CricViz analysts Freddie Wilde and Ben Jones profiles Moeen Ali and Nathan Lyon.
Perennially underrated, Nathan Lyon has cemented himself as the first post-Warne Australian spinner to have a successful Test career, taking 269 Test wickets at an average of 31.83 with his guileful off-spin. Since his debut against Sri Lanka in 2011, the only spinners to have taken more wickets than Lyon are Rangana Herath and Ravichandran Ashwin, putting the Australian firmly in the elite-class of global spin bowlers. Whilst he does turn the ball, a key part of his threat is the bounce he generates; of the 17 spinners to take 50+ Test wickets since 2010, only Harbhajan Singh and Shane Shillingford get more than his 0.77m of bounce. Six of Lyon’s seven Tests in 2017 have been played on the subcontinent which has seen him increase his average speed in an effort to counter sweeping Asian batsmen. It will be interesting to see if he persists with such a strategy in different conditions in Australia.
Moeen Ali is an off-spinning all-rounder, who came into the England team to replace Graeme Swann after the 2013/14 Ashes tour, and has missed only one of England’s 45 Tests since then. He has had an inconsistent career to date, averaging an impressive 28.09 in his first year of international cricket, but his average rose to 39.94 in 2015 and then 53.02 in 2016. However, this year has seen that drop to a world-class 21.30, perhaps the result of an altered action which has reduced his average speed by 2.5kph. He has also bowled a wider, more attacking line to right-handers as his career has progressed, bowling 15cm further outside off in 2017 than he did in 2014.
Moeen and Lyon are both off spinners and the lone spinner in their respective teams, however beyond those foundational similarities they are notably different bowlers who perform different roles.
The main difference in their game and the main reason why Lyon has a superior Test average, is that the Australian maintains a better control of length. 65% of Lyon’s deliveries pitch on a good length, compared to 58% for Moeen, and whilst this may seem like a small difference, across a 15 over spell that amounts to an entire extra over of loose deliveries from Moeen. As such, the England spinner may take wickets at almost exactly the same rate as Lyon, but he concedes far more runs in between his dismissals.
LINE OF ATTACK
Against right-handers and left-handers Moeen’s average pitching length is around the edge of off stump, while Lyon is 6cm straighter to right-handers and 8cm wider to left-handers. In both instances Moeen’s line is more attacking because the wider line to right-handers tempts the drive while the straighter line to left-handers forces them to play. Countering these lines from Moeen is made more complicated by his drift of 2.19° (global average 1.63°) from right to left. Moeen’s strategy manifests itself in 35% of his dismissals being bowled or lbw compared to 26% for Lyon.
By bowling straighter than Moeen to right handers, Lyon utilises his additional bounce by challenging the shoulder of the bat and gloves. Indeed Lyon hits the batsmen’s gloves twice as frequently as Moeen and has collected 5% of his Test wickets off the batsmen’s gloves compared to 2% for Moeen.
The type of bowlers Moeen and Lyon are and the balance of the attacks they operate within define their differing roles.
Lyon, as part of a four-man attack is employed as a stock bowler who looks to keep things tight and hold up an end, while Moeen, as part of a five man attack is more of an attacking option. These roles are reflected in their workloads. Since both players made their debuts Moeen has bowled 17% of England’s total overs while Lyon has bowled 23% of Australia’s. Moeen’s average workload is 16.4 overs an innings, whilst Lyon’s averages 20.4 overs, nearly a quarter more than his English counterpart.
Australia are set to pick a four man bowling attack with no part-time bowlers to support them meaning Lyon is going to be needed to fulfil a holding role once again. England will want to use Moeen as an attacking option but given the likely inexperience of England’s fourth pace bowler in Ben Stokes’ absence Moeen may need to assume a more Lyon-like role.
Revealingly, Lyon is far more of a threat in the first innings of matches, taking 57% of his wickets in the first innings, compared to Moeen who takes 57% of his wickets in the second innings despite Lyon bowling second more often than Moeen. A possible explanation for this is that Lyon’s control and accuracy are a persistent threat on unforgiving surfaces, but as pitches deteriorate, Moeen’s attacking strategy comes into its own.
Since the start of 2010 spinners have only found an average of 3.29° of deviation when playing in Australia – less than in any other host country. It is unsurprising therefore, that in that time the spin average of 48.06 in Australia is higher than in any other country.
How each team approach the opposition’s spinner will be fascinating. The makeup of Australia’s attack means that if England were to successfully get after Lyon they could make life very difficult for Steve Smith who will be relying on Lyon for control. However, Lyon thrives on batsmen attacking him, dismissing them once every 30 attacking shots compared to the global average of 37. Given the strength of Australia’s pace attack England will be aware of the need to be positive against Lyon but they should remain wary not to gift their wickets to him – busy proactivity may be the way to go.
In the 2015 Ashes Australia took on Moeen, attacking 36% of his deliveries (global average 26%) which brought some success, seeing them average 45.50 against him. However, Moeen is an improved bowler since then and while attacking him may bring quick runs it could be costly. Interestingly Warner, Smith, Khawaja, Marsh and Handscomb look to use their feet to disrupt spinners’ length, but Moeen boasts an impressive average of 27.61 when batsmen come down the track to him. Instead Moeen struggles when batsmen sweep him, averaging 89.40 – but other than Warner Australia’s batsmen are reluctant to sweep. Unless England’s pacers have effectively choked Australia’s scoring then attacking Moeen is a risk they should not need to take.