Lyon is Clarke's greatest legacy
If a straightforward grab from the outside edge of Ben Stokes turns out to be Michael Clarke's final catch in Test cricket, then it will be an entirely fitting epitaph for the captain's four years marshalling his men in the field.
That's because the catch was taken off the bowling of Nathan Lyon, a man who has grown enormously under Clarke's wing to become a central player in this team and arguably Australia's finest offspin bowler. Given the many and varied difficulties faced by the nation's spinners in the 21st century, the growth of Lyon into a genuinely world-class bowler should stand as Clarke's greatest legacy to the Australian team.
Several months ago in the West Indies, Lyon became Australia's most prolific offspinner. With his wickets at The Oval, Lyon has climbed into the top 10 offspin bowlers in the history of the game. Of those, only Muttiah Muralitharan, Graeme Swann and Jim Laker have bettered Lyon's strike rate. By any measure, it is quite a feat.
But when the context of Australian spin bowling in a post-Warne world is added to the picture, the achievements of Lyon in partnership with Clarke enter the realm of the extraordinary. All statistical measures of the game indicate that it has never been harder to bowl finger spin down under, while the expectations created by Warne were such that a succession of his replacements were crushed by their weight.
Back in 2011, Clarke started his captaincy without even knowing who his spin bowler would be. A relentless cycle of selection missteps and indifferent performances had churned through Stuart MacGill, Brad Hogg, Beau Casson, Cameron White, Jason Krejza, Nathan Hauritz, Xavier Doherty, Michael Beer and a fledgling Steven Smith. On his first tour as captain in Bangladesh, Clarke reflected on what he wanted. Vitally, he made it clear he was not looking for another Warne. That much had not always been clear among others.
"The one thing we need to continue to remember though is we're never going to get another Shane Warne," Clarke said in a Dhaka hotel room. "He's one of a kind and I think as the Australian public and the expectation we have with our spin bowlers, things have changed. We certainly haven't got Warney, we've moved from that.
"But I do believe spin bowling will play a huge part in Australian cricket's success going forward, it's just about using them the right way, supporting them and getting the most out of what they do. Hopefully I can set some good fields and show them good faith and support them as much as I possibly can."
Lyon was then hurled into the fray on the basis of one promising domestic season for South Australia and a short Australia A tour to Zimbabwe. When the Test team arrived in Sri Lanka for Clarke's first Test assignment in charge, most figured that Beer would play first as the incumbent spinner. But Clarke and the selector on duty Greg Chappell warmed to Lyon's flight, dip and spin, offering him a debut on a turning pitch in Galle.
Right from the start, Clarke proved true to his word in supporting Lyon. Very first ball, he dived to claim a blinding catch when Kumar Sngakkara edged a biting off break. A feel-good five-wicket haul ensued, immediately shoring up Lyon's place in the XI and also firming his relationship with Clarke. If Lyon and Clarke had little in common off the field, it made negligible difference to their growing affinity on it.
The road from Galle 2011 to the Oval in 2015 has not always been a smooth one. Lyon was twice dropped from the team two years ago, first for Doherty when bowling inconsistently in India then for Ashton Agar when bowling rather better in England. But by the third Test of that Ashes series Lyon was back in the XI, and he has stayed there ever since, improving all the time and growing in the sort of confidence a spin bowler must have.
One under-rated element of England preparing a pair of grassy pitches for Edgbaston and Trent Bridge was the fact that Lyon was left with little to do, and Clarke with few opportunities to use him. Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting were always at their most comfortable rotating their fast bowlers on lively strips, but Clarke has enjoyed the sleight of hand utilised by a spin bowler and his captain. Like his batting, Clarke's captaincy has been an affair of skill and subtlety rather than power and muscle. In how he has handled Lyon, Clarke has left a helpful blueprint for successors to emulate.
This was never more evident than at The Oval. Though Clarke's batting has deteriorated badly, his aptitude in the field can still be glimpsed. On day two, he took a six-over-old ball from the hands of his pacemen on a surface where the ball had seamed and swung, allowing Lyon to use it even before Peter Siddle had done so. Clarke had often observed how Ponting generally used his spin bowler last of all in the attack, leaving the impression the captain felt his spin bowler only fourth or fifth likely to take a wicket. Here was the opposite extreme.
Increasingly, Lyon has revelled in such commissions, using the hard ball and prominent seam to extract steep bounce and quick turn. Faced with Alastair Cook, Lyon ripped down an off break that curled nicely in towards middle stump before snapping back to flick the outside of off stump. Lyon has not bowled a more gorgeous delivery in all his 46 Tests.
On day three, Lyon returned the favour to Clarke by nipping out a pair of wickets when very little was happening for the pacemen. Jonny Bairstow was done by spin and bounce from over the wicket to squeeze a catch to short leg, Lyon's line a product of now established confidence to bowl from either over or around the stumps with no discernible loss of comfort or danger. Four balls later, and a loopier ball tossed into the rough had Stokes misjudging length and spin to skew a catch to Clarke. From beneath the captain's white floppy hat, a grin emerged.
When Clarke then called upon Smith for an over of speculative leg breaks that reaped the wicket of Cook, the sense that Australia are losing a leader with an innate sense for timing and spin bowling was only enhanced. Australia will leave England with plenty of issues to mull over, but the quality and confidence of their spin bowler will not be one of them. They have Lyon and Clarke to thank for that.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig