Lyon seeks turn in fortunes
In the lead-up to this Ashes series, Steven Smith was described in the Sun as "a bit-part leggie who bowled himself into specialist batsman status". It was an apt portrait, for Smith played his first two Tests against Pakistan in England as a frontline spinner batting at No. 8, his next three in the last, pre-Argus Ashes as a No. 6 or 7 bowling plenty of overs, and now he is a promising top-six batsman whose legbreaks are rusty, if not completely corroded.
Somehow, he is also Australia's leading spinner in the series. In the 22 overs Michael Clarke has asked of Smith in the first three Tests, he has sent down some full tosses so juicy they could be served for breakfast but he has also winkled out four wickets at 22.25, including Ian Bell twice. His bowling is Australian cricket in a microcosm: good enough at its best, park standard at its worst.
Nathan Lyon would be pretty happy to have Smith's record in this series. Left out for the first two Tests on pitches that suited spin, Lyon was brought in at Old Trafford, where there was more pace and bounce in the surface and the fast men bowled well. There was also turn, though, and Graeme Swann collected five first-innings wickets and six for the match. Lyon managed 1 for 95 from his 35 overs.
Of course, life is very different for Lyon than it is for Smith, or even for Swann. As a part-timer, Smith's introduction for a handful of overs can push a batsman into his shell, trying to avoid the ignominy of falling to him, or over the edge, trying to score too freely. Swann has the benefit of bowling to a line-up with several left-handers who must handle the ball turning away, while outside of Smith and Clarke, few of the Australians use their feet well.
Lyon must also bowl to a batting line-up stacked with right-handers, for Alastair Cook is the only member of England's top seven who bats left-handed. That was one of the reasons the inexperienced teenager Ashton Agar was preferred over Lyon for the first two Tests at Trent Bridge and Lord's, despite the fact that Lyon had taken nine wickets in his previous Test, against India in Delhi in March.
Now, the pressure is back on Lyon to show why he is the No. 1 man. Swann has collected 19 wickets at 27.36 so far in this series, while Australia's specialist spinners between them have three victims at 117.00. Not that Lyon bowled badly in his only appearance, at Old Trafford - he looped the ball at times and found some turn - but he dried up runs more than threatened wickets. Such roles are necessary in a Test attack.
But the next two Tests are a big chance for Lyon to add some important wickets to his tally on pitches that will give him some assistance. How often, for example, will he encounter sluggish, grass-free surfaces during the return Ashes series in Australia later this year? "A little bit dry and quite slow" was how Smith described the Chester-le-Street pitch for the fourth Test when he first saw it on Wednesday.
The words could just about describe Lyon. That requires clarification, for it is in no way a comment on his intelligence. Rather, it is a reflection of Lyon's easygoing attitude. He is a laid-back individual with a deadpan sense of humour. He takes everything in his stride. Even after his demotion following the Chennai Test in India earlier this year he was still smiling, pleased with how he had turned the ball through the gate to bowl Sachin Tendulkar.
MS Dhoni had demolished Lyon in that Test and at Old Trafford Kevin Pietersen threatened a similar destruction by advancing to Lyon and lofting him down the ground for sixes. Bell replicated the approach. There is no question that England's batsmen will continue to go after Lyon over the next two Tests. How he responds will be a test of his character. He is the best spinner in Australia but the selectors have shown they are willing to drop Lyon, and he cannot afford a wicket drought on dry pitches.
"We would have seen a lot more wickets if Lyono was given a chance to bowl in the second innings," Clarke said of the Old Trafford washout. "There were things Nathan wanted to work on and has done so over the last couple of months. He's spent a lot of time at the Centre of Excellence with his spin bowling coach and on the Australia A tour he had him over in England for a while.
"I think he's bowling beautifully at the moment. I think he's bowling at a good pace. He always seems to get a lot of bounce, which is a great strength to have, and watching him bowl the other day it looks like he's getting good drift away from the right-handers as well. His shape is there, which is a really positive sign, so I think he's bowling really well and I think he would have picked up a lot of wickets on that last day if given the opportunity."
The opportunity didn't come on the last day at Old Trafford, but it will over the next two Tests. There is much for Lyon to gain during these matches, for he can prove why he should have been part of this side from the first Test at Trent Bridge, and why he deserves the initial chance during the home Ashes. There is also much to lose, if he fails to have impact with wickets. By the home summer, Agar could be in the mix again and Fawad Ahmed will be considered if he starts the season well.
Lyon has ten days of Ashes cricket to lock himself in as the No. 1 spinner. Outbowling Steven Smith would be a good start.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here