Australia v South Africa, 2nd Test, Adelaide, 3rd day November 24, 2012

Lyon transcends his figures

By varying his offbreak, Nathan Lyon can bowl six different balls without perceptible change of hand of wrist action. It is a skill that was vital for Australia in this match.

Nathan Lyon's first-innings figures at Adelaide Oval, 2 for 91, do not sound like much. They are in truth not far removed from the displays recorded by scorebooks for the Sheffield Shield matches Lyon played ahead of the Tests against South Africa, when inattentive observers had questioned his form and his place, despite a record after 13 Tests that was only mildly inferior to that of no less a spin bowler than Shane Warne himself.

The national selector John Inverarity, to name one more influential watcher, knew Lyon was bowling better than the digits, and he would prove that in Brisbane, improving as the Test went on. In Adelaide the bare figures only hinted at his effect on the innings, and the rhythm of Australia's attack. Next to the ghastly analysis returned by Lyon's opposite number Imran Tahir they were a beautiful set of numbers for Australia's captain Michael Clarke, and a critical element in closing down South Africa well short of the hosts' tall total.

Though there was turn and bounce to be extracted from the surface on days two and three, Lyon had to bowl with precision. Shortened boundaries due to the ground's redevelopment and the true nature of the pitch meant that any errors in length and line were likely to be punished severely. This reality had been underlined with the boldest ink possible by Tahir's travails on day one, when his mixed bag of leg-breaks, googlies and "buffet balls" had been feasted upon with as much enthusiasm as the Adelaide Oval faithful take to the marquees behind the Members stand.

The aggression, bordering on arrogance, with which the Australian batsmen took on Tahir recalled the way South Africa ended Bryce McGain's Test career in his first match. Graeme Smith has shown fleeting glimpses of learning how to shepherd his Pakistan-born tweaker, but on day one Tahir's sheer inconsistency made fields near impossible to set. His sorry final figures of 0 for 180 from 23 overs ensured Lyon would be well aware of how difficult his day might become if, on his home ground and in the week of his 25th birthday, he strayed from the exemplary control he has shown often over his young career so far.

Before the Test, much had been made of Lyon's back-spinning variation, the ball he had used to flummox Jacques Rudolph in Brisbane. Lyon had jokingly dubbed it "Jeff" in the nets, while Clarke referred mischievously to a doosra. But the most vital element of his success or otherwise in Adelaide was going to be his stock offspinner. One of the great Indian spin bowler Erapalli Prasanna's most revered nuggets of slow bowling wisdom declared that line is variable but length compulsory. A well-grooved stock ball is critical to living out such principles. Varying its line, pace and flight, Lyon's off break can be six different balls without perceptible change of hand of wrist action, and he was to demonstrate that neatly here.

Clarke had spoken glowingly of Lyon's efforts in Brisbane, when he was attacked on several occasions by the visitors but each time rebounded with wickets and better spells. Blessed to have a captain as well versed in spin bowling as Clarke, Lyon's capacity to attack and defend with the ball depending on how an innings has developed has grown over time. While the natural inclination of young spin bowlers when attacked is to spear the ball in flatter, the better-educated learn that keeping runs down is often a matter of fields as much as flight.

To this end, Lyon operated for most of the innings with an inner ring blocking the avenues for drives, while a slip and short leg or silly point sweated on edges or bouncing deliveries squeezed off bat and pad. It was the former placement that helped account for Rudolph for the third time in as many innings, lured out to drive airily to Rob Quiney at extra cover. This wicket, the first of day three, was influential in starting a South African subsidence of 5 for 17 - a passage that may well be considered the most pivotal of the Test after the visitors began the morning with the chance of closing in on Australia.

Lyon would go on to claim one more, Morne Morkel bowled around his legs by another off break that turned sharply, and significantly kept every batsman quiet. Not one South African was able to strike at better than 44 runs per 100 balls against Lyon, and this control was priceless for Clarke as he operated his faster men from the other end. Forty-four overs for 91 runs reiterated Lyon's value as a bowler adept and operations both containing and striking, and his stocks will rise exponentially in the second innings, when the pitch offers still greater bite.

Australia's batting stumble on the third evening provided confirmation that the surface was starting to deteriorate in the time-honoured Adelaide fashion, and offered hope of a realistic fourth innings chase for South Africa. For Australia to prevail Lyon will need to collect better figures than he managed in the first innings, but should he bowl to the standard that returned him that seemingly nondescript 2 for 91, wickets feel certain to follow.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

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  • Dummy4 on November 24, 2012, 23:53 GMT

    Milhouse is clearly a plonker guys, don't rise to his shameful RandyOz-esque trolling! Lyon looked like yet another leftfield spin selection when pulled in from nowhere but has appeared the real deal so far in various conditions. The lack of quality spin cover probably makes Lyon the Aussies second most indispensible player at the mo after the imperious Clarke, and given the depth in solid pace options they have at the moment, probably the side's most important bowler. No point in saying the Aussies wouldn't deserve no.1 if they got there; we are in an era where all the top sides are a bit flawed (I thought the Saffas would hold it for a while but appear in trouble now) and will be very tough to beat at home. Back-to-back Ashes in 2013 should be very interesting given Australia's turnaround under Clarke!

  • Guy on November 24, 2012, 23:26 GMT

    @Milhouse79, no, lamely criticising a team that is generally outplaying the number 1 ranked team in the world to get over your own sour grapes for being soundly beaten at home by that same number 1 team is sad, really...

  • Andrew on November 24, 2012, 22:42 GMT

    I find it absolutely amazing how behind Nathan Lyon the media are and, yet, how vehemently they attacked Nathan Hauritz. In my view Lyon has nothing more to offer than Hauritz had but for some reason he gets the total support from the media.

    The guy is mediocre. All he's got going for him is that he's economical, which is the best the Aussies can hope for out of a spinner these days.

  • Graham on November 24, 2012, 22:26 GMT

    Milhouse79 - You could also refer to the Australian team that thrashed India at home, West Indies and Sri Lanka away and drew with South Africa awayall in the last couple of years. It is a resurgent Australia - currently looking like going ahead in the test series against the world number 1 South Africa. Yes Warne, MCgrath, Gilchrist and Hayden were champions but the current team are winning there fair share of games. As for the 20/20 stats, yes although it was true it is a joke. Australia do not play a lot of 20/20 and the last two world cups where they have played the finals and semi finals puts them in the top two. Hilfenhaus test record over the last 12 months have been exceptional, Lyon record is as good as most off spinners that have played the game. Your comments just shriek of jealousy.

  • Andrew on November 24, 2012, 22:06 GMT

    I had some doubts about Lyon's pre-Test form, although I knew one of the matches at Adelaide he had about 3 dropped catches off his bowling, so I wasn't looking for anyone else. His career is now long enough to say that he IS at least a good Test spinner. He has done far more at 25 years of age than Swann had done at the same time. Swann is Lyon's benchmark (essentially similar types of offies - acknowledging Ajmal as the best in the world atm), & Lyon's stats measure up well. His r/rate of 2 rpo when 2 days earlier the Saffas got taken for 5.5 over a whole day - is brilliant. Without a doubt, Lyon is well respected by the Saffa batsmen - probably feared/loathed by Rudolph!!!!

  • Cameron on November 24, 2012, 21:59 GMT

    Put it this way Milhouse79: I'd rather be rumbled for 47 by SA, than run through by a pitiful West Indies outfit for 51 (2009). How quickly we forget.

  • Peter on November 24, 2012, 21:29 GMT

    @ Peterincanada, Agree totally. I was fortunate enough to watch a test in Adelaide for the first time & he looked very dangerous. He was getting sharp turn & bounce, and let us not forget how well he went last season against India's accomplished batsmen, well renowned for their play against spin.

  • Colin on November 24, 2012, 21:24 GMT

    The fact the Aussies are crowing about a bowler who got 2-91 shows how they now celebrate mediocrity. 10 years ago Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Hayden. Now it is Lyon, Hilfenhaus, Wade and Quiney. If you think this average skilled mob are no 1 then fair play to you Jarod! In the last few years, Australia have lost 4-0 in England, been rolled by the Kiwis to draw with them at home, lost Ashes series home and away, been bowled out for 47 and been ranked below Ireland in the T20. Trading on former glories. Sad really.

  • Peterincanada on November 24, 2012, 20:46 GMT

    This is a true and fair article written by someone who saw the match. Intelligent comments from most of the posters and some rubbish from the usual suspects who likely didn't see the match. I think he will do a lot of bowling in the second knock and will do just fine.

  • Dummy4 on November 24, 2012, 16:11 GMT

    Mikey, even if the picture you paint is accurate, (which I don't) how is it that we are playing for top spot? If England are so good why are they on the way down? Because they are a fading force. Strauss is woeful, England had the skills but have lost the confidence. Australia have some issues but lets just say confidence is an Aussie trait and in due course we will be back on top. Where does the confidence come from this time? Let's have a look at the last few series. Demolished India, had SA on the ropes at the Gabba but for a lost day and still looking the money to win this one. Not sure why everyone is looking for the next Shane Warne! He was great but there were times he was ordinary. We were beating the English well with Tim May in the side long before Warney came along.

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