Lyon's share recalls Warne impact

In addition to making for some enjoyable repartee, the reunion of Shane Warne and Mike Gatting in the SCG commentary box nearly 25 years after "that ball" was entirely appropriate in the final stretch of an Ashes series where Nathan Lyon made his presence felt from the very first dipping, turning and bouncing delivery.

While Mark Stoneman fared rather better with Lyon's initial ball of the Gabba Test than Gatting had done with Warne at Old Trafford in 1993, squirting a nicely pitched and sharply spinning delivery into the off side off a leading edge, the effect of that first impression has remained throughout. For it has been his breadth of spin away from the bat of England's left-handers, as much as bounce and accuracy, that has defined Lyon's impact, leaving a psychological mark on hosts and visitors alike. As was the case with Warne, players on both sides expect a wicket to fall whenever Lyon takes the ball, and England have largely been worried out of attacking him.

Lyon knew before the series that England would deliver him a most inviting collection of left-handers at which to bowl, from Stoneman and Alastair Cook at the top, to Dawid Malan in the middle. Even the reserve batsman Gary Ballance is a lefty, and though Australia's concerted short-ball attack on the England tail has often deprived Lyon the chance to bowl at two others in Stuart Broad and James Anderson, he has not seemed to mind while feasting on the specialist batsmen.

When the Australians prepared, it was possible to hear the anticipation in the voice of Lyon's spin coach John Davison when he contemplated what lay ahead. "We love left-handers, off spinners love that," he had said, "so all bodes well for him, doesn't it?"

Having made such enormous strides as a spin bowler through tours of India and Bangladesh, Lyon was apt to use a catchphrase he has made his own - "I'm confident in my skill set to get the job done" - in more familiar home conditions, where he has always prospered in contrast to a rolling conveyor belt of visiting spin bowlers.

Only once, when Keshav Maharaj proved a more fruitful contributor to South Africa's cause over the first two Tests of the 2016-17 series, can a visiting spinner be said to have demonstrably outdone Lyon in Australia. In this series, the difference between him, Moeen Ali and the debutant Mason Crane has been less a gap than a chasm.

Though the Australians have played England's spin bowlers with aplomb and at times, as on an enervating day four in Sydney, with aggression bordering on contempt, they have been given the latitude to do so. Crane, of course, will be better for the experience, but his first over to David Warner and Usman Khawaja on day two was a demonstration of nerves and sleepless nights and all of the anxiety that can fill a spin bowler and at the same time aid a batsman.

Lyon, meanwhile, has dropped onto a length and line from the very first ball, with a consistency that has compounded in English minds while energising the Australians. Specifically, Lyon has maintained a wicket-taking threat across the series while at the same time bowling the long spells that have allowed Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins to stay, for the most part, fresh and fast. England's assistant coach Paul Farbrace stated that, alongside Steven Smith's prolific run-making, Lyon has been the difference.

"We talked a lot before we came about how he would bowl, about his high quality, but I think he's had a fantastic effect on this series," Farbrace said. "There are times when you talk about on flat pitches 'let's get the seamers into second, third, fourth spells', he has been able to come on and bowl long spells and right back to Brisbane, that surface which probably surprised all of us with the way that it played, he bowled brilliantly from there. In a way we've not got away from his stranglehold.

"He bowled very well to start with there, we found him hard to rotate against and he's gone on to have a massive effect on this series. Probably along with Steve Smith, he's been their star performer in that he's allowed their seamers to rest, have decent periods of rest, but he's always been a threat and it always seems that he's taken important wickets throughout the series, which is testimony to his high level of skill."

That skill was demonstrated with plenty of panache when Lyon came on to bowl the sixth over of England's second innings. Stoneman had already been dismissed by Starc, but Cook remained as the most likely stumbling block for Australia after his double century in Melbourne. In keeping with his displays all series, Lyon's first delivery whirred down to pitch on middle, then spat out of a footmark with tremendous turn and bounce - enough to cause the crowd of 33,285 to emit a collective "ooooh" both live and then on replay.

From there, Lyon offered a trio of deliveries all subtly different in line, pace and length, having Cook cover up in defence. The fifth went on to showcase one of Warne's favourite spin bowling maxims - it is not necessarily about where the ball pitches, but how it gets there. Pitch-maps showed the fourth and fifth deliveries landing in more or less the same spot, with the difference being that the fifth was quicker, harder spun and angled from wider on the crease.

Its pace and trajectory drove Cook back, before its vicious spin broke back across him and his groping bat to flick the top of the off stump - not quite the Gatting ball, but not all that far off it. The way Lyon has been able to use subtle and natural variation this series was then showed by how he won an lbw verdict against Malan by skidding one through on a similar line and length. Plenty more wickets beckon on the final day of the series.

By the end of the 1993 Ashes series, Warne's achievements also had the effect of throwing the spotlight upon the performances of England's spin bowlers - in that series Peter Such, Phil Tufnell and John Emburey. Tufnell, in particular, felt the psychological pressure of watching his opposite number turn the ball miles while maintaining an unrelenting level of pressure on the England batsmen. As related by Mike Atherton in Glorious Summers and Discontents, Tufnell would go on to protest that "this bloke's making me look crap, he's ruining my career".

Certainly Moeen has been made to look an inadequate slow-bowling option on hard Australian surfaces, and in Sydney Crane has looked unready to apply the same sort of consistent pressure Smith has come to rely upon from Lyon. Farbrace said that in any assessment of how England can achieve victory in Australia in the future, the role of spin will have to be central to the conversation for the fact that Lyon has been so pivotal to it all.

"You need to start identifying the type of personnel you need, character-wise and skill-wise to come here and win. Extracting bounce out of these wickets, Mason as a leg spinner, we're going to need high quality spin to help us win on these surfaces. Lyon has played a massive part in this series, so it isn't always about fast, bouncy Australian wickets, it's adjusting to the very different wickets we've had here. The honesty and the planning for next time has got to start as soon as possible."

Such, as it happens, is now the ECB's spin bowling coach. In that 1993 Old Trafford Test he had actually enjoyed a few hours of fame in taking six wickets on debut before Warne's fateful first ball. Alongside Farbrace, Trevor Bayliss and others in England, Such now has the task ahead of finding ways to emulate Lyon. His effect on this series has been that profound.