Nathan Lyon is Australia's most successful off-spinner in Tests © AFP
Nathan Lyon is Australia’s most successful off-spinner in Tests © AFP

Everyone knows what they are supposed to know about Nathan Lyon. Of Australian spinners only two — Shane Warne and Richie Benaud — have more wickets than Lyon, and both were wrist-spinners; at this stage Lyon is a mere 20 wickets behind Benaud. They remember Lyon taking a wicket with his first ball in Test cricket — of Kumar Sangakkara, no less, that too at the den of the legend; on that occasion he had finished with 5 for 34, the third-best figures by an Australian spinner bowling in his maiden Test innings — after Jason Krejza and Peter Taylor. Despite his excellent numbers (his economy rate is below 5) Lyon has played a mere 13 ODIs. His Test bowling average of 34 is significantly better than his overall First-Class average of 37.

People are aware of all that. They also know that Lyon comes from Young, in New South Wales (NSW). He used to be a groundsman at Adelaide Oval. Matthew Wade gave him his nickname Garry, after AFL star Garry Lyon. It did not take the name long to attain cult status, both in Australian grounds and on social media. They also know that he is the current custodian of the Australian team song; and that he top-scored from No. 11 when Australia were skittled out for 47 at Newlands. He turned a ball so much that it spun to leg-slip, at Perth during the 2013-14 Ashes. It might have hit a crack, but the video had become viral.

Nathan Lyon probably looks the most innocuous of all Australians to have played 50 Tests. His strides make his approach look almost apologetic. There is nothing in his approach that comes across as intimidating. Rarely has he come across as threatening, though, to be fair, Australia has rarely been a happy hunting ground for finger-spinners, home or away.

How good is Lyon? Let us not deceive ourselves: of all Australian spinners with a hundred Test wickets (there are ten of them), Lyon’s bowling average of 34.07 is the worst.

But, hey, what about strike rates? Where does Lyon stand when it comes to the greatest? Let us check.

Australian spinners (100+ wickets)

Player

M

W

Ave

Econ

SR

5WIs

Stuart MacGill

44

208

29.02

3.22

54.0

12

Hugh Trumble

32

141

21.78

2.27

57.4

9

Shane Warne

145

708

25.41

2.65

57.4

37

Nathan Lyon

63

228

34.07

3.19

63.8

7

Clarrie Grimmett

37

216

24.21

2.16

67.1

21

Bill O’Reilly

27

144

22.59

1.94

69.6

11

Bruce Yardley

33

126

31.63

2.68

70.7

6

Ashley Mallett

38

132

29.84

2.36

75.6

6

Richie Benaud

63

248

27.03

2.10

77.0

16

Ian Johnson

45

109

29.19

2.17

80.5

3

Not too bad for Lyon, correct? Of the three men ahead of him, Hugh Trumble played his cricket in the pre-War era, on wickets that were barely defined. Perched at the top is Stuart MacGill, who had the advantage of bowling alongside one of the most potent attacks of all time. Shane Warne had the same advantage — but then, the Warnes of the world have rarely needed that.

Lyon averages 34.55 in the harshness in Australia, that graveyard of finger-spinners. Australia assists the particular brand of bowling so little that Johnny Wardle, that outstanding left-arm spinner of Yorkshire and England, had to resort to bowling Chinaman in the 1954-55 Ashes.

To understand how good Lyon has been, let us pit him against finger-spinners in the Post-War era:

Post-War finger-spinners in Australia (100+ wickets)

Player

M

W

Ave

Econ

SR

5WIs

Nathan Lyon

32

118

34.55

3.18

65.1

3

Bruce Yardley

19

79

32.17

2.66

72.5

5

Ashley Mallett

21

63

32.80

2.50

78.6

1

Ian Johnson

22

57

25.71

1.95

78.8

1

Derek Underwood

14

50

31.48

2.25

83.8

1

Lance Gibbs

14

59

33.38

2.06

97.2

4

Once again, Lyon has the worst average — but the margin separating him from the others (barring Johnson) is certainly not humongous, and the list includes legends of the sport in Gibbs and Underwood.

Lyon took 23 wickets from 4 Tests when India last toured Australia, in 2013-14. Nobody from either side had more than 15. His bowling average (34.82) was superior to Mitchell Johnson’s, and his strike rate (58.3) was better than those of Josh Hazlewood and Ryan Harris. It must be remembered that averages and strike rates are typically dominated by fast bowlers.

But how good is Lyon, really?

To understand how potent Lyon can be on the tour, it is crucial to understand his role in the Australian side.

First, very rarely have Australia picked a second spinner in the side alongside Lyon in his 63-Test career: Steve O’Keefe (4), Jon Holland (2), Michael Beer (1), and Xavier Doherty (1) have played a mere 8 Tests between them, which means that Lyon had been without a specialist spinner for seven-eighth of his career.

Before one compares this to Warne’s or MacGill’s careers, let us not get carried away. Not only did the two men play 16 Tests with each other, Warne also played 17 Tests with Tim May and another 17 with Michael Bevan. Both MacGill and Bevan had better numbers than Warne when they played alongside the legend. A basic arithmetic takes that to over a third of Warne’s career.

As for MacGill, he played alongside Warne in a 16 out of his 44 Tests — once again, over a third. This may not give the complete story, but there is sufficient data to indicate that Lyon has played his cricket on pitches less conducive to spin — in other words, pitches where Australia did not go in with more than one spinner.

And even if one ignores that bit, I am yet to mention the fast bowlers. Johnson and Starc (and of late, and perhaps to a greater extent, Hazlewood) have been excellent — but coming on to bowl after Glenn McGrath came with its perks.

In other words, Lyon is more potent than it meets the eye.

Will Lyon be a threat?

We all remember 2012-13. Lyon took a severe pounding in the first Test at Chennai. His 47 overs went for 215, but it was really a rampant Dhoni who did the damage, scoring 104 off the 85 balls he faced from Lyon. These included 9 fours and 5 sixes.

He was left out at Hyderabad and failed at Mohali, but came to his own at Delhi. In fact, his 7 for 94 actually gave Australia a whiff of a chance, restricting India to a 10-run lead. He even took out Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar in the fourth innings.

Lyon finished the series with 15 wickets. Where does this stand?

Touring spinners in India in a series (15+wickets)

Player

Season

M

W

Ave

Econ

SR

5WIs

Hedley Verity

1933-34

3

23

16.82

2.45

41.1

1

Richie Benaud

1956-57

3

23

16.86

2.28

44.3

3

Saqlain Mushtaq

1998-99

2

20

20.15

2.68

44.9

4

Nathan Lyon

2012-13

3

15

37.33

4.40

50.8

1

Derek Underwood

1976-77

5

29

17.55

2.01

52.3

1

Graeme Swann

2012-13

4

20

24.75

2.66

55.7

1

Do note Lyon’s ordinary average. Blame his economy rate for that, not his wicket-taking abilities, for his strike rate is fourth-best in history. There is, however, more to it than that: while Australia were whitewashed 0-4 in 2012-13, four of the other five instances came in the series wins, while Saqlain got his in a drawn series.

Touring spinners in India in a lost series (15+wickets)

Player

Season

M

W

Ave

Econ

SR

5WIs

Nathan Lyon

2012-13

3

15

37.33

4.40

50.8

1

Muttiah Muralitharan

2005-06

3

16

31.00

3.12

59.5

1

Adil Rashid

2016-17

5

23

37.43

3.70

60.6

Tony Lock

1961-62

5

22

28.54

2.04

83.5

Iqbal Qasim

1979-80

6

17

33.41

2.34

85.3

1

Derek Underwood

1972-73

4

15

30.46

2.12

85.8

When it comes to strike rates, the chasm between the top three and the bottom three is quite significant. In fact, the difference between Lyon’s and Murali’s strike rate is not negligible, either.

However, one avenue still remains unexplored. What about recency? Who have been the most successful spinners against India in recent past?

Best spinners against India in 21st century (20+ wickets)

Player

M

W

Ave

Econ

SR

5WIs

Ajantha Mendis

6

34

29.00

3.19

54.3

2

Muttiah Muralitharan

13

77

28.42

3.08

55.3

6

Nathan Lyon

10

45

36.71

3.71

59.2

3

Adil Rashid

5

23

37.43

3.70

60.6

Graeme Swann

10

41

32.68

3.12

62.6

2

Moeen Ali

10

29

37.44

3.48

64.5

1

Murali, expectedly, is there. Mendis shocked India in the 2008 series at home (26 wickets at 18, strike rate 38), but once India unravelled the mystery, his other 3 Tests fetched him 8 wickets at 64 (strike rate 109).

However, even that is not the point: barring Rashid, the other five most successful spinners against India in the 21st century have been off-spinners. That certainly gives Lyon a significant edge.

There is one last thing to check, though: how have these men done in India?

Best spinners against India in India in 21st century (15+ wickets)

Player

M

W

Ave

Econ

SR

5WIs

Nathan Lyon

3

15

37.33

4.40

50.8

1

Adil Rashid

5

23

37.43

3.70

60.6

Graeme Swann

6

28

28.96

2.83

61.3

1

Danish Kaneria

6

31

39.58

3.33

71.1

2

Shane Warne

6

24

38.58

3.16

73.0

1

Muttiah Muralitharan

6

25

43.48

3.50

74.5

1

Evidently Lyon has taken wickets more frequently than he is typically given credit for. Do note the other aspects in the above table: barring Swann none of them — even Warne and Murali — have better averages than Lyon. As for strike rates, the difference is quite significant with anyone else.

What does this mean?

The implication is simple: Australia have not really cared whether Lyon has gone for runs. They needed him to take wickets, and he has delivered. He has bowled those long spells when the opposition went into blockathon-mode (the most famous of these was his 50-31-49-3 at Adelaide — the cheapest 50-over spell in the past fifty years), but Australia have typically not bothered about Lyon’s economy rate.

There is more to this. Only twice has Lyon taken more than 5 wickets in a Test innings. On both occasions he has taken 7. On both occasions he has gone for over 4 an over (23.2-4-94-7 and 34.1-5-152-7). And both these have come against India, at Delhi and Adelaide.

In other words, Lyon will, in all probability, go in with full licence of allowing the batsmen to go for their shots. While Starc, Hazlewood, and co. will come at India all guns blazing, there is almost certainly a plan for Lyon. He may not win the series for Australia, perhaps not even a Test, but he will, in all probability, stick to the formula that has earned him 2 seven-fors.

After all, despite his ordinary average, he is one of only five bowlers to take 2 seven-wicket hauls against India, which puts him in elite company — alongside Alec Bedser, Ray Lindwall (the only other Australian), Gibbs, and Murali.

They do know a lot of things about Lyon, but even his fans are not aware of his ability to strike without anyone noticing. Especially against India.

But then, has that not been Lyon’s USP throughout his career?