England v Australia, 4th Investec Test, Chester-le-Street August 8, 2013

Lyon seeks turn in fortunes

With the identity of Australia's specialist spinner still undecided, Nathan Lyon has much to gain - or lose - in the next two Tests

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Patrick on August 10, 2013, 1:35 GMT

    FFL, you'd be a great guy to follow around a betting tent just to bet against, your vindictive targeting of Lyon has yet again been proven ridiculous. Be a Swan fanboy all you like, he's a great bowler but time you opened your eyes before you open your browser and spouting ignorance.

  • j on August 9, 2013, 11:24 GMT

    Lyon was out-bowled by Swann before the series even began. Not only did Swann get consistently more Revs than him (as expected by all), to put the two in the same sentence is nothing short of sacrilege. Australia's long inability to find a decent spinner only continues apace.

  • Patrick on August 9, 2013, 9:51 GMT

    Lyon is invariably above 2k on the new gadget and I had to rewind and replay to believe it when he was captured at over 2800, the dial only goes to 3k, freakish. Easily a few hundred more than I'd seen from anyone, Root, Agar, Clarke, yea Swann, surprisingly even more than Smith's lucky dip wristies, they hit 2400's at grip, the odd time they bounced. Funny Warnie hasn't clocked any, shoulder, no more likely ego too tender, must mean he's in training for a channel 9 cricket show, even now his ego wouldn't abide less than a top score on the 'spin gun'. 5 mins more to wait, Enjoy the test fans!

  • rob on August 9, 2013, 8:59 GMT

    @ Yogi108: I'd like to see Lyon vary his pace a bit more to. I've been watching Swann closely and he does it all the time. .. You'll get a couple of stock balls then a quicker, more stump to stump, or way outside off, quicker ball. .. More stock balls, then a loopier, above the eye-line slower ball... Stock, stock, quick. .. series of stocks, slower. etc, etc. .It's beautiful bowling. .. Swann has grown on me as a character but especially as a bowler lately. .. To be truthful, I hadn't seen that much of him live before this series... Anyway, Nath could learn a lot from him and I reckon he might just about be smart enough to do just that. I'm gunna back him to someday be just as good an exponent of pace as Swann is now.

  • VENKATACHALAM on August 9, 2013, 6:16 GMT

    This is really a manufactured debate where there is none. Lyon is the best Aussie spinner by a country mile. Don't destroy the man's confidence by keeping him permanently insecure of his place.

  • mark on August 9, 2013, 4:17 GMT

    Clarke should take note of how batsman are playing a bowler. For Clarke to say Lyon is bowling beautifully at the moment, is astonishing, and belies the facts. I have rarely seen a test bowler played with such ease. As an Aussie, it was embarrassing to watch.

  • Isaak on August 9, 2013, 3:51 GMT

    @CapitalMarkets - "Lyon spins the ball at about 1600 rpm whereas Swann spins it at 2400 rpm". That statement is utterly wrong. The rev counter in the Old Trafford test showed Lyon regularly getting his revs up in the red zone, just like Swann. The difference is - as the author of this article states - Swann's experience, confidence and nous, as well as the fact he is bowling to a lineup full of lead-footed lefties.

    Lyon actually bowled pretty well and was unfortunate, like many spinners before him, to fall foul of a KP assault. Furthermore the weather intervened to take away the opportunity to bowl on a fifth day pitch, at an England lineup that was looking the shakiest it had all series.

    Lyon is only 25, has potential and needs to be shown more faith. Dropping him after taking 9 wickets against some of the best players of spin in the world is not showing faith. Let him gain some more experience and confidence, some more variations and we'll see a good spinner emerge, mark my words!

  • Guy on August 9, 2013, 3:44 GMT

    Geez, it's funny how people make stuff up just to bag Lyon. @CapitalMarkets, I didn't catch the whole Old Trafford Test, but I didn't see Lyon bowl a single ball at 1600 rpm. His first spell on the second evening went straight into the "red zone" (>2300 rpm) and he was consistently around 2200 when I saw him bowl briefly on the third day. People have bagged Lyon for not turning the ball, whereas I've always felt he puts a lot of work on it, but with more overspin and less side-spin. This leads to loop but not much turn. I didn't catch much of the Indian tour, but he looked to me like he was bowling differently at Old Trafford than I'd seen him bowl before, with a more side on action, more of an angle on the seam, and more side-spin (at the expense of overspin). Lyon has been attacked before and seems mentally tough enough to come through it, he just needs to mix up his pace and flight a bit to make it harder for guys like KP or Dhoni to attack him.