S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. @rajeshstats
Two-hundred-and-eight balls after taking his 399th Test wicket, Nathan Lyon finally joined 16 other bowlers in the elite 400-Test-wicket club. The last stretch was a bit of a struggle - he took only nine wickets in four Tests against India, before the long wait at the Gabba - but that was quickly followed by three more, taking him to 403 from 101 matches, very nearly four per Test.
Of the 17 bowlers now in this club, seven are spinners, five of them from the subcontinent. This means Lyon is in an exclusive club of two with countryman Shane Warne as the only spinners from outside Asia to take 400 Test wickets. That is a remarkable achievement, given how rare it is for non-Asian spinners to play long enough and be successful enough, not to mention playing a lot on unhelpful pitches, to achieve this milestone.
Lyon started his Test career with a wicket off his first ball, and five in his first innings, and while it hasn't all been smooth sailing over the next decade, it has largely been characterised by consistency and control: in the ten years from 2011 to 2020, only twice has his annual average exceeded 35. (He currently averages 51.44 in 2021, but he is only playing his third Test this year.)
The 400-wicket landmark is just reward for that consistency. Over the last four decades, it has been especially difficult for non-Asian spinners to achieve success over an extended period of time. Since 1980, only four have taken 250-plus wickets, five have breached the 200 mark, and just seven have more than 150. Admittedly, conditions in Australia don't make the spinner as redundant as they do sometimes in England, New Zealand or South Africa, but even so, these are all teams whose bowling attacks revolve around pace. Spinners in these line-ups have usually had much shorter careers. Warne was a genius, and in a league of his own, but for the rest, it has generally been a struggle to find a regular place in Test line-ups.
Lyon has generally played as a member of a four-bowler combination, and has picked up nearly a quarter of the bowler wickets. His 23.4% sits well when compared to the other fingerspinners in the group. Warne and Stuart MacGill have higher percentages, but MacGill played only 44 Tests, while Graeme Swann took 25.9% of England's wickets in the 60 Tests he played. For comparison, R Ashwin has taken 31% of India's bowler wickets in the 81 Tests he has played, while the percentages for Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble are 26.3 and 30.7 respectively. Rangana Herath took 30% of Sri Lanka's wickets in the 93 Tests he played, but all those numbers pale when compared with Muttiah Muralitharan's 40.4%.
In Australia, conditions are generally more suited to wristspin than fingerspin, given that most pitches offer bounce but not so much turn. Five of Australia's six leading wicket-takers among spinners are wristspinners; the exception is Lyon, who, with his high-arm action and his ability to generate overspin, gets enough dip and bounce to be a threat even when the pitch doesn't turn much. The next-highest wicket-taker among fingerspinners for Australia is offspinner Hugh Trumble, who played during the days of uncovered pitches and took 141 wickets. Ashley Mallett is next with 132.
In the decade in which Lyon has been playing Test cricket, Australia have been one of the toughest places for spinners to succeed in: spinners collectively average 46.64 in Australia since Lyon's debut, which is the poorest among all countries which have hosted at least five Tests, except New Zealand (50.18).
Lyon has found a way to succeed in these conditions. It helps, obviously, that Australia have been dominant in this period with a 36-8 win-loss record in the home Tests he has played in; their pace attack has generally been relentless in these conditions, while the batters have been far more prolific in Australia than away. Those factors have obviously helped Lyon's success rate by allowing him to usually bowl with attacking fields to batters under pressure.
In isolation, Lyon's home average of 32.87 doesn't look too impressive, especially when compared to Asian spinners. But compare that to the averages of other spinners in Australia, and you realise just how convincingly he has outbowled them: exclude his numbers, and the average for the rest of the spinners in the home games he has played balloons to 62.09. The ratio of averages is 1.89, which means he is 1.89 times better than other spinners in home conditions. Also, he has taken more wickets in these matches (204) than all the other spinners who have played those games (182).
Among the spinners who have taken 100 home wickets since Lyon's debut, no other bowler matches that ratio. Ravindra Jadeja is next - he averages 21.01 for his 162 home wickets, while other spinners have averaged 35.15 in those matches, for a ratio of 1.67. For Ashwin, the corresponding numbers are 21.41 and 33.08 (ratio 1.55). It is true that the ratio is a function of the quality of spinners who play in those matches - when Ashwin and Jadeja play together, each of those spinners has at least one other quality spinner in the line-up, due to which the overall spin averages will be relatively better - but even so, the numbers for other spinners in Australia indicate just how tough it has been for spinners there.
A series-wise break-up of his home numbers shows that very seldom has Lyon been outperformed by opposition spinners in a home series. Two of the three such instances have been against India, but the series in 2020-21 was a major disappointment, as India's spinners bested Lyon by a distance: Lyon took just nine wickets at 55.11, while India's spinners took 23 wickets at 27. Never before has Lyon been topped so comprehensively by the opposition spinners in a home series.
Bowling in Australia has obviously been his strength, but his numbers in Asia are improving too. In his first eight Tests in the continent - three Tests each in Sri Lanka and India, and two in the UAE against Pakistan - Lyon averaged 49.11, and leaked 3.84 runs per over. The UAE tour, especially, was a nightmare: he returned figures of 3 for 422 in 110 overs.
In his last 11 Tests there, though, those stats have improved considerably: 69 wickets at 24.50, including 22 wickets in two Tests in Bangladesh, and 19 in four matches in India. The economy rate has dropped from 3.84 to 2.80. And if we do a similar comparison between Lyon and the opposition spinners in Asia, the improvement in the last three series is significant.
Still only 34, if he maintains his fitness and his rate of taking wickets, 500 is very much within reach.
With inputs from Shiva Jayaraman
This article is a modified and updated version of the piece that was published on January 14, 2021, before Lyon played his 100th Test.