any other side in the world. It’s a cliché, and sometimes bordering on lazy, to just assume Asian players are good against spin – but this crop of Indians are. Ajinkya Rahane’s average of 43 is the lowest for any batsman in the touring squad. Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, and Rohit Sharma all average over 60. On a basic level, Lyon’s got it tough. Throw in the fact that India only have one left-handed top order batsman (Lyon averages 36 v RHB at home, compared to 26 v LHB), and the odds are stacked against him.
Yet in the past, Lyon’s gone pretty well against India. An average of 31 in India itself is not outstanding, but it’s by no means poor; an average of 36 against them in Australia is perfectly good. Lyon deserves to be held to a higher standard than the one at which he’s performing. Through his own excellent performances, Lyon has earned the right to be held to the same standard as Ravichandran Ashwin, his opposite number who has bowled him under the table.
You do wonder if the presence of Ashwin has affected Lyon, beyond the straightforward sense of comparison with the other great off spinner of the age. Ashwin has bowled an astonishingly straight line this series, with just 4% of his deliveries to right-handers pitching wide outside off; Lyon, by comparison, generally pitches 30% of his deliveries in that zone. Ashwin has tormented Australia by bowling a very straight line but, crucially, he can turn the ball both ways, and push the ball straight on; Lyon can not. For Ashwin, a straighter line is opening a door to another mode of dismissal; for Lyon, legside field or not, it’s slamming most doors shut.
As the travelling circus which is the Australian Test summer rolls into Brisbane this week, Lyon will be looking ahead to his 100th Test. He’s four wickets from breaching the 400 mark. There have been times in his career where reaching such either milestone would have seemed all but impossible, but through skill on his own part and trust from those above him, Lyon has built up a superb body of work, and will go down as one of Australia’s greatest spinners. But for the first time in a while, there is a genuine competitor for his spot, Queenslander Mitchell Swepson, A leg spinner who tops the Sheffield Shield wicket-taking charts – as Swepson does this season – is always going to pique the interest of selectors, as well as more obviously the casual fan. Lyon – while a brilliant bowler – has benefited from the insulating layer of cult-status, “The Goat” and “Nice Gary” endearing him to Australian cricket audiences far more than might be expected for a conventional off spinner. You wonder if the cult-status survives, if the excellence falls away, and a sexier, more conventionally Aussie alternative steps into view.
For now, Lyon’s centenary still very much represents a job to be done. With the seamers having churned through 130 overs only a few days ago, should India win the toss, Lyon needs to get down to business and actually challenge India’s batsmen, with attacking intent. That snap needs to come back, the drift and dip. He needs to find that wider line, the keeper’s right foot as one ex-spinner tends to look at, and perhaps even get that bit fuller. And if Australia win the toss, and bat first, the chance are – given the way this Test series has gone – that he’ll need to bowl Australia to victory in the fourth innings. A challenge, perhaps; an opportunity for redemption, certainly.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.