Lyon upstages quicks as humble tweakers enjoy rare turn in spotlight
9th December 2018

It is a sign of cricket’s reduced circumstances that the meek have inherited the earth. Those of humble bearing have prospered: round-shouldered Cheteshwar Pujara has been the leading batsman, but the big stars of the Adelaide Test match, the danger men, the excitement machines no less, have been the off-spinners.

Whoever thought a Test match would be was waiting for an off-spinner to come into the attack? In all four innings, the action has been on pause until Nathan Lyon or Ravichandran Ashwin has taken the ball. That Lyon and Ashwin should quicken pulses on Australian soil is a delightful raised spinning-finger to how things were forecast to be.

Man of the moment: Nathan Lyon takes his fifth wicket in India’s second innings.Credit:AAP

In the days of Mark Waugh or Adam Gilchrist, off-spinners were headed for obsolescence. For such batsmen and their successors in the T20 age, an off-spinner coming into the attack was the time for seat selection: pick your row and number for where the ball is going.

Before Lyon, the best an Australian off-spinner could hope for was as someone else’s sidekick, like Tim May playing Watson to Shane Warne’s Sherlock Holmes. Even when Lyon changed all that, Australia remained barren ground for visiting off-spinners as gifted as Muttiah Muralitharan, Graeme Swann and, four years ago, Ashwin himself.

In Adelaide, Lyon has always been pivotal. He has taken eight wickets in this match, earning due respect from the Indian batsmen and effectively standing between Australia and a four-day defeat. His bowling yesterday was another impressive stage in his career development. Where he used to be afraid to bowl too slowly, Lyon judged the pace of the wicket perfectly and let the ball hang in the clouds, unnerving the world’s best players of spin and forcing one after another into error.

As the humble rose to the top, the mighty fell. If Lyon is built like a slinky, Mitchell Starc is constructed like a Titan. But he is sailing more like the Titanic. While Josh Hazlewood and Patrick Cummins bowled with honest energy, Starc again got the trade-off between speed and accuracy wrong, letting his captain down when most needed.

Shining light: Lyon claimed six wickets in India’s second dig.Credit:AAP

His statistics have always tended to flatter, and his three wickets for 40 off 21.5 overs were again mendacious. Most of his dot balls were balls the Indian batsmen gladly watched fly by, two of his wickets came in the tail, and many of the 21 byes recorded against Tim Paine should have gone onto Starc’s account.

Starc had trouble with his footing, and perhaps that was a valid excuse. Like a sasquatch, his influence on the match was mostly mythical except for the footprints he left. The crater he gouged out of the wicket at the Cathedral end would be most helpful for Lyon and then Ashwin, both of whom bowled into that spot. Whether the batsmen were right-handed, like the Indians facing Lyon, or left-handed, like most of the Australians facing Ashwin, that spot was lurking in the corner of their eye and the spinners were skilful enough to exploit it.

Ashwin is a better bowler than last time in Australia, varying his loop and angles, combining side and over spin, and better disguising his changes of pace. It also helps that he is not bowling to Michael Clarke and Steve Smith. Like Lyon, he is more a character actor than a leading man and nobody could accuse him of being too comfortable in his skin.

Wearing his sunglasses, fiddling irritably with the sleeves of his polo shirt, he could be a professor dragged on a summer beach holiday. But it takes all sorts. His bowling to the Australians was as nagging and relentless as Warne making a commentary point. The batsmen did not have the option of switching off, only the inevitable exhaustion of trying not to give in.

It takes all sorts: Ravichandran Ashwin appears awkward but then so are his deliveries.Credit:AAP

In his control of length and flight, Ashwin was the parent and each of the Australian batsmen was a 16-year-old: they wanted so much to drive, but he just wouldn’t let them. Aaron Finch couldn’t reach the pitch of the ball, which jumped over his knee-roll and snaked up into uncertain regions before popping out to the close fielder.

Usman Khawaja suffered an uncomfortable hour against the seamers before Ashwin made him look rasher than he was, tossing it up, slowing it down, luring him through his swing a fraction too early. Khawaja, like an Australian bank, charged once too often, got caught out, and was accused of lacking responsibility.

As the match drifted towards its end and the gap between the teams was revealed, the one area where honours lay all square was off-spin. A modest breed, they lack the psychological complexity of leg-spinners and the obvious star power of the pacemen. Their wiles are subtle and their ways humble. In this of all summers, it is fitting that these honest old-fashioned artisans, who never needed anyone else to help them out by roughing up the ball, have stolen the show.

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