Derek Underwood (left) and Nathan Lyon © Getty Images

It seems a ludicrous comparison, does it not? Derek Underwood was, well, Derek Underwood, hero of The Oval Test of 1968 and the Fusarium Test. They called him ‘Deadly’ for a reason. He was difficult to keep away on a dry surface, they told, and impossible on a wet one.

Yes, those were days of uncovered wickets. However, there is no reason to believe that Underwood did not do well on flat tracks. Had he not joined the rebels for the South Africa tour, he would have finished with more than those 297 Test wickets. Who knows? He might even have been the first to the 350-mark.He took 425 wickets in his next six seasons in First-Class cricket … but a comeback was ruled out.

Nathan Lyon lacks the aura of Underwood. He is honest and hardworking, toils for hours on those sun-baked Australian tracks, and has now crept up to within a wicket of Underwood’s tally. Four wickets stand between Lyon becoming the ninth spinner in Test history to take 300 wickets.

But then, recent players do hold most aggregate records (though Muttiah Muralitharan’s 800 wickets will take some beating). It was only obvious that Lyon would go past some of the former giants if he stayed fit.

Why compare these two?

The most obvious answer is that I checked two finger-spinners with identical number of wickets. Both men had their share of bowling on subcontinent tracks, but both played most of their cricket elsewhere. But that is where the similarities end: the career numbers are quite different.

Both men bowled alongside quality fast bowlers: John Snow, Bob Willis, Geoff Arnold, Chris Old, and Mike Hendrick for Underwood; and Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Johnson, James Pattinson, Pat Cummins, and Ryan Harris for Lyon, so there is little to tell there.

Underwood and Lyon have taken almost identical number of wickets. But take a look at the careers and one parameter looks back at you: Lyon has reached 296 wickets in 76 Tests, 10 fewer than Underwood’s 297 in 86.

I am tempted to bring the covered-wickets point to the forefront again to add to the differences, but let us first scrutinise the numbers without adjustments.

Career aggregates of Underwood and Lyon
  M W Ave SR W/M 5WIs
Derek Underwood 86 297 25.83 73.6 3.5 17
Rebel Tests 2 2 64.00 135.0 1.0  
Total 88 299 26.09 74.0 3.4 12
Nathan Lyon 76 296 31.81 62.1 3.9 12

The averages make Underwood seem superior. After all, he got his wickets almost 6 runs apiece cheaper. However, Lyon has needed 2 fewer overs per wicket.

In other words, Underwood tied batsmen down, forcing them into submission; Lyon attacks and buys his wickets. Lyon gives the impression of a defensive bowler, but he is not.

However, it may not be fair to compare two spinners of different eras, just like that. Let us make some adjustments. How good were Underwood and Lyon compared to other spinners of their respective eras?

Normalised aggregates of Underwood and Lyon
Bowler Career Era Index
Ave SR Ave SR Ave SR
Underwood 25.83 73.6 31.01 74.2 1.20 1.01
Lyon 31.81 62.1 34.15 65.2 1.07 1.05
Index is the ratio between career numbers and numbers of the era.

In case the table is unclear, Underwood’s average has been 1.2 times superior to his contemporaries, while Lyon’s has been 1.07 times, and similarly for strike rates. Underwood emerges as superior — but not by much — of the two; however, we must take into consideration the conditions in which they bowled.

Unfortunately, data for wicket or weather condition is not something readily available. However, we can compare their performances in various countries. The home nations will play a role in this, as we will find out.

Underwood vs Lyon, in every country
Venue Underwood Lyon
W Ave SR W Ave SR
Australia 50 31.48 83.8 139 33.74 66.5
New Zealand 24 13.54 46.2 10 22.60 38.4
England 145 24.24 68.7 25 30.20 61.2
Asia 73 26.65 78.9 83 31.12 56.8
West Indies 5 62.80 165.4 21 23.38 52.7
South Africa       18 37.22 78.3
Total 297 26.09 74.0 296 31.81 62.1

Underwood took a pasting in West Indies, where Lyon succeeded, but the two West Indies teams are not really comparable. Underwood also had the advantage of bowling against weak oppositions in Sri Lanka and New Zealand, something Lyon never had. Lyon played only 2 Tests in Bangladesh when they had already become a formidable side at home.

One also has to remember that Lyon played half his Tests on Australian soil, that graveyard of finger-spinners. Australia do not produce quality finger-spinners, if you ignore the odd aberrations like Ashley Mallett and the near-pre-historic figure of Hugh Trumble. In fact, no Australian finger-spinner has taken half as many Test wickets as Lyon.

But how have spinners fared in Australia in general? Let us check the top ten. Sorted by strike rates, the top five are all wrist-spinners (Kumble makes a surprise entry).

Also note how far the other finger-spinners are from Lyon: Yardley had a wicket every 72.5 balls (an over more than Lyon), while nobody else came within two overs. Indeed, when it comes to strike rates, Lyon is closer to wrist-spinners than to finger-spinners — and that is a massive thing when it comes to bowling in Australia.

Spinners in Australia (40 wickets, post-WW1)
  Type M W Ave SR W/M
Stuart MacGill Wrist 27 135 27.68 53.3 5.0
Arthur Mailey Wrist 10 60 32.41 56.9 6.0
Shane Warne Wrist 69 319 26.39 60.8 4.6
Clarrie Grimmett Wrist 19 105 24.59 64.7 5.5
Anil Kumble Wrist 10 49 37.73 65.3 4.9
Nathan Lyon Finger 37 139 33.74 66.5 3.8
Bruce Yardley Finger 19 79 32.17 72.5 4.2
Ashley Mallett Finger 21 63 32.80 78.6 3.0
Ian Johnson Finger 22 57 25.71 78.8 2.6
Bill O’Reilly Wrist 12 59 24.62 81.8 4.9

Let me now provide the most telling statistic of all. How has Lyon done compared to his contemporaries in Australia? The difference is so staggering that there is really, really no comparison.

Spinners in Australia during Lyon’s career
  M W Ave SR W/M
Nathan Lyon 27 135 27.68 53.3 5.0
All other spinners 38 123 67.82 106.9 3.2
All spinners 38 258 49.46 85.1 6.8

For England, I will change the time span slightly, removing the inter-War era. This is to eliminate the performances of English spinners against West Indies, New Zealand, and India — and even South Africa — during this period. Unfortunately, this will also mean leaving out O’Reilly and Grimmett, so I am force-adding their numbers.

Table 6: Spinners in England (40 wickets, post-WW2)
  Type M W Ave SR W/M
Muttiah Muralitharan Finger 6 48 19.20 48.2 8.0
Moeen Ali Finger 28 82 33.47 52.0 2.9
Shane Warne Wrist 22 129 21.94 52.3 5.9
Jim Laker Finger 29 135 18.08 54.7 4.7
Graeme Swann Finger 32 120 28.94 56.9 3.8
Tony Lock Finger 28 104 19.51 62.0 3.7
Monty Panesar Finger 22 81 28.76 63.1 3.7
Phil Tufnell Finger 12 48 29.04 64.2 4.0
Derek Underwood Finger 42 145 24.24 68.7 3.5
Johnny Wardle Mixed 15 57 20.70 69.0 3.8
Bill O’Reilly Wrist 15 57 20.70 69.0 3.8

The scenario is, as evident, different. Warne is the only wrist-spinner to break through (but then, Warne would make through most lists) to the top ten. Wardle bowled both orthodox and Chinaman, but he preferred to bowl finger-spin in England and wrist-spin in Australia.

Make no mistake: Underwood does have terrific numbers in England, befitting of a spinner of his stature. However, Underwood has thrived in a land where finger-spinners have thrived, while Lyon has been the greatest finger-spinner on hostile Australian pitches by a distance.

An equivalent to table 4 won’t be appropriate for Underwood. For example, during Underwood’s career, Ray Illingworth picked up 81 home wickets (compared to Underwood’s 145). In fact, while Lyon featured in 27 of the 38 (71%) Tests played in Australia during his career, Underwood appeared in only 42 out of 79 (53%).

In conclusion

Taking nothing away from the Deadly Kentish spinner, one can probably conclude that Lyon has done enough to sit smugly next to him in the pantheon of finger-spinners.  While Underwood fans will point out his superior average, ‘Gary’ has a better strike rate. More importantly, Lyon has played half his Tests where finger-spinners have extracted nothing, precious nothing.

Perhaps Underwood is still ahead. That will depend on your parameters. Perhaps he will remain ahead in future as well. But it is time we acknowledge Lyon’s greatness and take his name in the same breath as we take Underwood’s.