Pakistan v Australia Test - Men's

Left, right, left: Lyon's march back to the UAE

Spin star returns to the UAE a vastly different bowler, determined to disprove theory he has a weakness against right-handers

Louis Cameron

24 September 2018, 08:11 PM AEST


Louis Cameron is a Melbourne-based journalist. A former Victorian Bushrangers fast bowler, Louis joined the cricket.com.au team with assistance from the Australian Cricketers' Association's Internship Program in 2016.

Five years after being told by Australia's chief selector that he couldn't bowl to right-handers, Nathan Lyon has arrived in the UAE a master of his craft and freely mentioned in the same breath as Shane Warne by his next opponents.

The story of the wide-eyed groundsman from the bush who was whisked into South Australia's T20 team and within a few years ascended to become his country's greatest ever off-spinner is well told.

What is often glossed over is the fact his journey was nearly over before it had really begun.

Lyon's absence from the early stages of the 2013 Ashes series, just as he was beginning to find his feet at international level, became a footnote to the batting heroics of the player who took his spot, a fresh-faced debutant called Ashton Agar.

Lyon with the latest from the Aussie camp in Dubai

In Darren Lehmann's first Test as coach, Lyon was axed for the series-opener at Trent Bridge following a punishing tour of India earlier that year.

Agar's remarkable innings of 98 from No.11 overshadowed a subsequent realisation that, at that time, the teenager fit the tag of 'Test spinner' about as well as his comically oversized helmet.

"That took me by surprise," Lyon told cricket.com.au recently as he reflected on that omission. "(Selector) Rod Marsh came up and gave me that excuse of 'you can't bowl to right-handers'.

"It worked in my favour – because he told me I couldn't bowl to right-handers, all I did was bowl to right-handers in the nets to prove to myself, and also to Boof (Lehmann) and Rod, that I could bowl to right-handers."

While the inexperienced Agar didn't have Lyon's measure as a bowler, the senior spinner had seen how easily he'd been disposed of when a prospect who was younger, more athletic and more capable with the bat presented himself.

Lyon and Clarke at Old Trafford in 2013 // Getty
Lyon and Clarke at Old Trafford in 2013 // Getty

So when he was handed a recall for the third Test of that series at Old Trafford, Lyon treated it like his last.

"I got my opportunity in Manchester and I thought this was probably my last chance," he said. "If I got dropped again I'm probably not coming back, if I'm being brutally honest.

"I really needed to take my game to a new level, I needed to get stronger, I needed to get better in the field and with the bat.

"That was a real kick in the backside to get moving."

As it's turned out, that kick in the backside worked a treat; Lyon hasn't missed a single Test since.

His role in the redemption of the 2013-14 Ashes triumph on home soil was followed by the further glory in South Africa that saw Australia climb, albeit briefly, to the top of the Test rankings.

The subcontinent, however, remained a mystery to Lyon.

Australia looked to their main spinner to lead the way on subsequent tours but were swept by Pakistan in the UAE in 2014 and in Sri Lanka in 2016, as Lyon drew criticism for his lack of penetration in conditions seemingly well-suited to his craft.

Lyon bowls in Abu Dhabi in 2014 // Getty
Lyon bowls in Abu Dhabi in 2014 // Getty

But a breakthrough tour of India and a record-breaking campaign in Bangladesh last year, six Tests that delivered 41 wickets, saw him finally crack the code.

It's an improvement noted by Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed, who admits his side ruthlessly targeted Lyon four years ago in the belief he held little threat on subcontinental pitches that denied him the bounce he enjoyed at home.

"At the moment, Nathan Lyon is a far better bowler than when you're talking about four years ago," Sarfraz, who struck his maiden Test ton in that 2014 series against Australia, told cricket.com.au recently.

Sarfraz praises Lyon's gains, previews Test series

"Four years ago, we were playing really good cricket against Nathan Lyon. Our planning was whenever Nathan Lyon came on we have to go for him, so that’s why we went after him.

"At the moment, if you talk about now, Lyon is a far better bowler.

"He’s more experienced and he’s (approaching) 350 wickets and he's one of the best bowlers after Shane Warne."

Four years on from Pakistan’s 2-0 win over Australia in their adopted desert home, Sarfraz may have to hope for a different kind of edge over the vastly improved Lyon ahead of the rematch that begins next month.

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Pakistan fielded five right-handers in their top seven for their most recent Test and have another in Babar Azam who is set to return to their XI for the forthcoming series.

In a basic sense, the numbers back up the idea – floated by Marsh in 2013 – that Lyon is more effective against left-handers; according to CricViz, he averages 23.58 against lefties and 37.24 against right-handers across his Test career, while 28 of his 37 wickets during last summer's Ashes and the ensuing South Africa tour were left-handers.

Those statistics confirm the common wisdom that most spinners are more dangerous when their stock ball turns away from a batter. But further analysis suggests Lyon is far from ineffective when his stock ball spins in to a right-hander.

According to Opta, the 'false shot percentage' of both right- and left-handers against Lyon in Tests is roughly the same (17.0 per cent to 18.1). And his career economy rate to right-handers is 3.3 compared to 2.7 to lefties, both acceptable figures in modern cricket, especially for a spinner who plays home games in conditions that are traditionally unhelpful to his craft.

Perhaps more importantly, Lyon himself believes he's a bigger threat on sharp-turning surfaces to right-handers. He references his captivating battle with dogged South Africa opener Dean Elgar in Johannesburg earlier this year, where the left-hander dug in for more than six hours at the crease even though Lyon regularly spun the ball past his outside edge.

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"There's a lot of smoke and mirrors with left-handers," Lyon says.

"Spinning the ball away helps, but I also believe on big-spinning wickets it's actually harder to play the ball (when it's) spinning in.

"I know bowling when the wicket is spinning big, it's actually challenging to hit the stumps to a left-hander, as we saw in Jo'burg with Dean Elgar. To Dean's credit, he played me quite well; he played the line and the ball was just spinning too big (to get an edge).

"Whereas the right-handers, they have to take a lot more risks against me, whether it's attacking or defending. I felt more in the game bowling to right-handers. It depends on the line they face me on, whether they're batting on off stump (or not).

Spinning heroes with Shadab Khan

"You look at (former England batter) Ian Bell and those guys; (when I'm) bowling over the wicket, they move outside off-stump so it takes a lot of dismissals out of the game. (But) if I come around the wicket, I feel that's quite attacking to right-handers as well, bringing a lot more (dismissals) into play.

"If I can try and turn one early in my spell, no matter what game it is, a lot of guys can get a little bit nervous seeing the ball spin so much.

"I think it's pretty even."

And if Lyon can prove his theory correct and dominate Pakistan's right-handers over the next two Tests, Australia's first series triumph on Asian soil in more than seven years could well follow.

Qantas Tour of the UAE

Australia Test squad: Tim Paine (c), Ashton Agar, Brendan Doggett, Aaron Finch, Travis Head, Jon Holland, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitch Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Michael Neser, Matthew Renshaw, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc

Sep 29 - Oct 2: Tour match v Pak A, Dubai

Oct 7-11: First Test, Dubai

Oct 16-20: Second Test, Abu Dhabi

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