Ten months ago, Australian spinner Nathan Lyon’s was clinging to his Test spot after once again struggling in foreign conditions, this time against Pakistan in the UAE.
While Pakistan’s rookie tweakers Yasir Shah and Zulfiqar Babar ran amok on dry decks, Lyon was completely toothless. Most of the Pakistan batsmen treated him with disdain and he finished the series with the horrific figures of 3-422.
The offie bowled too straight, allowing the Pakistan batsmen to sweep with ease or work him through the leg side for ones and twos. Lyon also failed to vary both his pace and his angles on the crease in the manner which proved so successful for Zulfiqar.
Off spin is a subtle art. Rarely will its practitioners turn the ball square and befuddle batsmen like leg spinners often can. For an offie, accuracy is crucial. But it’s the aforementioned subtle variations that are the key to undo quality Test batsmen.
Against Pakistan he seemed to be bowling the same ball over and over again. His opponents were able to safely predict his trajectory and direction, and so they confidently pre-meditated strokes, either getting down on one knee or opening their body up to loft the ball over the legside.
It continued Lyon’s trend of battling for impact outside of the bouncy Australian decks. This seemed an unlikely problem when he took six wickets on Test debut in Sri Lanka.
Yet, from that Test up until the start of this Ashes series, he took 60 wickets at the lofty average of 40 away from home. Australia famously struggle on the road and to rectify that they desperately need their spinner to flourish in foreign conditions.
That is why there was a sense after the debacle against Pakistan that Lyon’s position was tenuous. In the opening Test of last summer, he promptly put paid to the other concern about his bowling – an inability to lead Australia to victory in the fourth innings.
In taking 12 wickets in a rousing victory over India at Adelaide, Lyon went a long way to banishing that hoodoo. It was a key moment in his career and seems to have significantly boosted his confidence.
Since the start of last summer, Lyon has taken 47 wickets from 11 Tests at the impressive average of 29.93. This Ashes series has been a second major breakthrough for Lyon as his first standout series overseas.
He clearly was the second best bowler in this series behind only English paceman Stuart Broad, who was phenomenal. Entering this Ashes Lyon rarely was mentioned, with all the focus on Australia’s much-vaunted pace attack.
Ryan Harris, Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood were expected to cause major problems for the English batsmen. Harris retired, Johnson struggled, and Starc and Hazlewood were left to shoulder unexpected responsibility with mixed results.
Among all this, Lyon did his job impeccably. In the lead up to the series, many English pundits and commentators spoke of Lyon as a fairly limited spinner who England would look to target.
This was justifiable given the way he had underperformed on foreign soil. By the end of the series, they were roundly complimenting him and noting his considerable development.
It is easy to forget how young and inexperienced Lyon is. He made his first-class debut only four-and-a-half years ago.
Consider this: the two best Test spinners of the past 6-7 years, England’s Graeme Swann and Pakistan’s Saeed Ajmal, were 29 years old and 31 years old respectively when they made their Test debuts. At just 27 years old, Lyon is still a pup in spin terms and may well be 3-4 years away from reaching his peak.
After the best bowler in Test history Shane Warne retired in 2007, Australia spent years searching for another match winning spinner. They churned through tweaker after tweaker, swiftly ditching each after it became apparent they wouldn’t win Tests off their own back.
Lyon has been the recipient of far greater patience than his predecessors and that now is paying off for Australia. He doesn’t turn games on their head like Warne did, but he plays his part and makes his pace teammates more effective.
Had the Aussie quicks bowled as well as Lyon in this series, the visitors would have romped it in. For all the hype over the Australian pacemen, it was the unassuming offie who shone.
Heading into what shapes as a tricky series in Bangladesh, Lyon now will be the main man. This Ashes may well prove to be the making of the former groundsman.