Australia have made a dramatic move in their attempts to improve their spin credentials in Asian conditions, hiring Muttiah Muralitharan as a coaching consultant for this year's Test series against Pakistan in the UAE. And while Muralitharan has no intention of turning Nathan Lyon into a master of the doosra, he is already helping Lyon add a carrom ball to his arsenal.
The two men have been working together in Sri Lanka this week and Muralitharan said he was confident Lyon would be ready to deliver the carrom ball to Pakistan's batsmen in the Test series in October. But the appointment of Muralitharan for the short-term role is not only about helping Lyon but also equipping Australia's batsmen to face Saeed Ajmal and the Pakistan spinners.
Australia's most recent Test tour in Asia was their disastrous campaign in India early last year, when they lost 4-0 and struggled to handle to R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in turning conditions. The penetration of their own spinners was also a weakness throughout the tour, although it was not helped by Lyon being dropped mid-series and replaced by Glenn Maxwell and Xavier Doherty.
Lyon returned for the final Test in Delhi and picked up nine wickets for the match, and since then has moved on to have 112 victims at 32.99 from his 33 Test appearances. Muralitharan said Lyon was clearly Australia's best spin option and he expected him to be able to deliver the occasional carrom ball in the UAE this year before mastering it in years to come.
"In a country like Australia, you don't need many spinners, you need to get the right one," Muralitharan said. "I think Nathan Lyon is the answer, for any format. He spins the ball, he is confident, he has done well and taken more than 100 wickets in Test cricket. Australia has to persevere with him and then fill the backups.
"The doosra is very difficult to teach. We are trying something else, like a carrom ball ... He is a finger-spinner, I am a wrist-spinner. For a wrist-spinner to change the wrist position is easy. But for a finger-spinner to change the wrist position to bowl the doosra is harder. So it would be difficult.
"He's already starting to bowl the carrom ball. So that is the easiest way for the finger-spinners to learn ... I think he'll be ready. He will bowl a few balls in the UAE and he will master it in years to come."
Muralitharan has been working not only with Lyon but also several of Australia's emerging spinners in Sri Lanka this week, including James Muirhead and Clive Rose. But his role in the UAE will also include bowling to Australia's batsmen in the nets in an attempt to get them accustomed to the style of Ajmal, who is the highest-ranked spinner on the ICC's bowling rankings and will enjoy the conditions greatly.
"I'm not a good batsman so I can't give many tips to batsmen, but the thing I can do is that I'm still good enough to bowl to the batsmen," Muralitharan said. "Myself and Ajmal are a little bit similar. We are bowling doosras and offspin, so they might learn from batting in the nets, rather than me trying to teach them. I can't teach batting."
Muralitharan said he was confident he would have the support of the vast majority of Australian cricket fans despite his history with the country, which was dominated by his being no-balled for throwing in the 1995 Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. His relationship with Australia has improved significantly and he was one of the most popular overseas players in the BBL during his time with the Melbourne Renegades.
His appointment has continued the push by coach Darren Lehmann to have specialists assist the team at strategic times, as when Shane Warne provided spin advice in South Africa this year.
"Muttiah Muralitharan is a true great of the game and his involvement with the Australian team will bring enormous benefits," Lehmann said. "He really understands the conditions we'll face and will be able to impart a great amount of knowledge. Not only will he help guide our spinners during that tour, but he will also work with our batsmen to help them prepare to play Pakistan's dangerous spin bowlers.
"As we've shown in recent times we'll bring in dedicated skill-specific coaching consultants to our support staff as and when we see fit. That means having more regular support from technical experts to help work on specific areas of performance.
"Most recently we had Shane Warne join us in South Africa, and throughout the Australian summer we had a range of former Australian players around the team during the Test series to help impart specialist knowledge. This time around we are fortunate enough to have Muttiah work with us."