Lyon changes angle of attack
Nathan Lyon's journey towards maturity as a spin bowler took another important step at the Wanderers as he gained confidence in bowling from over the wicket, having used the line from around the stumps almost exclusively during his successful Ashes series in Australia.
While South Africa's likely quartet of left-handers will be of interest to Lyon and his mentor John Davison, it was the angle of attack to batsmen he will spin the ball into that the 26-year-old spent most of his time honing on day one of the squad's practice fixture.
There were decent results too. After coaxing David Warner to miscue an attempt to hit over the top with his very first ball, Lyon defeated both Michael Clarke and Shane Watson from his new angle, which Davison had set out as a more sustainable "Plan A" than the line around the stumps that he so often pursued against England.
"He hadn't bowled a lot over the wicket to right-handers in the Ashes," Davison said. "He was coming around the wicket a lot and got very comfortable doing that, so we've challenged him to be able to start over the wicket to the right-handers and try to get them bowled through the gate and bring first slip into play and bat pad.
"Then he's got the plan B to come around the wicket to them. We just want him to be adaptable and confident to do it and bowl different angles to different players, and therefore being able to bowl to different plans."
Davison's partnership with Lyon has been a significant advantage for Australia's No. 1 spinner, particularly since he convinced the team performance manager Pat Howard that the former Canada, Victoria and South Australia twirler deserved a place on the tour alongside him. Davison is scheduled to be in South Africa until the end of the first Test, having been present at four of the five Ashes venues in the home summer.
"I don't know if I'm a lucky charm, but I think we've developed a pretty good relationship and there's plenty of honesty between us," Davison said. "There's not a lot of negativity, we came up with a blueprint about a year and a half ago on the things to work on, and we keep reminding each other on what he's working on and sticking to those basic things that seem to work for him.
"I think Nath if he's bowling well is as good as any conventional finger spinner in the world. He's outbowled Swann in the last series definitely, so we're going pretty well in the spin stocks in Australia, we've got some good young ones coming through. Nath's best ball is as good as anyone's going around. He's pretty well placed to have 100 plus wickets at his age and I think things look pretty good for him."
Part of the reason Lyon was able to confound numerous Englishmen was the bounce he generated from a high action on hard Australian pitches. He is likely to be similarly aided in South Africa, something evident in his dismissal of Watson - caught at short leg off bat and pad.
"That was the great benefit he had in the Australian summer," Davison said. "Swann bowls more sidespin and Nathan comes over the top a bit more and the bounce got him the wickets in Australia. You'd imagine if they've got the hard, fast wickets here he'll bowl well on those wickets."
Lyon first caught Davison's eye when he was still playing in Canberra as part of the ACT Comets, but it was a stint in the Big Bash with South Australia in 2010-11 that first catapulted him into national team contention. There is something of a paradox about how he has since developed into a Test match only bowler, and Davison said the presence of another offspinner in Glenn Maxwell had been a contributor to this.
"I'm sure he's good enough to bowl with the white ball now," he said. "I think the balance of the team with Maxwell there makes it difficult for him - if you want a balanced team you want someone to turn the ball the other way I suppose. That's what's going against him at the moment. He bowled well in the BBL games he did play, so it's just one of those things where the balance of the team doesn't really suit at the moment."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here