January 12, 2012

The problems with Lyon and Ashwin

The lead spinners on both sides have been under par during the first two Australia-India Tests

Ryan Harris will adequately fill the injured James Pattinson's place in Perth, and the Australian fast bowlers will have the Indians hopping about at the WACA Ground, on the fastest pitch on earth. While India have been on the back foot, Zaheer Khan, the clever left-armer, who conceals his pace so well, and Ishant Sharma have bowled manfully. However, the rest of the Indian attack has been abysmal, impressing about as much as a limp handshake at a woodchoppers' reunion.

This lacklustre bowling performance included offspinner R Ashwin, whose bowling has been all over the place. In fact, the spin bowling on both sides has been ordinary. Both Ashwin and Nathan Lyon have disappointed, and their figures reflect how they have operated in the first two Test matches.

Lyon promises much, in that he is not afraid to give the ball air. He spins hard and bowls an attacking line outside the right-hander's off stump. However, he also bowls from way too wide on the bowling crease, thus creating a huge angle in to the right-hander. Delivering from so wide on the crease, Lyon cannot afford to pitch too close to off stump, because on that angle, landing just outside off stump, the ball is going to miss off stump. The Indian batsmen have been aware of this, and have aimed to take him down, whipping the ball to the leg side almost at will. To compensate, Lyon has been forced to land too wide outside off stump - in which case, if he errs in length, he is punished through the off side. In Melbourne and Sydney, he sometimes came around the wicket to create an "away" angle to the right-handers, but he'd be far better off staying over the wicket and operating from a position on the crease closer to the stumps. Then he would curve away from the right-handers and spin back, and start to cause the Indians some concern.

After two Tests he has taken 2 for 180, and the two men he has dismissed have been tailenders, one caught brilliantly in the deep by Dave Warner and the other falling to a dubious lbw decision.

As for Ashwin, he bowls the odd good offbreak, a ball with dipping flight, like the splendid delivery that deceived Michael Hussey at the MCG - only for Rahul Dravid to wake up too late at slip to latch on to a dolly of a catch. But Ashwin bowls too many of those silly leg-floaters, which he calls the "Soduku* ball". Ashwin learnt to bowl the delivery - along the lines of Ajantha Mendis' finger-flicked offerings - in the backstreets of Chennai with a tennis ball. But unlike the Australians Jack Iverson and Johnny Gleeson, and Mendis himself, all of whom developed finger-flicked deliveries, Ashwin gets next to no purchase on his Soduku ball. He "rolls" the delivery in similar fashion to ex-England left-armer Ashley Giles, who seemingly got about as much purchase on a cricket ball as you would need to take the fluff off a peach.

The Soduku has got Ashwin two wickets this series, both times that of Lyon, Australia's resident No. 11, who cannot possibly be looking at the ball out of the hand, because Ashwin telegraphs it. Also, Ashwin bowls this ball a lot straighter than his stock offbreak, and because of the number of Soduku balls he bowls in any one over, he tends to get too straight too often with the offie.

The way in which Ashwin sneaks in the Soduku ball and other variations, which are either far slower or much faster than his normal stock offbreak, smacks of having played too much of T20

Saqlain Mushtaq, the man who invented the doosra, did a similar thing. To right-hand batsmen, he bowled the doosra on the line of the stumps, and since he overdid this particular delivery, he got into the habit of bowling his offbreak on a straight line as well, which eventually affected the regularity of his wicket-taking. It was as if he had forgotten that the offbreak, which was his stock ball, and the one that got him so many more victims than any other type of delivery, has to be bowled on an attacking line.

On a pitch that offered bounce and turn for the spinners on days three and four in Sydney, both Lyon and Ashwin were unimpressive. Ashwin bowled through a day on which Michael Clarke, Hussey and Ricky Ponting dominated, but he bowled very defensively and was worked through the leg side too easily.

You look at the way Ashwin goes about his craft and there is precious little energy through the crease. He depends greatly on his clever fingers and wrist. He gets good purchase on the ball, but his timing has to be spot-on, and he cannot achieve that timing with the help of his action, for there is hardly any energy there at all. There is a total reliance on fingers and wrist.

The way in which he sneaks in the Soduku ball and other variations, which are either far slower or much faster than his normal stock offbreak, smacks of having played too much of T20, where a spinner looks to duck under the radar and get away without getting murdered.

Both Ashwin and Lyon have a lot of soul-searching to do, going into the Perth Test. Ashwin is certain to play, for India are desperately short of bowlers. And though Ashwin moves lumberingly in the field, he looks a well-organised batsman, perhaps good enough to win a place on batting alone in this brittle Indian line-up. It would help immeasurably if he could bring his bowling up to speed. So far this series he has taken 3 for 81, 1 for 60 and 0 for 157 - 4 for 298, or 74 runs per wicket.

Australia have to stick with Lyon, but in doing so they must get the young man the proper advice, otherwise he will struggle. While he looked good against New Zealand, the wickets he got were mostly cheap ones - of players hitting out with ridiculous slogs and being caught in the outfield. What I've liked about Lyon is his willingness to get the ball above the eyeline - but that strategy has to be employed against all batsmen, not just the mugs at nine, ten and Jack.

Lyon is fortunate indeed that he has come into this Australia team with Clarke at the helm. Already Clarke has shown good promise as a leader; I think he is the best Australian Test captain since Mark Taylor. He is proactive and has the instinct and intuitive nous for changing the bowlers at the right time and for placing the field just right. As do all good captains, Clarke makes things happen on the field. Unlike leaders who tend to let the game meander along, Clarke continually tries to change the flow, to break the rhythm of the batsmen, so that a substantial partnership is always a tough ask for the opposition.

For Lyon, Clarke's astute and imaginative captaincy will help enormously, for Clarke is a great encourager of his men. And he sets good fields for Lyon: he gets the off-side field placing right, and that's important for any offspinner, for you need the right-hander to be trying to hit against the offbreak, so you might snare him bowled through the gate, caught at slip, or lure him into offering a catch on the leg side.

Ashwin doesn't have a leader of Clarke's flair to help him. MS Dhoni is undoubtedly a cricketer of exceptional ability, but as captain he doesn't try to make things happen. He allows Ashwin to bowl too straight, and he sets poor fields for the young man, allowing easy singles.

The euphoria of Clarke's triple-century, Ponting's courageous 134, and Hussey's brilliant 150 at the SCG, and the brilliance of the Australian fast bowling cannot be allowed to paper over the cracks of a flawed performance by Lyon. But he is young and enthusiastic, and with the right guidance can get back on track almost immediately. If he misses the Perth Test it could provide him with the chance to get his angles right in the nets in time for Adelaide.

* 12.03GMT, January 12: The spelling of R Ashwin's Soduku ball has been changed. It was previously spelt as Sudoku

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Miandad280 on January 13, 2012, 14:16 GMT

    Brilliant and thoroughly enjoyable critique of off-spin and off-spinners from a master. Would love to read an article from Ashley Mallet on the Saeed Ajmal-Graeme Swann rivalry as it plays out in the upcoming Eng-Pak series. That would be a treat.

  • samrao on January 13, 2012, 13:07 GMT

    Ashwin undoubtably has great potential with good variations and more variation while Lyon lacks penetration but its early days for them. What happened to Jason Kreza ?

  • Buggsy on January 13, 2012, 11:42 GMT

    @Elphenomeno, the author is right, Dhoni is poor test captain at best. His flaws have been covered up by some exceptional performances by the batting up until England but now that they're failing he's really becoming exposed for what he is. An ODI specialist.

  • dummy4fb on January 13, 2012, 1:24 GMT

    There is little history of finger spinners doing well in Australia. Certainly not in my life time. Wrist spinners have been far more successful. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be any on the horizon for Australia.

  • Meety on January 13, 2012, 0:51 GMT

    @ ElPhenomeno - so its alright for Indians to state the bleeding obvious about Dhoni's captaincy, but an Ozzy can't? I can't wait for you next comment (I won't be holding my breathe!).

  • Paddy83 on January 13, 2012, 0:40 GMT

    for those people commenting on soduku/sudoku spelling - please read the article properly!!

  • Wozza-CY on January 12, 2012, 22:17 GMT

    A good article & like other posts here I'd suggest AM is the man to give Lyon the advice he needs. I'd also like to hear his thoughts on Steve O'Keefe and or any other potential spinners in domestic cricket today. There have been a few names floated recently, Holland, Boyce, Beer etc. & Terry Jenner was doing a lot of work prior to his passing. So CA....who is doing that work now & what are we doing to prepare our next generation of test spinners? Considering Lyon was spotted by Darren Berry in the nets...we can assume the answer is.. not a lot!

  • dummy4fb on January 12, 2012, 21:31 GMT

    @Lilian Thomson: Talking about Indian bowling, forget Ashwin for a moment, Ishaan Sharma has in his last 9 Test Innings has taken just 8 wickets giving away 572 Runs @ 71.50 Runs per wicket [* 235 for 3 in the first 2 tests @ 78.33 each]. If 2 of the teams 4 main bowlers give away 70+ runs for each wicket, team india can kiss the Test series good bye from now itself. HOWEVER, Abhimunya Mithun in his Last 3 test innings in 2011 has given away 116 Runs for 3 wickets @ 38.66 Runs per wicket - hence he is a much better gamble. Ishaant has been a total flop except for his speed only.

  • dummy4fb on January 12, 2012, 18:52 GMT

    Ashwin I hope you are NOT reading this !

  • dummy4fb on January 12, 2012, 17:47 GMT

    I agree with the author. I also seen sentiments expressed by Indian fans about the pitch, a quality bowler can do better than what Ashwin has done in the second test

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