Australia v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Melbourne

Can Lyon turn fourth-innings predator?

Nathan Lyon's development as a slow bowler still requires a growing appreciation of the subtle changes in his role from innings to innings

Daniel Brettig

December 20, 2012

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Nathan Lyon sends down a delivery, Australia v South Africa, 2nd Test, Adelaide, 3rd day, November 24, 2012
Nathan Lyon has been at his most dangerous in the second innings of Tests, after Australia have posted a healthy score © Getty Images
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Some years ago, on the final morning of a Test match in which Australia needed nine wickets to close out a victory, their young spin bowler revealed the fragility of his thinking to a team-mate. What worried him most in the hours before taking up his fourth innings residency at the bowling crease? Was it a particular batsman, a ball not coming out of the hand right, a slim prior record of achievement? All of the above, and more. "I'm worried about being thumped all around the ground in front of my friends," he confided, "and never playing for Australia again." Terror.

After all, the fourth innings is when spinners must prosper, taking advantage of a deteriorating surface and opposition minds tired by four days of combat to complete the job started by the fast men. With conditions and scoreboard in their favour, international slow bowlers must cope with the strain of expectation, not only from the rest of the team but the rest of the country. Whether they will admit to it or not, all harbour the same self-recriminating thought: "If you can't get us over the line here, what good are you, really?"

The young spin bowler paralysed with performance anxiety that day was none other than Shane Warne, the team-mate Ian Healy. They were on their way to the MCG in 1992, for the conclusion of a match that would be remembered for Warne's 7 for 52, a bewitching afternoon starting with his first flipper to dismiss a Test batsman - Richie Richardson dumbfounded for 52 - and ending when Courtney Walsh skied a leg break to a waiting Merv Hughes. It was the spell that heralded Warne's arrival, for he had contributed precisely at the moment he was most needed, overcoming the doubts harboured even by the very best exponent of his craft.

"There was a lot of talk about it being time for Shane Warne to deliver," he recalled in later years. "I'd been smashed all over the park by everyone. That Boxing Day Test made me feel I finally belonged in the side. If I could bowl like that I knew I could take wickets at international level whoever we were playing. Test level is not about skill, it's about attitude, and the way you think about it, and having the confidence to deliver."

A reminder that Warne doubted himself when confronted by his moment will be of consolation to Nathan Lyon as he battles through the frustrations of Hobart, and a final day devoid of the vindication brought by wickets. As in Adelaide against South Africa, Lyon was at his least dangerous on the day when he should have been at his most, for reasons variously attributed to a rushed approach between deliveries, an emphasis on economy over tantalising flight, and a pace too quick to allow the ball to swerve, dip and spin.

Lyon by innings

  • 1st innings: 14 wickets at 33.64
  • 2nd innings: 19 wickets at 28.57
  • 3rd innings: 11 wickets at 36.81
  • 4th innings: 12 wickets at 30.75

Warne's words about attitude and confidence trumping basic skill in Test matches are heavy with meaning, and they go some way to explaining why Lyon has been more effective for Australia in the first halves of Test matches than the second. Lyon's best returns, helped greatly by the fact he claimed 5 for 34 on debut against Sri Lanka in Galle, have been in the second innings of a match, after his team have batted first and put up a score. In those circumstances he has claimed 19 wickets at 28.57, capitalising on both the runs he has behind him and the batsmen's eagerness to attack someone bowling at lesser velocities than those of Peter Siddle et al on pitches that are still to deteriorate.

As a spin bowler, Lyon has shown himself adept at duelling with batsmen seeking to hit him into submission. He enjoys the challenge of teasing and wrong-footing a player intent on destruction, often responding to a boundary with a ball flighted even higher, and almost as often being rewarded with a wicket. He learned how to use a batsman's aggression against him when playing for Canberra in the Futures League, and when plucked from obscurity by the South Australia coach Darren Berry to play Twenty20 he showed an outstanding knack for using attack as the best means of defence in a format weighted towards the mores of free-swinging hitters. Lyon's love for these contests is clear, and nothing delights him more than drawing a batsman into an indiscriminate stroke.

Test matches, though, afford a batsman time to settle, and require a spin bowler to be more resourceful in drawing his quarry out. This is never more pertinent than in the fourth innings of a Test, when spinners become seen less by batsmen as an avenue for scoring than a cloister for monastic self-denial. If prepared to be patient, it is presently possible for a batsman to shut Lyon down, for his off-spinning gifts do not yet extend far enough to include the sort of venomous deliveries capable of regularly confounding a defensive dead-bat.

Here is the point at which Lyon's attitude and confidence - those words of Warne's - are critical. For three quarters or more of the game in the 21st century, a spin bowler knows he is most likely dealing with batsmen sweating on the chance to attack. For that vital last quarter of a Test match's duration, the roles are reversed. As a tight, vertical bat defence becomes more prevalent in the closing stages, so a spin bowler's repertoire should be spiced with greater variety. That does not mean a top spinner, back spinner or dare we say it doosra every second ball. Rather, the task requires variations in flight, pace, line and degrees of spin, to lure the batsman out of his occupation and into the more cavalier posture of earlier parts of the match.

Quality is more important than quantity, and a batsman stretched in his rhythm by a spin bowler pausing at the top of his mark has often been known to play a less considered shot than one happy to hustle through a maiden at the pace dictated by a hurried tweaker. Lyon has the capacity to bowl with a twinkle in his eye and mystery from his hand, but his development as a slow bowler still requires a growing appreciation of the subtle changes in his role from innings to innings. In Michael Clarke he has a captain of empathy and skill, so there should be no fear in Lyon bowling more honeyed offerings on the final day of a Test, the better to draw the sorts of shots he has capitalised from in other formats and other innings.

Warne was himself digesting these lessons when he was chosen to face the West Indies 20 years ago. But before he spoke his terrified words to Healy on the final morning, he had given advance word of the attitude he had resolved to take into the match. "I'd rather give away a few runs and get some wickets than be economical and a non-strike bowler," Warne said on the day he was picked. "My attitude is that if I get hit to the boundary, well, who cares? Bad ball, good shot, who cares? Next ball, we start again."

Next ball, and next match. Lyon's will be on Boxing Day.

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

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Posted by AKS286 on (December 22, 2012, 7:51 GMT)

yes i'm agree with BoB WATSON. Oz expects lots to lyon- he gave his best. actually Oz fans taste the spin of warne, macgill, hogg. its a fault of us that we want a bicycle to win 750 cc grand prix. a school campus spinner gave his best to international level. yes he will fulfill everyone expectation and called to be spinner if match will be against tasmanian high school or St. George high school.

Posted by   on (December 22, 2012, 6:48 GMT)

I really don't understand all this talk about spinners and Warnie. First off CA should have been looking and blooding a leggie when Warnie was playing tests. They got so caught up in what Warnie was doing the opposition that they thought he would play forever. Since Warnie retired there has been a lot of spin bowlers playing for Australia. People should get off Lyon's back as he is doing the best he can, but look back and blame CA for being so short sighted.

Posted by zenboomerang on (December 22, 2012, 4:39 GMT)

@Daniel Brettig... Problem with some stats is that they don't tell the full picture... Lyon has played 11 of his 17 Tests on seamer friendly pitchs... Many of the 4th innings he has bowled in, he has been the least used of the main bowlers & even less than Watson in some 4th innings making him the part-timer... How is he supposed to be the stike bowler if he isn't used or the pitches aren't spin friendly?... Your stats actually support these facts...

Posted by warnerbasher on (December 21, 2012, 20:04 GMT)

Problem for Lyon in India is that the fast bowlers will take all the wickets and he won't get a chance to take any. That doddery Indian top order will be cruelly exposed.

Posted by Front-Foot-Lunge on (December 21, 2012, 18:52 GMT)

Australia need to find a new spinner and fast. They've got the tour to India next year, and Lyon not only doesn't turn the ball, he is basically a seamer masquerading as a spinner. Australia need to make a swift change, ditch another of their journeyman spinners and blood two new ones asap. Lyon was given a Day 5 Spinner Paradise of a pitch last test and didn't take a single wicket. Otherwise another away series defeat beckons for them. What must they give for a Swann...

Posted by OzWally on (December 21, 2012, 15:27 GMT)

Lyon may not be a Warne and may never be (most probably), but is doing a respectable job when you look at average and strike rate this early in his career. For the next match winner, take a look at 20 y.o. Adam Zampa - very impressive already. A leg spinner with already at least 3 deliveries he can land consistently.

Posted by Shaggy076 on (December 21, 2012, 9:55 GMT)

Buckets410- Lyon has alower test average than any of these in shield cricket. He's young with plenty of improvement in him. Lyon being added to the team has coincided with the Australian renaissance. yes he has his average days but at the moment he is comfortably the best prospect we have in the spinning department. He should have had Sangakkara early, that taken and then the whole game changes.

Posted by   on (December 21, 2012, 9:29 GMT)

@Buckers, you are drawing a pretty long bow to suggest that Boyce is taking wickets. 5 wickets in 4 matches this summer is not exactly balsting out allcomers. I've not seen the guy bowl and perhaps he has talent enough, but a 23 year old leggie with just 39 wickets @ 44 who is picking 1 or 2 wickets per match isn't ready. Give the guy a chance to develop...... @Whizzer801, I think you are spot on, a spinner is nothing unless his supporting fieldsman are taking the chances he creates. Part of what made Australia so great in their pomp was the extraordinary catching ability of the likes of Ponting, Taylor and M.Waugh to take blinders and the reliablity of the others to hold onto whatever came their way. Australia needs to get back to that.

Posted by _Australian_ on (December 21, 2012, 8:33 GMT)

All the poms on here seem to have poor memories. You would think England have always had world class spinners. Such typical dribble from a bunch of England supporters who feel they are experts on all things cricket. We are aware of our poor spin stocks currently.

Posted by Meety on (December 21, 2012, 8:27 GMT)

IMO - Nathan Lyon is progressing nicely. Two years ago it was Nathan Who? At 25 years of age, he is in a better place than Swanny was. So when Lyon gets to Swanny's age, I would not be surprised if he would be the leading spinner in the world. ATM (IMO), he sits nicely on the 2nd shelf of spinners behind Swann, Ajmal & rehman, but with Herath & Ojha, ahead of Ashwin & vetorri. Of all those bowlers, he is the least experienced in terms of FC matches. Plenty of upside left in Lyon. @Slysta on (December 20 2012, 10:20 AM GMT) - mate, I have seen some Pommy fans quaoting Lord Ted Dexter as wanting dry pitches for the Ashes so they can play Monty & Swann. They are afraid, you can smell it from here!

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Daniel Brettig Assistant editor Daniel Brettig had been a journalist for eight years when he joined ESPNcricinfo, but his fascination with cricket dates back to the early 1990s, when his dad helped him sneak into the family lounge room to watch the end of day-night World Series matches well past bedtime. Unapologetically passionate about indie music and the South Australian Redbacks, Daniel's chief cricketing achievement was to dismiss Wisden Almanack editor Lawrence Booth in the 2010 Ashes press match in Perth - a rare Australian victory that summer.
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