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Lyon shreds match-up theory, aces test against India's right-handers

Great bowlers will always find a way, even if conventional wisdom suggests otherwise

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
One of the most notable scenes from the first season of the Test, Amazon's documentary on the Australian team, is former coach Justin Langer's rant at the ODI team during a difficult tour of England in 2018.
"Some of you guys have got so many f***** theories," Langer had said. "None of you are good enough to have that many theories."
Australia's hierarchy has had a theory, a borderline obsession, with playing a left-arm orthodox to match up against India's right-hand dominant batting line-up.
Australia's greatest-ever offspinner Nathan Lyon blew that theory out of the water in Delhi to bag five wickets on a fascinating second day to bowl the visitors into the ascendency before Axar Patel and R Ashwin dragged India back into the game.
Australia's concerns about having two offspinners in the same team have been unfounded as Lyon, with 297 right-handed Test scalps, put on a masterclass of offspin to prise out five of India's six right-handers in their top seven as they were bowled out for 262, one run behind Australia's first innings total. The visitors finished day two on 61 for 1.
It was instructive that Lyon bowled just two of the first 15 overs of the innings despite Australia having to open the bowling with at least one of their three spinners. Australia were so beholden to the match-up of the left-arm orthodox against India's right-handed openers that it wasn't their senior man, the nation's third-highest wicket-taker in Test history, entrusted with the new ball. It was debutant Matthew Kuhnemann, with one first-class game to his name in four months, who bowled unchanged for seven of the first 14 overs across the first evening and the second morning, with Lyon following Pat Cummins from the other end.
While Kuhnemann actually bowled very tidily in his opening spell - justifying his selection over Ashton Agar and proving he is the best left-arm orthodox Australia has playing first-class cricket right now - Australia's desperation to make the match-ups work saw them burn two reviews in the first six overs of the morning.
All the while Lyon and Todd Murphy, who had knocked over KL Rahul and six other India batters including five other right-handers, were waiting to get their hands on the ball. The theory of left-arm finger spin to right-handers is sound, but recent first-class numbers suggest Lyon and Murphy are Australia's best spinners no matter who they are bowling at.
R Ashwin wasn't the right match-up for the right-handed Marnus Labuschagne and Steven Smith on day one after Ravindra Jadeja had been that duo's nemesis in Nagpur. But Ashwin found a way to get them both out, because he is a great bowler rather than a left-arm orthodox.
Lyon proved he is still Australia's best spinner and one of the best in the world. He picked up two more to complete a wonderful five-wicket haul, his second in Delhi 10 years after his first. His constant pressure caused batting mistakes from Shreyas Iyer and KS Bharat. Iyer tried to force a scoring shot off the back foot and Peter Handscomb held a sensational juggling reflex catch at short leg. Bharat tried to sweep and was caught off the glove at slip. Lyon could have had more. He had Axar and Ashwin missed at slip and leg slip respectively.
It was his first five-wicket haul since Perth last year, where he did it in completely different conditions on a completely different pitch, knocking over right-handers spinning the ball back into the top of off with subtle changes of pace.
Perth and Delhi are poles apart, yet he found a way. You can have all the theories in the world. But the best always find a way.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo