Australia will take just four specialist bowlers into their Twenty20 World Cup opener against South Africa, with Aaron Finch putting faith in all-rounders with the ball.
It was nice to hear the news that the Ashes tour will go ahead, presumably because Cricket Australia was able to meet various “critical conditions”.
Sadly, we don’t know what these are, but that matters not, at least for now. The Ashes tour is a goer; presumably all five Tests will be played, and that’s the most important thing.
England will likely announce their squad this week and there’s no doubt many will be trying to identify who are the key players from each team.
The obvious England player is Joe Root; while Australia supporters will be wondering how Dave Warner will go, who will open with him, what sort of numbers Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith will post and how Tim Paine will go in surely his last Ashes series as captain.
However, there are two other players, both bowlers, who I think hold the key to their teams’ chances in this series. For England, their man is Ollie Robinson. For Australia, it’s Nathan Lyon.
At first glance, many will be wondering why these two are so important. Most will think that veteran English quicks James Anderson and Stuart Broad will take the bulk of Australian wickets; and in reverse, that Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc will do likewise for the home side.
That may well be the final result, but much of their success will depend on those bowling at the other end. This is where Robinson and Lyon will have critical roles to play.
I didn’t know a lot about Ollie Robinson as a bowler before seeing him on debut against New Zealand earlier this year. When I heard his name mentioned, I thought the commentators had got it wrong and were really talking about Olly Stone, another very good fast bowling prospect.
At first glance, I couldn’t see why Robinson was chosen. He bowls around 130 – 135 kilometres per hour – hardly express pace. Yet in five Tests, he’s managed to take 28 wickets at an average of 19.6 and a strike rate of 44.6. That is an excellent start to a Test career in anyone’s book.
His strengths are his accuracy and ability to bowl repeat tight overs, forcing batsmen to play more often than not. He’s also durable, a perfect quality for a change bowler; as evidenced by the 208 overs he’s bowled in ten innings against the Black Caps and India in the English summer.
I see him as the glue that holds the England attack together. He can do a job at one end, while England rotate guys like Mark Wood, Broad and Anderson from the other. Robinson keeps things tight but as his figures suggest, he is a wicket-taker as well.
The obvious question is, how will he go in Australian conditions?
Robinson’s lack of pace could be an issue, but he bowls to his strengths. He’s a tall man – 1.96 metres or 6 ft 5 in the old measurement – and can get surprising bounce from a pretty good length.
Combine that with his accuracy, and he could prove a serious handful – particularly if he can generate similar ball movement down under to what he could in England. It would be a serious mistake for Australian batsmen to underestimate him, especially at the Gabba, Perth or under the lights in an Adelaide day-night Test.
It won’t be easy, though: rock hard pitches, high temperatures, lots of humidity, ungenerous Kookaburra balls, very generous Australian flies and crowds are all factors that Robinson will have to overcome in his first Ashes experience. If he can adapt and find a way, England’s chances of winning increase significantly.
Now onto Nathan Lyon, who is one of my all-time favourite cricketers. I thoroughly enjoy watching him bowl, especially in the latter part of his career.
It seems to have taken forever for him to be accepted as a seriously good spinner and even now, there are still those who doubt his ability. I’m not sure why. He’s been good enough to play 100 Tests for Australia. He’s also been good enough to take 399 Test wickets – as an off-spinner, in probably the most difficult place in world to bowl finger spin. Only Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath have taken more for Australia, while he’s almost tripled the previous-best haul by an Aussie off-spinner – Hugh Trumble’s 141 back in the uncovered-wicket days of post-World War I.
I don’t think there’s much doubt that his rise as a quality bowling option has coincided with the improvement of the Australian attack into a world-class unit; or that his off days and series have invariably led to the team struggling, as they did in a 2-1 home loss to India last summer with the ‘GOAT’ below his best.
Great teams rely on all bowlers making a contribution, and Lyon’s is regularly immense. He can keep things very tight at one end which allows Tim Paine to rotate his quicks from the other, in short bursts, keeping them fresh.
Lyon can bowl a lot of overs in a spell, which again is a huge bonus, especially in Australia. He’s also become very adept at removing left handers, or simply coming on and taking a wicket early in a spell.
Australia lose nothing in terms of pressure release when he comes on. He hits a length quickly and stays there – at least he used to.
I’ve been quietly concerned about Lyon’s bowling since midway through the Ashes series in England back in 2019. In the first three innings on that tour, Lyon took 12 wickets at 19, yet ended up only taking eight more wickets for the rest of the series, ending with an average of over 33. This suggests to me the English batsmen either worked him out, or sat on the rest of the attack and milked Lyon’s bowling.
Back in Australia, he had a quiet series against Pakistan but seemingly came good against the (then) 2nd-ranked Black Caps. He must have thought cricket was a fun game with series figures of 20 wickets at 17 and a strike rate below 40.
Then came the Indian tour, and quite simply ‘Garry’ struggled.
A lot of media space has been devoted to Mitchell Starc’s poor form last summer and many have been quick to blame him in large part, for Australia’s series loss. Those who have pilloried Starc missed the underwhelming series Lyon had too. 187 overs, nine wickets at an average of 55.11 and a strike rate of 124.60 are numbers so unlike Lyon’s usual returns, and the net effect on the attack was huge.
Rather than having a strong four-man attack, Australia was effectively down at least one bowler after the first Test. Lyon’s inability to take wickets and keep runs down, put a lot of pressure on the other three.
Lyon’s ineffectiveness impacted Starc to lift, but that wasn’t going to happen with the form he was in. It also put huge pressure on Cummins and Hazlewood to deliver. Asking two bowlers to come up trumps against a quality team like India was always going to be tough, and the series result showed that.
Lyon will celebrate his 34th birthday in November, so perhaps age is a factor. What’s more likely is that teams have learned to play him better and will target his bowling. Throw in pitches that do him few favours, and it’s probably no wonder Lyon has had problems in recent times.
‘Garry’ is still Australia’s first-choice spinner and rightly so, but there’s no doubt Australian selectors will want to see him bowling well before the Ashes starts. Spinners need to get the overs under their belts, which is why the early-season Shield games are critical for Lyon.
It doesn’t make a lot of difference how many wickets he takes, but it’s vital the ball comes out well with lots of spin, and he must look and feel comfortable getting through the crease in delivery. If he does, a confident Nathan Lyon should once again have a major impact on this series.