Attacking Lyon set to take flight
For all the words written hesitantly of Nathan Lyon as he wheeled down 22.5 overs for one expensive Indian wicket in Melbourne, there was one shining moment in which he demonstrated why Australia's captain Michael Clarke regards him so highly.
Virender Sehwag had purloined a pair of twos from the first two deliveries of Lyon's fourth over, through backward square leg and cover. Sensing perhaps that Sehwag was getting increasingly restless, Lyon tossed higher, and watched ball three, then four, struck flat and hard beyond him to the straight boundary. Two balls left and 12 runs conceded - a scenario in which many a spin bowler could be forgiven for firing down flat at middle and leg, intent on containment for the remainder of the over. Not Lyon.
The next ball was floated up again, this time higher and wider of off stump. It taunted Sehwag, the man who more or less ended Saqlain Mushtaq's international career, to go again. True to form and character, he did, only this time with less control, more haste. The ball sailed off something less than the middle of the bat, and died in its flight towards long-on, causing David Warner to fall a millimetre or two short of claiming the catch.
In this episode could be seen the admirable, aggressive temperament that Lyon has shown since his first ball for Australia in Sri Lanka, of the kind that Clarke is ever so keen to encourage further. He is likely to bowl far more at the SCG, particularly in the second innings as the pitch takes an increasing amount of its time-honoured turn. The importance of his bowling in Sydney cannot be underestimated.
"This series is a tough challenge for Lyono because India are such good players of spin bowling, I thought he did a pretty good job without getting as many wickets as he would have liked in the last Test match in Melbourne," Clarke said. "I don't want to put too much pressure on Lyono, I love the way he goes about his work, I think he's a big part of our team and I think he's been very successful doing things his way and I don't expect any more from him this Test match.
"If it spins great, if it doesn't he'll still be able to do a job for us, so I'm confident that Lyono can certainly take a few wickets in this Test match and he can continue to do a good job for us. I haven't really given him too many messages to be honest, continue to do what he's doing, continue to work hard at training. I think he gets better with every game he plays, a little bit more experience in Test cricket as well, I think he's a wonderful kid with a bright future and I'm excited to have the chance to captain him."
Lyon's courage to tease Sehwag again, having already been cracked twice to the fence, was developed during his time at Manuka Oval in Canberra, where he represented the ACT with distinction before venturing to South Australia as a groundsman first, then a cricketer. His coach was Mark Higgs, a former batsman and left-arm slow bowler for New South Wales and South Australia. He said it was Lyon's mentality, as much as his skill, that had taken him this far.
"It is one thing to have the skills, the tools and that sort of thing, but a lot of it is personality as well," Higgs said. "As a spin bowler in Australia you've got to have a personality that's pretty resilient to get through the system for one and to play on wickets that don't turn traditionally much. To be successful on those you have to take a few poundings and learn from those and be a bit cagey about how you go about your craft."
Allied to this are Lyon's natural gifts of height and flexibility, which allow for the teasing drop and considerable torque gained from an easy, repeatable bowling action. "His overspin on the ball and his drop on the ball are doing him favours at the moment," Higgs said. "His control has improved a lot since he's been playing for Australia and he's able to get into his spell and keep himself on, which has been good. But it is definitely the overspin that drops on the batsmen, and he's got good height for a spinner and good flexibility, so those are the traits that have held him in good stead."
Arguably the best attribute Lyon has, however, is a supportive and understanding captain. Clarke's background in slow left-arm spin and the SCG has made him fluent in the language of tweakers. Between him and Lyon, the field settings for India's batsmen this series are unlikely to get Shane Warne raging on Twitter, as happened in Bangalore in 2010 when the Nathan Hauritz/Ricky Ponting duo was mauled by India's bats. Warne's influence on Clarke's thinking cannot be forgotten either.
"Traditionally we haven't been good captains of spin," Higgs observed. "You see it through junior cricket going all the way through, it is just as important to have a good spinner, but to have a great captain who can set the fields and obviously understands the defence and attack side of spin bowling."
When Lyon teased Sehwag, he knew he was doing it with a captain who understood and supported his method. In Sydney that may make all the difference.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo