Is Nathan Lyon the world’s best finger spinner?
It was a question that was being asked by many after the 31-year-old claimed the wickets of India skipper Virat Kohli and M Vijay in the second innings at Perth – conveniently forgetting that a certain Ravichandran Ashwin might have a very legitimate claim to that title too.
But if you edit that question a little and instead ask: Is Lyon the world’s best spinner against Kohli? The answer comes that little bit easier. The off-spinner has now claimed Kohli’s wicket 7 times in Test cricket – more than any other bowler in world cricket.
Normally, Kohli would have figured out a solution by now. But there is no trick here. Lyon relies on good old-fashioned off-spin bowling to get his wicket. No doosra. Not even a proper arm-ball. He has three main weapons – a regular off-spinner, one that goes straight on and accuracy.
So Kohli would essentially need to counter him by either using his feet or using the sweep. He has been reluctant to use his feet, preferring to play Lyon, who gets a lot of overspin (and as a result, bounce), off the backfoot. And he does not play the sweep shot either.
Kohli tactics may also be dictated by the scoreboard. In this series, India has lost the openers early and that means the skipper comes in not with the mindset of dominating. Rather, he wants to make sure he doesn’t lose his wicket. It is an important change for a man who is all about intent.
So how does Kohli play Lyon? The right-hander has a natural shuffle towards the off-stump and because he has that, the off-spinner very cleverly drags him into playing off the front foot wide of the off-stump.
Kohli is brilliant on anything that is even remotely straight. He uses his wrists superbly. But this line of attack stifles him. It means he has to drive against the spin and that is just what an off-spinner would like.
Once Lyon has Kohli feeling comfortable facing that wide line, he starts making smaller adjustments. A little more drift, a little wider, a little closer, slightly better drop. He starts reeling him in the manner the old masters would.
Kohli’s wicket in the second innings was a prime example. The ball drifted away from the Indian skipper; it drew him outside the off-stump with the angle, pitching in amongst the other balls but seemingly moving wider, outside his eyeline, and provoked the edge.
The Indian skipper covered for the turn but it went straight on and through to first slip. He has dismissed Ajinkya Rahane in a similar manner in the first innings and his 333 Test wickets are proof of his skill.
Coming into the Perth Test, everyone was talking about pace and bounce. So much so that India decided to go into the match without a proper spinner. But there was no way, Australia was going to keep Lyon out. His record in Australia, on pitches that are not tailor-made for spinners, is outstanding.
Since the start of 2010, spin bowlers in Australia average 48.25 in Tests, comfortably the most difficult place for spinners in the world. But in these conditions, Lyon comes in and takes wickets (154 of them so far) at 32.43. Against India, he has already taken 15 wickets at 20.13.
Given how Paine has used Lyon so far and how Kohli has batted in the series, one can be sure that the off-spinner will be bowling a lot at the India skipper. The manner in which India learn to counter him could well decide which way the series goes.
His spell in the first innings didn’t just get him wickets – 34.5-7-67-5, but it also kept the pressure on. In the first Test, he did the same thing, ending up with bowling figures of 28-2-83-2 in the first innings and then 42-7-122-6 in the second innings.
There was a time when Indians would hit the opposition spinners out of the attack but those days are now history. Still, unless India find an answer to Lyon, they will struggle. The off-spinner will keep coming at them and perhaps, as he has done so many times in the recent past, Kohli will have to show India the way to counter him.
Kohli versus Lyon could very well be a battle that will define the series.