Can Lyon turn fourth-innings predator?
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.
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