Ben Jones analyses the ongoing battle between the stars of the Indian and Australian sides.
Gather round children, and let me tell you the fable of The Goat and The King. Nathan Lyon – The GOAT – is the best spin bowler in the world. Virat Kohli – The King – is the best batsman in the world.
Down the years, they’ve come together several times, old foes reunited. No bowler has dismissed Kohli more often than Lyon in Test cricket. Many have tried to remove the Indian captain from the crease, but only a few have succeeded.
Interestingly, both have had the better of the battle when out of their comfort zone, away from home. In India, with surfaces far more welcoming than the ones on which he’s learned his craft, Lyon has got at Kohli; in Australia, where Indian batsman are fated to fail the moment they experience any success in Asia, Kohli has dominated Lyon. In line with the conditions, perhaps, but topsy-turvy nonetheless.
The defining feature of their battle has always been subtlety. There have been false shots 9% of the time, slightly less than Kohli’s overall average of 10%, but he’s attacked 22% of Lyon’s deliveries, less than his average against spin in general. The King slows down when Lyon comes on. Unlike his other great rivalry, with James Anderson, there’s no naked aggression when these two come together at the crease. It demands close attention, but it deserves it. When these two come together, the game slows down, the match pauses, and we all lean in.
And for good reason. Because when greatness meets greatness, it’s worth watching.
The punch and counter-punch between the two in Perth over the past few days has been compelling. In the first innings here, Kohli played Lyon superbly. He had a clear tactic – he would happily play against the spin into the vacant area in front of square on the off-side, simultaneously taking on the field and received wisdom, in one fell swoop. It only yielded 14 runs, but the rest of Australians right-handers only mustered 15 combined. This was a tactic only Kohli felt he was able to execute, and he did it with aplomb.
On top of this, Kohli backed himself to manipulate Lyon, and send similar deliveries to different parts of the field. Blessed with those supple wrists, the Indian skipper has the technical ability to whip balls into leg from wide outside off, and the quick hands to force straighter deliveries away into off. It reduced the effectiveness of that wider line, because Kohli could hit them into leg if he wished. Lyon was on the ropes, the Indian only forced from the field by a dubious catch at the other end.
So, as Kohli’s tactic had worked, Lyon changed his. In the second innings, he came out and bowled straighter, acknowledging that the approach hadn’t worked. In the first innings, 11% of the balls Lyon bowled to Kohli had been wide outside off; not a single one in the second innings was on that line.
The ball which dismissed him today wasn’t a ripper. He was finding just 2.4° of spin, around 20% less than he found to Kohli in the first innings. It wasn’t showy or particularly demonstrative in its brilliance, in its deception. It crept up on you and only revealing itself as excellent on closer inspection. They do say dogs look like their owners.
The wicket-ball was more notable for the drift Lyon had imparted on it. 1kph slower than the previous delivery, it looped ever so slightly more, with 1.5° of movement away from the outside edge of the Indian captain. That was 50% more than the previous delivery Lyon had bowled to him. These are tiny margins, tiny differences, but they say a grain of sand is enough to completely destroy a computer chip. Delicate systems are corrupted by fine changes. The King had middled the previous shot; this one, he edged.
It was the seismic moment in the match. India’s chances of victory with WinViz were 13% as Lyon ran up to bowl the delivery, but by the time Kohli crossed the boundary rope it was 3%. India’s finest batsman gone, removed by Australia’s finest bowler. It was the sort of encounter that is supposed to decide Test matches, and on this occasion, it had.
Yet the rivalry between these two is starting to rise above individual Test matches, perhaps even above individual series. These are two all-time greats, repeatedly doing battle, over and over, in contests that have spilled over into aggression and intensity unlike other less high-profile contests. Their personal rivalry is coming to define the broader battle between these two teams.
Part of the joy of it is that these are such conflicting figures, in terms of their standings. Kohli’s greatness has been destined, pre-ordained for seemingly decades; Lyon has had to sustain it for years before anyone truly acknowledged his. Kohli holds the prime position, No.4 all-format gun batsman – Lyon is an off-spinner, the least immediately cool of any cricketing role. Of course, these contrasts only amplify the greatness of this rivalry in a cricketing sense, but they give it a sparkle.
The moral of the tale, if there is one, is that there’s room for different kinds of greatness. The prince, born to lead, can grow into a compelling genius, adored by millions. But there’s room for the goat, the man clinging onto the edge of the game, more survivor than leader. Today, it went Lyon’s way, and at Melbourne it may go the other way. After one innings without a ton, it feels like Kohli’s due another. But when he walks out to bat, if the ball is soft, we know who Tim Paine will be tossing the ball to.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.