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Lyon frank about Australian deficiencies

Nathan Lyon who came in for criticism from Australia coach Darren Lehmann and captain Steven Smith has admitted that Australia have been outplayed in all areas by Sri Lanka in the ongoing Test series

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
Nathan Lyon admitted that he, and his spin-bowling partner Jon Holland, had not challenged Sri Lanka's batsmen down the line of the stumps frequently enough  •  AFP

Nathan Lyon admitted that he, and his spin-bowling partner Jon Holland, had not challenged Sri Lanka's batsmen down the line of the stumps frequently enough  •  AFP

Over the past few days, the only player singled out for criticism from Australia's coach Darren Lehmann and captain Steven Smith has been Nathan Lyon, the touring side's No. 1 spinner. If this seems harsh that's because it probably is - Lyon's nine wickets place him second behind Mitchell Starc among Australian bowlers; his 29 runs means he's made only five fewer than Joe Burns and six fewer than Peter Nevill.
But the reason for the criticism stems from the fact that Lyon's returns are paltry next to those of Rangana Herath, Dilruwan Perera and Lakshan Sandakan, the Sri Lankan spin trio who have made fools of a highly paid and seemingly well-prepared Australian batting line-up. The struggles of the batsmen have left Lyon and the rest of the bowlers with precious little scoreboard pressure on their side. Lyon, though, did not fall into excuses or the shifting of blame.
"We've been outplayed in all areas," Lyon said in Galle. "I'm not going to stand here and make excuses or blame anyone. We've been outplayed and you've got to give credit where credit's due. They've totally outplayed us. Yeah it'd be great to bowl with some runs on the board but that's up to Nos. 1 down to 11 to get those runs."
Lyon spoke of four issues that have contributed to Australian struggles. First he admitted that he and his slow-bowling partner Jon Holland have failed to challenge Sri Lanka's batsmen down the line of the stumps frequently enough. This angle of attack has been responsible for the majority of Australian dismissals, but precious few among the hosts.
"As spinners, we need to keep hitting the stumps," Lyon said. "If you look at their spinners, that's what they do really well, they ask questions off the stumps. If I'm being honest enough, I don't think Duck [Holland] and myself probably did that to the best of our ability in the last Test match. You've got to give credit where credit's due. Sri Lanka plays spin really well.
"They know the conditions really well over here and they played really well and put us under pressure. We've got to combat that, come the third Test. It's just about Duck and I finding a way how to best go about it in these conditions. We're both open to change I guess. It's different bowling in different conditions over here. It's a learning curve. If we can keep learning over here and improving, that's a big tick for us."
Secondly, Lyon acknowledged that the subcontinent method of spin, cutting under the ball on a flatter trajectory, rather than working the fingers up over the top of it in search of over-spin and bounce, was something he and Holland were yet to fully master. Lyon has an outstanding record in Australia where many an Asian spin bowler has struggled, but the reverse is true here.
"I daresay there's an argument for that," he said. "As a spinner, you need to have all different variations. I'm comfortable going over the top of the ball and also around it. A lot of their spinners go around it and you get that natural variation with the ball going straight on. We've put it into play but unfortunately it hasn't come off for us Australian spinners. If we can keep improving, keep learning from our mistakes in the first two Test matches then we're going the right way.
"I have been bowling with a fair few variations where a lot of people aren't going to pick up on that. That is a subtle variation in my wrist. So, I think I can probably go a little bit more and experiment a little bit more - I am going down to training today to experiment more of how far my wrist can go underneath it, just to see how the ball reacts. I do believe that we have been doing that but, as I said, they have been playing quite well over here."
Thirdly, Lyon spoke about the use of the sweep as a weapon against his off spin. Lyon is himself a prolific user of the sweep shot, something tried by precious few of the touring batsmen. That and the reverse sweep were both glimpsed more often in the second innings in Galle, amid a rash of experimentation that indicated players racking their brains for better solutions.
"I only sweep because I don't trust my defence, and that's my only scoring shot," Lyon said modestly. "But you see the good players of spin, not only here with Sri Lanka, but you look at Younis Khan, Virat Kohli and these guys, they sweep well and they do that to try and out you off your lengths.
"As a spinner, you need to be patient enough and be willing to be swept - it means you are hitting the right areas, so that's the way I am looking at it. If I can keep putting it there, then hopefully, if I can get a couple of defensive shots out of them, I am in the game with the bat-pads and the slips."
Lastly, the issue of economy was confronted, as perhaps the most pressing problem that Lehmann and Smith have laid at Lyon's door. A strike rate of a wicket every 44.6 balls is excellent for any spin bowler, but the leaking of 4.14 runs per over has lessened Lyon's threat in a low-scoring series to date. Greater pressure needs to be brought to bear, as he acknowledged.
"It's a challenge for all our bowlers. We don't like going at four an over, one of our goals is to bowl in partnerships and I don't think we've done that well enough," Lyon said. "Mitchell Starc was outstanding last game, Josh Hazlewood was brilliant bowling out there as well, but if we can bowl well in partnerships, try to tie down one end, we know they're going to play some shots.
"It's that type of cricket, they like to hit the boundaries, so if we can try to cut that down then we bring about more patience and more opportunities around the bat."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig