While India’s newfound control of Australian superstar Steve Smith is attracting heavy attention, it’s largely gone unnoticed the tourists have established a dominance over off spinner Nathan Lyon.
In his last four Tests against India, all played in Australia, Lyon has snared just nine wickets at 53. Meanwhile, the Indian spinners have run riot in those same matches, combining for 25 wicket at 20.
The most prolific Australian finger spinner in history is being comprehensively out-bowled in his own backyard.
Lyon now faces the task of trying to reassert himself against India at the SCG, a venue where he’s consistently laboured, averaging 38 across his nine Tests at the ground.
India, in particular, have flayed him in Sydney. Lyon averages 55 in his three Tests against India at the SCG. Last time the teams met at this ground, Lyon was forced to send down 57.2 overs in India’s only innings as they churned out a mammoth total of 7-622.
Cheteshwar Pujara has been central to India’s quelling of Lyon across those past four Tests. TV commentators this summer have repeatedly mentioned Lyon’s supposedly good Test record against India’s first drop, with his ten career dismissals of Pujara the most of any bowler worldwide.
It’s true Lyon troubled Pujara earlier in his career. In the first three series in which they faced off, Lyon dismissed him seven times at an average of 33.
Since the start of the 2018-19 series in Australia, however, Pujara has blanketed Lyon. Over those six Tests, Lyon has sent down a whopping 441 deliveries to the Indian, yet managed to dislodge him just three times at an average of 69.
Pujara’s success in that time has been built on his swift footwork. No batsman in world cricket is more effective at coming down the wicket against spinners.
While some players do this as an aggressive tactic, aiming to get to the pitch of the ball and loft down the ground, Pujara also employs it defensively. By skipping down the track at slow bowlers he reduces the threat posed by the close-in fielders.
That’s because when he’s defeated in the flight and the ball catches his inside edge or his glove, it tends to lob back towards the bowler, out of reach of the men at short leg or silly mid-off. Those fieldsmen are positioned for batsmen playing from the crease. They are also key to Lyon’s bowling.
Because when Lyon’s opponents consistently stay in their crease, his sharp turn and bounce brings those close-in fielders into play. With those fieldsmen looming, waiting for a minor error in front or backfoot defence, batsmen can begin to doubt the foundation of their game.
We saw this last summer against New Zealand. The Kiwi batsmen were surprisingly timid against Lyon, rarely using their feet or employing the sweep, and instead playing him mostly from the crease.
As a result, Australia’s close-in fielders were constantly in the action, with Lyon hoarding 20 wickets, his biggest ever haul in a three-Test series.
By comparison, the Kiwi spinners were impotent. This summer, things have been flipped, with Lyon unable to create pressure, and the Indian slow bowlers muddling the minds of the Aussie batsmen.
Even Australia’s two best players of spin, Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, have looked uncertain against Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, and seemingly concerned about the presence of close-in fielders.
When Ashwin is bowling, in particular, these fieldsmen have been busy. To Smith and Labuschagne, Ashwin has been operating with two men in close on the leg side – a short leg and a leg slip. To the right handers, Ashwin’s bowled much straighter than Lyon.
The Aussie has mostly kept a traditional line, pitching the bowl well outside off stump and looking to turn the ball back between bat and pad to kiss the edge of that same stump. Ashwin, by comparison, has more regularly adopted what used to be considered a defensive line, targeting the batsmen’s pads.
Spinners in the past tended to use this approach as a last resort, stacking the leg side to stem the run rate. Not so for Ashwin. He’s employing it as an attacking weapon.
The same way Lyon aims to get batsmen to doubt their defence, Ashwin is trying to make the Aussie batsmen second guess their leg-side play.
Glancing a delivery off their pads – a reflexive and safe shot for most batsmen – suddenly becomes a risky proposition against Ashwin. He is attempting to turn the instincts Smith, Labuschagne and co against them. So far it is working brilliantly.
Meanwhile, Lyon is maintaining the same strategy that brought him success early in the last series against India, and in their previous encounter in 2017.
But the Indian batsmen have adapted, the same way their bowlers have changed tack against Smith. The tourists are no longer rooted to their crease consistently against Lyon and bringing the close-in fielders into play.
Perhaps Lyon can turn the tide in Sydney without having to change his approach. The signs are strong, however, that India’s batsmen have his measure.