After Australia wrapped up the first trans-Tasman Test in Perth and attention turned towards the Boxing Day and New Year’s Tests, discussion began about the possibility of playing a second spinner.
But when you think about other spin options, particularly for the Sydney Test, you quickly realise why Nathan Lyon has enjoyed a mortgage on the position as Australia’s premier spin bowler.
Plenty of young talent has come and gone over time, and plenty of that young talent was expected to go on a lot further than they have to date. None have come close to dethroning the off-spinner known as the Goat.
Nathan Lyon is by no means over the hill. Not yet 33 years of age, Lyon has 376 Test wickets and could easily play for another five years. Even just 30 wickets a year from here would see him go well past 500 Test wickets, and closing in on Glenn McGrath’s 563 in second place on the list of Australia’s leading Test wicket-takers.
But when he made his debut as a 23-year-old on the Sri Lankan tour of 2011, there wasn’t a lot of confidence that the one-time Adelaide Oval groundsman was going to be the player to stop the flood of tweakers tried and discarded since the retirement of one SK Warne.
Over time, Lyon became more and more confident. The wickets flowed, and his standing in the Australian team was solidified. Over the last two years, including the last three Australian summers, he’s taken 107 wickets.
When Josh Hazlewood was ruled out of the Boxing Day Test with a hamstring complaint, discussion around back-up bowling options began.
Justin Langer made his quip about playing five bowlers if the MCG wicket was anything like it has been the last few years, which in itself put Travis Head and his propensity to throw an innings away in the crosshairs.
But it also opened up the idea of again playing two spinners in Sydney if need be. The fact the national selectors only named a squad for the Melbourne Test suggests that idea is still very much in play.
The problem being, who is the second spinner?
Last summer it was Marnus Labuschagne. For a few years, it was Steve O’Keefe. Jon Holland’s name always seems to get thrown up, but he had a hard time of it in Abu Dhabi in his last outing as a second Test spinner, and didn’t make the Ashes squad this year after touring England with Australia A.
It might still be O’Keefe. The NSW left-armer is again the leading domestic spin bowler in Sheffield Shield cricket this summer, with an economy rate and average that trails only a couple of rivals.
Ashton Agar and Adam Zampa appear to be the preferred options in the white-ball formats, but neither have shown much on the first-class scene this season.
This makes me wonder if something Warne said about a spin option might actually hold water for a change.
Typically, whenever the master leggie drops a name, it’s some obscure player who’s toiling away at state level, but whose performance simply doesn’t live up to the hype.
Warne jumped on Langer’s comments, curiously claiming that five bowlers wasn’t the “Australian way”, whatever that means.
“Marnus Labuschagne is bowling some very good part-time leg spin. Travis Head can bowl some off-spin. If you need to Matty Wade can bowl a couple of overs of rubbish,” Warne said at a Foxtel launch.
“In the end, basically it’s ten overs. It’s a 90-over day and your four main bowlers bowl around 20 overs each. Some bowl 18. So it’s ten to 12 overs per day. Head and Labuschagne can make those overs up. You don’t need a fifth bowler.
“To me it’s the Australian way: you pick the top six batsmen, your wicketkeeper and then four bowlers.”
But then the great man managed the break away from this nonsense that had taken over his body and threw up a name that has been around for a while, even if expectations perhaps haven’t quite been lived up to.
“I think Mitch Swepson has elevated himself already this year. If something happened to Nathan Lyon, Swepson would come into the side,” Warne said.
“Agar and these other finger spinners can play a role when we need them. It’s worth playing a leg-spinner.
“Swepson is the best of the leg-spinners that we have and he’s starting to find form.
“He could even play in the Sydney Test as a second spinner if Australia looks at that option.”
The 26-year-old Queenslander was called into Australia’s Test squad for the tour of India in early 2017 after just 14 first-class games, and this season he happens to be the only spinner other than O’Keefe in the top 20 wicket-takers.
Swepson’s 12 wickets have come at a slightly higher average than O’Keefe’s 14, but their economy is comparable. His seven wickets at the MCG against Victoria a month ago certainly got people interested.
Agar doesn’t have the wickets to build his case, but is making runs. And that will probably be enough to see him discussed.
But while there are a couple of options, if you’re prepared to be open-minded and maybe even lower some standards, it’s clear that Lyon remains a long way from being under threat from a state tweaker. He’s obviously among the first five or six certainties named whenever the selectors sit down to name a Test squad.
And so he should be.
But it would be nice if his understudy was a bit more obvious.