How Lyon put India on the back foot
The off-spinner's match-winning display at Indore means the hosts no longer hold all the aces.
The last time the India Test team was challenged at home by a visiting side, in 2021, heading into a Test match at Ahmedabad, they had an easy solution: roll out a rank turner. England was the team at the receiving end. After starting the tour well to be 1-1 after the first two Tests played in Chennai, the Joe Root-led side crashed to heavy defeats in the back-to-back Tests held at the Narendra Modi Stadium to concede the series 3-1 -- a 10-wicket drubbing in the third game followed by an innings loss.
As India return to Ahmedabad to play the final Test of the Border-Gavaskar series against Australia, they are again under pressure to cash in on the home advantage, which is spin bowling.
However, Nathan Lyon's match-winning display at Indore means India no longer hold all the aces even if they roll out a rank turner as they did against England two years ago. There's a huge difference between the quality of spin attack that Root had, Jack Leach and Dom Bess, and Australia’s spin attack led by Lyon.
R Ashwin and Axar Patel outbowled Leach and Bess with ease. But, in Lyon, backed by Todd Murphy and Mathew Kunhemann, they have a good match. It was seen in Indore. With Lyon in his element, the ploy to make a square turner boomeranged on the home team as the off-spinner picked up an 11-wicket match haul.
Former India off-spinner Arsad Ayub predicted that the Ahmedabad pitch will also suit Lyon’s bowling. “It is a red soil wicket, it will definitely have a little extra bounce."
“Once Lyon gets a little extra bounce then you know he can create havoc. Lyon has always been the classical off-spinner, with a high delivery point, and a classic pivot. The way he releases the ball, the ball actually comes and hits the bat. On his good day, he is always difficult to negotiate. I think, that (Indore pitch) really gave him that extra zip that he required," said Ayub.
For Shivlal Yadav, the off-spinner who played 35 Tests for India, it’s Lyon's line and trajectory. “He doesn’t give the batters the chance to come down the wicket and clobber him. Even if you go back because of the nature of the wicket there is an element of doubt the ball can just roll on. The doubt comes because of the trajectory.”
Lyon's success in the third Test has again re-ignited the comparisons with R Ashwin. Sunil Subramaniam, who coached Ashwin during his formative years, sees the similarities in Lyon’s tactics and those generally used by Ashwin.
“In terms of intelligence and tactics, Ashwin is far ahead. It is not a negative line. Earlier, to the naked eye it would look the ball is pitching outside the leg stump but after the DRS has come, around the wicket is not a defensive option at all. That he (Lyon) has seen the way Ashwin operates and he has taken that. But he has got the arsenal to be even more venomous once he gets that going," said Subramaniam, a former Tamil Nadu left-arm spinner.
His performance in India stands out compared to everyone else, including legends like Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne. He has now taken the most wickets by a visiting bowler since 1990, 53 in 10 Tests. Muralitharan, 40 wickets in 11 Tests, and Warne, 34 in 9 Tests, have all been tackled in India.
So, what is he doing that Murali, Warne couldn’t do?
“It all depends on the nature of the pitches that are offered," says Shivlal Yadav, saying Lyon has the benefit of bowling on the turners that India dish out now.
For Arshad Ayub, the difference is in the skills of the batters Lyon is bowling to compared to Warne’s generation.
“The set of players we have today, they are really good players of fast bowling. They negotiate fast bowling really well but if you go a little back, when Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid were playing, they were great players of spin bowling so I think Warne and all those bowlers.. even though they were great bowlers but then these players were also great players of spin bowling. I think that is the difference," said Ayub.
Doing a technical analysis, Subramaniam, who has headed TNCA’s spin academy, says Lyon is a throwback to the old days, who used their entire body to extract spin.
“Talk about EAS Prasanna, Lance Gibbs, all facets were involved in their bowling, fingers, hips, body. Lyon is a throwback to the old days, he uses his entire body to deliver the ball. The kind of balls (Dukes, SG and Kookaburra) they use, it affects all the bowlers but it affects him the least. That is why he is still the best offie going around.”
“So that I think has been the difference between Lyon and all the fingers bowlers who have toured India. He is a much more complete bowler.”