England v Australia, 4th Investec Test, Chester-le-Street, 1st day August 9, 2013

Lyon's simple ploy that foxed England

Nathan Lyon is not a "modern" offspinner but his old-school values have served him well

Once upon a time, offspin was an uncomplicated thing. The blokes tried to drift the ball away from the bat in the air and spin it back to the stumps. Most of them had an arm ball, an outswinger effectively, that was bowled with the seam upright as a variation to the offbreak. Offspinners constantly searched for a way to beat the outside edge so that batsmen could not set themselves against the natural movement of the ball which was designed to beat the inside edge.

Fingerspinners were dynamite in the days of uncovered pitches, when, after rain, the ball gripped in the damp surface, often ripping out pieces of the turf and causing general chaos with the extravagant turn and extra bounce. The accepted methods of response were to play back and late, with the spin; to play forward but to lead with the bat, rather than with bat and pad together as this brought short leg and silly point into play, or to come down the pitch and meet the ball on the full toss or half-volley. For this, batsmen needed quick feet and a certain courage. Some said you were better stumped by a mile than a whisker because at least you had committed.

When Jim Laker took 19 wickets at Old Trafford in 1956, the watered pitch was drying to dust in the first innings and wet again after more rain in the second. Only when the sun got to work did it spring to life and force the Australians to panic. Apparently Tony Lock bowled his orthodox left-arm spinners pretty well too but God was Jim's biggest fan.

Ian Johnson's team played mainly back and were collared by the leg trap, though their minds were in disarray after the ball Laker bowled to Neil Harvey, which some say is the equal of the one Shane Warne bowled to Mike Gatting on the same ground 37 years later. It is amazing footage, given the pedigree of the batsmen and the speed of the demise, and available on Youtube.

The very best offspinners - and Laker was surely one - drifted the ball away from the bat nice and late. To do this, the seam had to be released in a perfect 45-degree position. Then it would spin back the other way. On a wet pitch, they would bowl a little flatter and faster. Derek Underwood, a left-arm fingerspinner, was called "Deadly" because he bowled accurately at almost medium pace. On a dry pitch, Underwood was difficult. On a wet one, he was impossible.

Modern covered pitches; unimaginative captains; one-day cricket that led to powerful front-foot hitting; and bigger, more responsive bats changed the life of the fingerspinner. Only the really good ones have hung on and the story has moved from drift, swing and side spin to the angle of the elbow at delivery, invention of the doosra and the skill in achieving extreme overspin in the search for enough bounce to unsettle naturally aggressive present-day players.

The madness of Friday, when Lyon reminded the Australia selectors that the start of his career - 23 matches, 77 wickets at an average of 34 - was worth hanging on to, was also the day that reminded the rest of us that cricket is neither sinecure nor certain

Once the fingerspinner learned to beat the outside edge with the doosra, the rules of the game changed quite dramatically. At times, when Muttiah Muralitharan has been at his most potent, for example, it has been hard not to find sympathy for the batsmen. Picking the delivery has become doubly difficult because a number of the new breed scramble the seam from what appears hugely flexible wrists. Saeed Ajmal is another example of one who profits from this skilful deception.

The great success story of the age belongs to Graeme Swann. Simply by spinning the ball hard with an orthodox method, relishing the challenge and never surrendering, he has morphed from unfulfilled promise into one of the best to have worn an England shirt. Swann torments left-handers with his clever mix of some that spin and some that don't. He exploits rough areas with a missionary zeal and makes life hard for right-handers with the lovely dip he achieves by the amount of revolutions imparted on the ball. He is a superb cricketer, a proper spinner of the cricket ball with an ability to take wickets in all conditions against the very best opponents.

All of which leads us to Nathan Lyon: 20 overs, seven maidens, four wickets for 40 runs. Incredible, especially given he could not get a game at Trent Bridge or Lord's. There isn't much to Lyon. He is what we rather unkindly call an honest cricketer. He came out of nowhere in the famous story of being assistant groundsman at Adelaide Oval one minute, Test player the next. Lyon bowls a nice offbreak and not much else. He is pretty accurate but no Deadly.

He did, however, come up with a wheeze today, one that flummoxed the might of the EngIish batting. He bowled around the wicket - shock, horror. And from there he created an angle that England turned to their disadvantage. The longer he wheeled away, the more each ball was treated as if it could explode. Honestly, even Jim wasn't this good.

Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Jonny Bairstow - three, four, five, six, the cream - all perished. Defensive prods were aimed at extra cover rather than towards mid-on ("Hit it back whence it came lad" used to be the mantra). Attempted blows over the top of the infield were executed with sloppy footwork and little conviction. Bairstow's sweep was a thing of the past, the days when English umpires gave you out for the shot. And they were right. Offspinners only ever bowled around the wicket because the ball was turning so much that they needed a more acute angle to bring lbw into play. Now the batsmen were ripe for plucking simply because of the different angle not the spin.

The madness of Friday, the day when Lyon reminded the Australia selectors that the start of his career - 23 matches, 77 wickets at an average of 34 - was worth hanging on to, was also the day that reminded the rest of us that cricket is neither sinecure nor certain. It was a day that utterly confounded us and in dong so brought back the great joy of the unknown. Whatever next? Swann maybe.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • popcorn on August 14, 2013, 2:41 GMT

    In hindsight, notwithstanding Ashton Agar's 98 at Trent Bridge, it was a terrible mistake for Darren Lehmann to have forgotten Lyon's brillliant bowling at Delhi and dropping him. .He should have known that spinners have to be nurtured - not droppd for one or two imperfect performances.Ashton Agar was selected as a spinner primarily-we found he lacked this skill AT BOTH -Trent Bridge and Lord's.

  • wibblewibble on August 14, 2013, 0:06 GMT

    @heathrf1974: you do need to consider his age, but you also need to consider the education Swann had in county cricket before his Test debut. Swann bowled (roughly) 32,000 balls in first class cricket learning how to bowl on any wicket, any conditions, any batsman and be competitive.

    In his whole career Lyon has only bowled just under 10,000 balls in first class cricket. This was good, but looks like he will need to do a lot of learning, which can be tricky if you mainly just play Tests and a few shield games.

  • Jonathan_E on August 12, 2013, 20:15 GMT

    I recently ran a comparison between pretty much every spin bowler that England have used since World War 1, and came up with the following conclusions:

    Since WW2: Laker was a true great. Underwood was also exceptional. Swann, although his bowling average (runs per wicket) and economy rate is higher, actually takes wickets nearly as often: and does it on covered pitches too, whereas Laker and Underwood had uncovered pitches. Lock and Panesar compare well to each other on similar terms, Wardle slightly better than either. The rest are nowhere, probably David Allen leading the mediocrity.

    Between the wars: Verity, apart from one great match, was overrated except for an exceptional economy rate. England's leg-spinners of the time - Freeman, Peebles, Hollies - all took *wickets* faster than Verity, and all could be called unlucky not to play more, although their wickets were more expensive. Doug Wright, the leggie who *did* get more chances, has appalling figures.

  • android_user on August 12, 2013, 13:18 GMT

    a dying art, fast becoming synonymous with containing runs rather than attack. even renowned spinners like harbhajan have failed to be consistent as they have become more cautious. off spin is easy to be accurate but once experimented, it may prove costly.

  • android_user on August 12, 2013, 13:14 GMT

    Being an Off Spinner myself, I truly believe off spin is way more easy to bowl the same line and length but difficult to contain the batsman. a truly brilliant article on the rise ans fall of the art that is fast becoming synonymous with "containing & being economical".

  • Shaggy076 on August 12, 2013, 6:42 GMT

    mzm149 - Cant remember Ashwin turning one in Australia as he averaged 65. The difference between Indian spinners and the rest of the world is the Indian pitches are baked, the ball goes through the surface and gets variable bounce. TO bowl in Indian conditions you need flat, fast spin with a lot of overspin to take advantage of the variable bounce. Thus the pitch is doing most of the work and not the bowler. To bowl this on pitches with true bounce and spin, it sits up to be spanked. It takes true talent to be able to bowl on these pitches.

  • heathrf1974 on August 11, 2013, 2:33 GMT

    People need to remember that Lyon is 25, at the same age Swann was not representing England. Aussie fans need to be patient with Lyon.

  • Chris_P on August 11, 2013, 1:32 GMT

    As for Lyon, the sight of a wicket-keeper of substance keeping to his bowling would have increased his confidence. I am afraid Wade's presence was a disaster for Lyons.

  • Chris_P on August 11, 2013, 1:30 GMT

    @humdrum. True Warne didn't excel over the period, but let's not forget the 2004 series where in 3 tests he took 14 wickets @30 & helped Australia win 2 tests with a best of 6/125. Didn't really come a cropper then, did he? The point is no bowler has enjoyed success everywhere to the same degree, possibly McGrath comes closest, but there is evidence for all bowlers to apply that logic.

  • mzm149 on August 10, 2013, 21:44 GMT

    Apart from far more variations in spin bowling compared to their counterparts, sub continental spinners have different technique of gripping and delivering the ball as well. Given the same conditions sub continental spinners produce more turn, bounce, dip and drift and take more wickets.