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Match Analysis

Lyon prospers on retro SCG pitch

On a rain-hit day, the beauty of Nathan Lyon's spell lay in the fact that he was frugal as a result of his wicket-taking threat rather than anything defensive about his mindset

Nathan Lyon claimed his 100th Test wicket in Australia at his favourite ground, the SCG  •  Associated Press

Nathan Lyon claimed his 100th Test wicket in Australia at his favourite ground, the SCG  •  Associated Press

In the days when the West Indies won everything, Sydney was Australia's spin citadel. Over four Test trips to Australia by the Caribbean collectives of Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards and Richie Richardson between 1981 and 1993, the visitors won nine Tests and lost only four, but never bested the hosts at the SCG.
After being tortured on the tracks of Brisbane and Perth in particular, the teams led by Allan Border welcomed Sydney in the same way a wanderer happens upon an oasis. The pitch was slower and lower, granting batsmen time and spinners deviation. Bob Holland's legbreaks claimed ten wickets in a 1984 innings victory a matter of weeks after Kim Hughes' tearful resignation; four years later no-one was more surprised about Border's 11 than the occasional tweaker himself.
Another slow left-armer, Steve O'Keefe, was recalled 27 years later in a nod to a retro-fitted Sydney wicket that offered the sort of turn his fellow New South Welshmen Holland, Murray Bennett, Greg Matthews and Stuart MacGill were once familiar with. O'Keefe has long been a canny operator, not immediately trusted by selectors, but here he was the ideal foil as his state and national team-mate Nathan Lyon put on a display to turn heads as well as cricket balls. In doing so, he claimed another record - the first off spinner to take 100 Test wickets in Australia.
On a rain-truncated day, Lyon's figures of 2 for 68 did him scant justice. He bowled more overs than Australia's three-man pace attack put together, and gave away runs at a tad more than two an over. But the beauty of this spell was that the parsimony came as a result of his wicket-taking threat rather than anything defensive about his mindset. Time after time, Lyon twirled down deliveries weighted with spin and dipping in flight, curving away then biting savagely back.
One of the enduring blind spots of the great West Indies sides was a propensity to lose their usual poise on pitches such as these, playing indifferent strokes and showing hard-handed techniques raised on firmer surfaces against faster bowlers. But the contrast in this case is that Jason Holder's team, while desperately short of experience and genuine class, have been raised on predominantly low and spinning surfaces. They do actually have some knowledge of the conditions thrown up by the SCG, yet Lyon's ability left many grasping.
Even so, the early part of Lyon's stint met without success. He took a few overs to work out the ideal lines for the pitch, while his captain Steven Smith juggled his fields in search of the right formula. Once upon a time, Lyon may have taken the whole match or even longer to settle into a rhythm commensurate with the conditions, but he has long since evolved into a far shrewder specimen. By the time he was bowling to Marlon Samuels, Lyon was landing the ball just short of most forward prods, causing a tangle of bat, pad, gloves and eager close-in fielders.
Samuels' run-out was caused at least partly by the batsman's eagerness to get away from Lyon's spin. When rain ended the session, team-mates congratulated him for creating pressure as much as the fielder, Josh Hazlewood. When play resumed, Lyon found further expanses of spin, and his second ball fizzed through Jermaine Blackwood like a diplomat through customs. As Lyon, Smith and wicketkeeper Peter Nevill refined their plans, Blackwood was hopelessly outpointed. Eventually a silly point, an angle over the wicket and a line wide outside off stump had him bowled by a sharp offbreak as he kept his bat aloft.
A more fascinating battle unfolded between Lyon and Kraigg Brathwaite, who alongside Darren Bravo has been the tourists' only ray of light amid the gloom of series defeat. Lyon has defeated Brathwaite no fewer than three times in this series, but the opener has also made significant scores both in Sydney and Hobart. This time he covered up well in defence, tried to work the ball around, and seemed bound for a hundred, only to glove an ill-advised cut to slip.
That wicket, Lyon's 100th in Australia, opened the way for O'Keefe to burgle Holder at the other end, courtesy the sharpest of short leg snaffles by Joe Burns. Though the West Indies were still six down at stumps, Lyon could reflect on a productive day and a pitch he couldn't have prepared any better himself.
"It's good fun to bowl on for spinners - it's challenging," he said. "It's a big challenge for me, it's spinning pretty big and it's got decent bounce. Talking to Peter Nevill and Steven Smith pretty closely and finding out the best pace and what line to bowl, I'm lucky enough to have a great captain and a good mate behind the stumps. So we've got a really good friendship there, the three of us there. We're working pretty well together."
"I think it's going to deteriorate, and as I said it's going to be tough for our spinners to be able to find a way to hit the stumps. It's probably a lot closer to a sub-continental pitch. I'm enjoying that challenge of bowling out here, it's my favourite place to bowl in Australia and my favourite place to play really - the SCG, a home Test. So I'm enjoying every moment."
Any repercussions around a pitch offering this much deviation on the first day may be dependent upon how much rain falls over the next two days, and how much the surface deteriorates in the time that remains. Either way, Lyon and O'Keefe can expect plenty of bowling, as they seek to emulate the deeds of spinning forebears on this ground against the West Indies - not that Australia needs a spin citadel anymore.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig