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Nathan Lyon plays the long game in quest for 400 Test wickets

Spinner's climb towards latest milestone has been arduous

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
Nathan Lyon claimed his 390th Test wicket on January 6, 2020, when he removed BJ Watling to wrap up victory against New Zealand at the SCG. He claimed his 399th Test wicket on January 19, 2021 when he removed Washington Sundar on the final day of the thrilling series against India.
By the time some of you read this the moment may have come, but as of December 10, 2021 Lyon is still waiting to be the third Australian to scale mount 400. It will come, but it's not coming easily.
Partly Australia's paucity of Test cricket in recent years is at play. This is just their 10th Test match since the 2019 Ashes but, regardless of that, the climb towards the latest milestone has been arduous.
In the first Test against India last year there wasn't much needed from him with the visitors' second innings amounting to 36 and in Melbourne there was barely a target to defend. However, India played him superbly in the second two matches. Lyon's figures in those games were 5 for 351, although it might have been different if Tim Paine had not put down two chances at the SCG.
Leading into this Test he had two Sheffield Shield matches for New South Wales where he bowled 106 overs and claimed four wickets. He bowled well, at times very well, on the third day at the Gabba but the wickets column remained at zero. There was only a centimetre or so in it, though, with one delivery.
When Dawid Malan had 8 he shouldered arms to one that slid on with natural variation - Lyon was trying to turn it - and it barely cleared off stump. Hawkeye said it was 1.6cm between Malan surviving and not. He could be forgiven for the decision to leave; three overs earlier Lyon had made one grip and spin extravagantly from middle and leg to zip past the edge.
"There's a little bit of turn and I can see it turning more as the game goes on," Malan said.
It wasn't the only near-miss for Lyon. Early in his innings, Joe Root nearly ballooned an attempted sweep to short leg and the ball before he went to fifty he missed another and was nearly bowled. Between those moments Lyon landed one perfectly which exploded from a length and ragged past Malan's edge.
There is, however, some evidence - beyond the bare number of wickets - that currently Lyon is perhaps not providing quite the threat that he has in the past.
Analysis of ESPNcricinfo's data showed how England were comfortable defending Lyon on the front foot. So far in the game they have done so 60 times but have not been in control to only seven of those shots. In the past Lyon has used drift, dip and overspin to deceive batters looking to get on their front foot in Australian conditions. Out of the 61 wickets Lyon has taken at home in the last four seasons, 21 have come when batters have been out playing forward defence. That has been his most productive mode of dismissing batters in Australia.
However, numbers suggest that batters are getting more comfortable defending Lyon off the front foot: according to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, in the summers of 2018 (vs India) and 2019 (vs Pakistan and New Zealand), Lyon took 19 wickets when batters were defending on the front foot - once every 47 balls.
Since the last home season against India, batters have played the front foot defence to 328 balls from Lyon but have been dismissed only twice. From what remains a small sample size of three Tests, his current overall strike-rate for 2021 is 202.8.
The contest with Root, one of the best players in the world, who is such a good judge of length and very adept at using the crease, was superb. Root took 37 runs off 54 balls against him; Malan, with the usual challenges of a left-hander to offspin, had 30 runs from 78 balls.
"He [Root] batted really well, played Nathan Lyon very well," Marnus Labuschagne said. "He's obviously a beautiful player of spin bowling - and pace bowling - but it's not my job to admire Joe Root's innings, it's my job to try and find holes in his game and help the team wherever I can to get him out."
Before the match, Pat Cummins indicated that captaining spin-bowling would be one area where he might be looking for advice. Towards the end of the day Ricky Ponting, commentating on Channel Seven, did question some of the field placements when there were no close catchers in front of the bat. At times during the Root-Malan partnership, Labuschagne and vice-captain Steven Smith could be seen chatting with Lyon.
"I think it's a wicket where you need to be crafty with your field and that's what me and Nathan were discussing," Labuschagne said. "Potentially where we could get another catcher, where we could use our short legs. Just trying to come up with ideas."
For Lyon, though, the wait goes on. In the penultimate over of the day Malan played and missed at a cut shot. Lyon's hands were on his head. It's been a familiar pose of late.
With inputs from Shiva Jayaraman

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo