Patrick Noone looks at how Nathan Lyon spun Australia to victory at Edgbaston.
For a spinner, the fourth innings of a Test match is something of a double-edged sword. Particularly in turning conditions, there is an expectation that the spinner will step up and win the game for the team bowling second, using conditions to their advantage and running through the opposition.
It is something of a unique, lonely pressure within cricket. Yes, all players are constantly required to contribute to their team’s chances, either through weight of runs or wickets, but it’s rare that players who perform other roles find themselves in a scenario in which they’re expected to step up and deliver the telling blow in the same way as a spinner is required to do in the fourth innings.
It’s a pressure that not all spinners are able to deal with. Often there are match situations where we all think ‘the stage is set for so-and-so’ but they’re unable to deliver. Today was not one of those occasions for Nathan Lyon.
Before this Test, Lyon’s record was a peculiar one in that he averaged more with the ball in the fourth innings of matches than any other. Only fractionally, but enough to make Lyon an anomaly among spinners worldwide; overall, spinners average 28.08 in the fourth innings in the last 20 years, compared to 41.80, 36.85 and 31.08 in innings one, two and three, respectively.
In England, Lyon was even more unusual before today. His fourth innings average on these shores was an astronomical 65.50, far higher than the overall spinners’ average of 27.22.
But on an Edgbaston pitch that was offering an average of 5.0° of turn, more than any previous match at this venue since 2006, Lyon was able to deliver the kind of performance his captain needed, taking six wickets to spin Australia to a 1-0 series lead.
Edgbaston has been a spin-friendly venue this summer. The World Cup match between New Zealand and Pakistan was memorable for the prodigious spin on offer, even for the likes of Mitchell Santner and Kane Williamson. In the County Championship, spinners have averaged 19.42 in Birmingham, the lowest of any venue in the competition.
Simply having conditions in your favour is no guarantee of success though, and Lyon has not always been able fulfil that traditional role of final innings, fifth day destroyer. Today though, Lyon was on the money right from his introduction in the 18th over, up until his double wicket strike that removed Moeen Ali and Stuart Broad, finally killing off any lingering hopes England might have had of saving the game.
Lyon landed 52% of the balls he bowled today on a good line and length, the most accurate he’s ever been on the fifth day of a Test. There was not much that Lyon did that was spectacular, but he did the basics exceptionally well. He is not a bowler with a plethora of variations to experiment with. Rather than doosras and carrom balls, it was simply high quality off-spin bowling; dragging his length back a touch to the right-handers to bring short leg into play if he could find some uneven bounce, pitching it fuller and wider to the left-handers in order to turn it away and draw the outside edge.
Of Lyon’s six victims, only Jason Roy can be said to have got himself out, rather than be got out, when he charged down the pitch and was bowled. Each of the other five fell into the traps Lyon had set – right-handers Joe Root and Joe Denly prodding to short leg, left-handers Ben Stokes, Moeen and Broad edging to slip.
The ups and downs of Lyon’s career have been well-documented, and it has not always been the case that he’s been an automatic selection, remarkable as that seems on the day he took his 350th wicket in Tests. As recently as 2016, his position in the side was under threat, but there are few who can doubt his claim to be the best red ball spinner in world cricket right now.
Confidence, that precious commodity sought by all sportspeople, is something that Lyon has in abundance right now. Confidence to know that he can be trusted to perform the dual role of holding up and end as well as taking wickets. Confidence to know that when he’s thrown the ball in the fourth innings, he can step up and win the game for Australia.
Comparisons will inevitably be made between the performances of Lyon and Moeen, a player for whom confidence is so often the difference between soaring successes and spectacular failures. Those comparisons are somewhat unfair on Moeen in the sense that Lyon is simply a better bowler and mastered his craft as an off-spinner many years prior to his opposite number.
But the gulf can rarely have been wider between the two spinners than it was across days four and five. Moeen, who toiled gamely for little reward until Joe Denly’s part-time leg-spin was preferred to him, was unable to take the wickets England desperately needed to retain the initiative in the match.
Lyon, on the other hand, stepped up and delivered what was required with confidence, skill and wickets. Steve Smith was player of the match, but Lyon was player of the day; he’ll be leading the victory song with a little more gusto than normal.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.