Match Analysis

Nathan Lyon tames Lahore as Australia's ghosts disappear

With their win in Lahore, Australia are free in the knowledge that they can stick to what they know if they get the basics right

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
The ghosts were there. The ghosts of Headingley, Sydney (twice), Brisbane, and Karachi. They were there sitting on the shoulders of the Australians as they tried to close out victory in Lahore.
They were there when Australia dropped key catches in the fourth innings, again. When they fluffed a gifted run-out chance, again. When they burnt three reviews frivolously again, which forced them to second-guess the one when it would have yielded a key wicket.
But lady luck finally shone on Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, and Australia, and they slayed their demons and scared off the ghosts to deliver a thoroughly deserved series victory.
There's no denying Australia were the better side across the three matches and there's an argument that they should have won 2-0, having made all the running in both Karachi and Lahore. There is no doubt they were aided by the toss in both matches, but their batting delivered in the first innings in all three games, and they bowled superbly in the first innings in Karachi and Lahore to give themselves time to take 10 fourth innings wickets, with runs to play with on both occasions.
Four dropped catches and three magnificent innings from Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan and Abdullah Shafique denied Pakistan in Karachi, with the hosts surviving the second-most overs in the fourth innings in history.
Babar threatened to do it again in Lahore. Lyon had to get him out three times, but the last was the most satisfying for both him and Steven Smith. The latter had either dropped or missed no fewer than seven chances across the series, but Smith pouched the one that mattered most, a really sharp catch low to his left after Lyon had got the second new ball to skid on and catch Babar's outside edge.
Smith and Lyon roared as Lahore fell deathly silent. You could see the weight of the world lift from both men's shoulders.
Lyon has been carrying it for some time. Since Headingley 2019 no less. Australia's inability to close out games since that famous day has fallen on his shoulders. But his overall form since Covid-19 stopped global cricket in March 2020 has been a curiosity. Over his previous 11 Tests prior to Lahore, he had averaged 39.80 and struck at 95.20 without a five-wicket haul.
It wasn't that he was bowling badly. But there was a certain sameness and rigidity to his pace, his lines, and his lengths at times across the period that had caused some consternation both inside the camp and out.
The big knock was that he wasn't creating fourth innings chances. But in all fairness, he had had very little luck in the supposed fourth innings failures that were thrown at his feet. He had Ben Stokes missed at slip and plumb lbw at Headingley. He had Rishabh Pant dropped twice by the wicketkeeper in Sydney 2021.
Those ghosts threatened to consume Lyon in Lahore. Babar should have been run out early in his innings. Travis Head made a poor throw to Lyon but his fumble, although not his fault, did bring back memories of Headingley.
He had Babar caught brilliantly at slip by Smith off the glove and pad but it was given not out. Australia had torched two reviews on earlier lbw shouts where the inside edges could be seen and heard in Sydney, so Cummins was reluctant to burn their last, given they weren't 100 per cent sure it brushed Babar's glove. The ghosts of Stokes' lbw haunted Lyon again.
Babar then tried to launch Lyon over long-on in the last over prior to tea and miscued to deep midwicket. Head misjudged the flight and failed to get hands to a catch that should have been taken. The ghosts of Stokes again would have flashed through Lyon's mind as he slumped to his haunches.
But luck evened things out for Lyon and Australia today. He was perhaps fortunate to dismal Azhar Ali with a 50-50 DRS call going Australia's way despite the original decision being not out.
Lyon also bowled Hasan Ali via his helmet and the back of the bat as he attempted to sweep out of the rough. And fellow spinner Mitchell Swepson held a spectacular catch in the deep to hand Lyon his five-for.
It was a rich reward for Lyon who has bowled better than the numbers have suggested at times in this series, and deserved more luck than he has got. He was rewarded for a different line to Imam-ul-Haq, attacking the left-hander with a rare venture from over the wicket to get him caught brilliantly at silly mid-off by Marnus Labuschagne.
Changes in pace, dropping below 80kph at times, was also part of what undid Babar, with some of his slower deliveries ripping out of the footmarks and eventually, causing Babar to play for more turn than was there on the one he eventually nicked.
That Swepson, Lyon's understudy for so long was unable to take a wicket in this Test and was only entrusted with five overs on the final day proves Lyon is still invaluable to Australia's attack despite his detractors.
However, it is clear that Australia's path to 20 wickets in Asia relies heavily on Cummins, Mitchell Starc and their bevy of reserve quicks than on Lyon or any spinner he's paired with. Cummins, Starc and Cameron Green combined for 23 of Australia's 41 wickets for the series while the spinners took just 15. Green took the key wicket of Abdullah Shafique while Cummins was monumental again as a strike-force blowing away Fawad Alam and Rizwan with two superb deliveries to expose the tail. Although Pakistan were equally guilty of DRS blunders, as Rizwan would have been reprieved if they had used the review they were reluctant to use, having burned two of their three already.
Lyon's role as a holder in Australia's attack even when it is spinning big, and more liberal use of Labuschagne, while the quicks attack when the moment suits, may well be the method going forward in Asia for Australia.
They have been freed from the ghosts of the past. They are free in the knowledge that they can stick to what they know if they get the basics right.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo