England look to Africa to tame Lyon
Simon Harmer, the ex-Proteas tweaker who has 65 wickets at 17 in the County Championship, helps hosts tune up for Australian spin threat
Andrew Ramsey in London
14 August 2019, 02:11 AM AEST
England have enlisted a former South Africa Test off-spinner to help them devise means of combatting Australia dangerman Nathan Lyon in the upcoming second Ashes Test at Lord's.
Lyon bowled Australia to victory in the series opener at Edgbaston, claiming final-day figures of 6-49 on a dry, dusty surface that exposed England's batting frailties against quality spin bowling.
While forecasts of regular rain showers throughout the second Test, scheduled to start on Wednesday, suggest it will be the seamers that battle for supremacy, Lyon once again looms as a pivotal figure.
For that reason, England utilised at training this week the expertise of ex-South Africa spinner Simon Harmer who played five Tests for the Proteas in 2015 before opting to pursue a career in county cricket with Essex.
Harmer, who is of similar age (30) and height as Lyon, is currently the leading wicket-taker in division one of England's County Championship with 65 victims at 17.47 from 10 matches, including seven five-wicket hauls.
Lyon is the most successful Australia Test off-spinner of all time, with 352 wickets at 31.88 from 87 matches.
On current form, he is a strong chance to overtake Dennis Lillee (355 Test wickets) as his country's third-most successful Test bowler of all time behind modern greats Shane Warne (708) and Glenn McGrath (563).
The perceived threat that Lyon poses to England's batting is exemplified by the move to engage a specialist off-spinner at their main pre-Test training session at Lord's on Monday, now that regular off-break bowler Moeen Ali has been axed from the England squad.
Moeen has been replaced by left-arm finger spinner Jack Leach, but in order to gain practice against aggressive, quality off-spin, Harmer offered his services which were gratefully accepted.
"I think it's always good if you get the opportunity with someone who's had great success in country cricket in recent years," Root said of Harmer's involvement.
"For him to offer up his time and help us prepare was brilliant, a very good gesture from him and from Essex.
"You want to try and test yourself as much as you can in practice and he certainly helped us do that."
Root conceded that Lyon was simply too accomplished on the final day at Edgbaston, even though he believed his batters had played the spinner well in England's first innings.
Root himself was one of Lyon's six victims as Australia stormed to a 251-run win on day five, and was demonstrably annoyed with himself when he squeezed a catch to short-leg having made 28 in more than an hour and half at the crease.
He was one of five England batters caught by close-in fielders from Lyon's bowling on the final day, while the sixth – opener Jason Roy – was bowled when the pressure being exerted by the spinner led him to make a wild charge down the pitch and unleash an unsuccessful leg-side heave.
"I thought in the first innings we played him (Lyon) very well, and then as the conditions came more into his favour with the scoreboard pressure (Australia) had, it made it a lot easier for him to operate," Root said in reference to the opening Test.
"It’s a different pressure bowling like that, and he dealt with it very well.
"It’s fair to say, bar Jason (Roy), he bowled us out, so credit to him.
"We’ll have to make sure that if we find ourselves in a similar scenario throughout the four (remaining Ashes) games we try and combat that a little bit differently.
"Being a little bit smarter, trying to take those men around the bat out of the equation a little bit more.
"But it’s how you do that with minimal risk - which is always the art of batting, especially in the fourth innings of the game – against a high quality spinner like Nathan."
Given the forecast of heavy rain on Wednesday and further showers possible on Friday and Saturday, there is speculation that England might opt against playing a specialist spinner and instead employ five seamers.
While that would be a bold call and likely leave the role of front line spinner to Root with support from occasional leg spinner Joe Denly, it also underscores the role that Moeen played in balancing the team when in form.
Root acknowledged that England's leading Test wicket-taker for the past year was obviously out of form, but backed Moeen to regain touch in the county T20 competition for Worcestershire and force his way back into the Test XI.
That was the case last summer when Moeen was overlooked for the first five Tests, against Pakistan – including a match at Lord's, on what is expected to be a similar pitch to that prepared for the upcoming Ashes battle – and India.
But on the strength of his efforts in domestic cricket, Moeen was recalled for the season's final two Tests in which he claimed 12 wickets, and then played a vital role in subsequent campaigns in Sri Lanka and the West Indies.
"I've spent a good while chatting to Mo (Moeen), making sure he understood where we're at in terms of getting him back to his best," Root said.
"We feel that going to play some county cricket and performing well for Worcester (will achieve that) as he proved last summer, coming into that India series and having a massive influence on it.
"There's no reason why he can't go back and do the same again, and force his way back into the squad.
"He's been a big part of English cricket, he's done some fantastic things in a Test shirt and it's certainly not the last we'll see of him.
"He's a fine cricketer and he's a great man, he gives so much to this team and I'm sure it won't be long until you see him back."
2019 Qantas Ashes Tour of England
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c), Cameron Bancroft, Pat Cummins, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner.
England squad: Joe Root (c), Jofra Archer, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Joe Denly, Jack Leach, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes (vc), Chris Woakes.
First Test: Australia beat England by 251 runs at Edgbaston
Second Test: August 14-18,Lord's
Third Test: August 22-26, Headingley
Tour match: Australians v Derbyshire, August 29-31
Fourth Test: September 4-8, Old Trafford
Fifth Test: September 12-16, The Oval