Bowlers finally given something to work with
Australia know their attack is their strength but feeble batting at Trent Bridge and Lord's made the bowlers redundant. Now is the time for Lyon and company to prove their worth.
Graham McKenzie was once dropped after taking ten wickets in a Test against India. Nobody could really explain why, but it was speculated that the board wanted a more competitive series than his bowling would allow. His next opportunity came in an Ashes Test at Old Trafford, where McKenzie helped bowl Australia to victory.
Nathan Lyon was once dropped after taking nine wickets in a Test against India. Nobody could really explain why, but it was speculated that the selectors wanted a more competitive series than his bowling would allow. His next opportunity came in an Ashes Test at Old Trafford. The next three days will tell if the stories continue to run parallel.
Like McKenzie, Lyon is easy-going and thus easy to let go. The quiet ones never kick up a stink. But there is no question that both men were part of their country's best attack at the time of their axing. Lyon did not pick up a wicket on the second afternoon in Manchester but he could have had Alastair Cook cheaply, had Michael Clarke at slip moved a little more fluently.
His flight, dip and turn left England's batsmen edgy, and he built pressure: 51 of his 60 deliveries were dot balls. Certainly he gave the selectors reason to regret leaving him out at Trent Bridge and Lord's. There, they had gambled on Ashton Agar, a 19-year-old still learning his craft. Agar failed to take a wicket at Lord's; who knows what Lyon, Australia's leading spinner since Shane Warne, might have done.
Lyon isn't the only member of this attack with a point to prove. Mitchell Starc was dropped after the loss in Nottingham and was outbowled by Jackson Bird in the tour match at Hove. When asked on the first morning at Old Trafford why Starc had been preferred over Bird, the coach Darren Lehmann said the main criteria separating them was that Starc would create footmarks for Lyon.
Starc must show that his spikes aren't all he brings to the side. He began well on the second afternoon, curling a few deliveries away from Cook and for the most part keeping things tight. Ryan Harris was hampered by a stomach bug that forced him temporarily from the field, but by the standards of the brittle Harris, that's an ailment Australia can handle.
While the pressure built elsewhere the man who reaped the first two rewards was Peter Siddle. For the first time in his Test career Siddle was not one of the first four bowlers used, relegated below Lyon and Shane Watson. After some stretches that made Merv Hughes' warm-ups look subtle, Siddle was given his chance and grabbed it.
Whereas Starc at times moved the ball too much to tempt Cook, Siddle made Joe Root play and straightened it just enough to tickle the edge. His bustle also accounted for the nightwatchman Tim Bresnan, and an edge from Jonathan Trott in Siddle's final over fell just short of Clarke at second slip. It was Siddle who challenged England on the first day of the series and Siddle who kept the pressure on them here.
Of course, only two wickets have been taken, but for the first time in the series the mountain of work asked of the bowlers has been preceded by a mountain of runs. A draw is of very little value, but Australia's bowlers must remain patient, building pressure, compiling maidens, maintaining their discipline. They must not get carried away by the runs behind them.
The last time an Australian made a Test hundred - Clarke, not surprisingly - the opposition responded by building a 192-run lead. The venue was Chennai, the assailant MS Dhoni, the victim Lyon. If he tossed the ball up, he was driven down the ground; if he went quicker and shorter he was dispatched square. Lyon's confidence was knocked, and he was dropped for the next Test.
Now, Lyon appears sure of himself. His first ten overs displayed skill and patience superior to any of Agar, Glenn Maxwell or Xavier Doherty, all of whom he has made way for this year. He might not do a McKenzie, but like the man they called Garth, the man they call Gaz has his chance at Old Trafford.
Australia entered this series knowing their attack was their strength but feeble batting at Trent Bridge and Lord's made the bowlers redundant. Now is the time for Lyon and company to prove their worth.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here