Lyon transcends his figures
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