Somewhere at the end of September and beginning of October last year, Nathan Lyon had already hit the nets, and started watching videos of the batters. It wasn’t for West Indies or South Africa but rather for India, a challenge that was still six months away.
Winning in India is like the ultimate glory for teams that are playing Test cricket. Australia had probably challenged India quite well during their last tour in 2017 but walked back losing it 1-2 after winning the first Test in Pune. The scars were intact, and for the veterans, including Lyon, this was payback time.
“It is bloody hard to play cricket here, it (India) is so foreign for you and your teammates. The pressure is immense, and there’s a lot of opinion from the outside, it is bloody hard,” said Lyon in the Unplayable Podcast ahead of the fourth Test in Ahmedabad.
By then, Australia had already conceded the series after losing in Nagpur and New Delhi but their win in Indore, architected by Lyon and co, gave them a sniff. No visiting team had managed to win more than one Test against India in India since 2013.
The only team that has more than a Test win in India in the past decade is Steve Smith’s Australia.
But even after the Indore win, every word that came out of Lyon’s mouth had ‘hunger’ written all over it. If that wasn’t evident, Lyon talked about how for the youngsters it was another Test but for senior pros, it was a series to make a statement.
There is a high chance that Lyon might never make another trip to India, considering he’s 35. Thinking about it, six months of hard work was undone in a frenzied session in New Delhi, and Lyon was adamant that it was in those kinds of situations which differentiate cricketers from superstars, and Australia missed a big chance.
"It's been a tough challenge. We knew it was going to be tough but it's been rewarding. I think our group can take a lot out of it,” he said after the series, in Ahmedabad, after toiling on a placid surface that required bowlers to stand out with guile and skills.
Rohit Sharma has played 20 Tests at home, and has an average of 58.58 against spin, having faced bowlers like Rangana Herath. But the Indian skipper insisted that he hasn’t faced any overseas spinner better than Lyon. It is natural for the recency bias within players to kick in, but this was more than just that.
This was India’s toughest home Test in a long time. Since losing the series against England in 2012-13, India have played 12 Tests at home, facing the likes of England, South Africa, West Indies, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh but none have won more games in the country than Australia.
It was Lyon’s third tour to the country, and by far his best in India, and the best for any visiting spinner in the country. India is quite a spin-friendly country but even then, none of the spinners, including the great Muttiah Muralitharan, have left a long-lasting legacy like the former curator.
The greatest spinner to have ever played in India – Derek Underwood – had just 54 wickets, and Lyon went past him having bowled in ten fewer innings.
So, if anything, Rohit was both rhetorically and literally right.
In fact, Lyon is the best visiting bowler to have played against India, and the list is quite illustrious, with the likes of Courtney Walsh, Malcom Marshall, Richie Benaud featuring.
“He has got so much consistency in his line and length. When someone is bowling with that accuracy you have to try and do something different to score runs,” this is how Rohit had worded his opinion on Lyon’s bowling, and his assessment, if anything, is accurate.
The last six months were quite busy for Lyon, with his training and practice, but he reaped rich rewards for his efforts.
It wasn’t just Rohit who came out post the series win saying that ‘Lyon is always on his mark’ and can test your patience. India head coach Rahul Dravid, in the press conference after the series, hailed this Australian spin attack as the best to visit India since Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann left the Indian shores way back in 2012.
Chennai, 2013: Lyon returned with a spell of 4/244 in the opening encounter against India.
The result? He was dropped for the Hyderabad Test, where Australia played spinners Xavier Doherty and Glenn Maxwell with Lyon and his close ally, Mitchell Starc, running the drinks. An economy of 4.5 and an average of 65, Lyon was perhaps closer to getting the axe than getting to the team.
"I did have times where you come back into your hotel room and you go, 'shit, is my career done?'” Lyon told cricket.com.au.
That’s when a simple yet invaluable piece of advice from the then Australian captain, Shane Watson, arrived — ‘Roll your sleeves and get in the fight’. It ended up turning Lyon’s career around.
It was Delhi, an unlikely place that turned his career around. A career-best back then, a seven-wicket haul which included prized scalps such as Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar turned the off-spinner’s career the right way.
Prior to that Test back in 2013, Lyon had played just 20 Tests, and if not for the words of wisdom, we could have perhaps seen the last of the off-spinner in Test cricket.
Fast-forward to 2023, when Australia headed to the Arun Jaitley Stadium for the second Test, a familiar proposition met Lyon. In the opening Test in Nagpur, a pitch that had enough turn for the spinners, indicated by the seven wicket-haul for Todd Murphy, Lyon drew a ‘blank’ and that put all kinds of doubts on the off-spinner’s caliber.
Murphy had seven, Ashwin had eight, and both the off-spinners ran riot. Australia were in a proper conundrum, whether to go with three spinners, a proposition that they had only thought about twice since Lyon had made his Test debut.
But unlike 2013, Lyon had the management’s trust, and his form turned around immediately in the second Test in Delhi, where he ended up with seven wickets.
But another flashback from 2013 – a second-innings collapse – from Australia was enough for India to retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
“Thinking about it for six months, gone in a blink of an eye - I was really deflated after Nagpur and Delhi, these are the types of positions where you need to find a way to survive and compete in this part of the world,” Lyon added in the podcast.
“In Delhi, we let it slip within a session, it was very disappointing. It is not on the same kind of wickets that you played before. It happens quickly, it is tough to stop or slow down the game.”
And it was exactly that, Australia lost nine wickets in the span of just 110 deliveries, and added only 48 runs on the board.
All of this wasn’t a bad dream; it certainly wasn’t what Lyon and co hoped for it to be. It happened quickly, and Australia were caught napping.
The turnaround between the Delhi Test and Indore Test was ten days. Across two Tests, the series had already set a precedent for turning more than any team has witnessed over the last decade in the country. A long-break in this circumstance often helps the team that are leading the series 2-0.
But in Indore, it helped the Australians. In Lyon’s own admission, “The break did wonders” and that was evidently visible on a surface that spun from the first session of play. How did Australia spark a comeback? Matthew Kuhnemann’s five-wicket haul on day one tilted the game in Australia’s favour immediately.
Even when the scoreboard would paint that tale, the importance of Lyon in Indore during India’s first innings had the biggest impact. Pujara has been a long-standing nemesis for Australia, and on a personal level, the worst nightmare for Lyon himself.
In 2017, the off-spinner had quickly learnt first-hand that dismissing the other Indian batters was, at times, an easier proposition than dismissing the rugged Pujara, who has a technique best suited for grounding on pitches that have other batters on their toes. It took the 34-year-old just two balls to strike, just one against Pujara to leave him bamboozled.
There was a big element of luck in that dismissal, the ball shot low like it was deflected off a sharp surface. It didn’t just shoot low, it also turned sharply, leaving the Indian red-faced. In the two tours to India that preceded this, Lyon knew what it meant to not only go toe-to-toe against Pujara but end up being second-best on every occasion.
In 2013, he averaged 32.5. Four years later, the average shot up to 37. A full ten years later, the average has gone down to 16.3.
No other bowler has dismissed Pujara as many times as Lyon but the improvement across the three tours would be down to clarity. There was a specific plan this time around compared to the 2017 series.
87.3% of the deliveries from Lyon to Pujara in the recently concluded series was in the good length region, whereas only 58.7% were bowled in that region in the previous tour. It doesn’t restrict to just Pujara but to beat the stubbornness of Pujara in such a manner, only few bowlers have done is quite breath-taking.
Additionally, no spinner has dismissed Pujara as many times as Lyon has (eight), the next best is Graeme Swann, thrice. Barring Kohli, Axar Patel and Shami, Lyon dismissed all the other Indian batters at least once in the series. To add to that, the likes of Gill, Iyer, Bharat all averaged less than 20 against the off-spinner, showing why he stands a class apart.
"The Aussie spinners have been exceptional, led by Nathan Lyon. He has been brilliant for Australia for many years, but right through the series he was exceptional, the kind of pressure and control he gave Cummins and Smith was outstanding," Dravid had to say post the series win against Australia.
During his time as a cricketer, Dravid has gone up against all the best spinners, including Muralitharan and Shane Warne. So, these words can’t be taken with a pinch of salt. It was an Australian spin attack that barring Lyon in total had zero Test experience. When Kuhnemann was handed his Baggy Green, Murphy was one Test old.
For such a green bowling attack to get such high praise is quite rare. Rarer when you realise that bowling on pitches in Australia and then in India could have two completely different propositions. Australian spinners averaged 26.3, and picked up 45 wickets. An experienced Indian spin unit picked up 50 wickets.
Since 2012, including the famous English spin duo, Australian spinners have fared the best in India, with an average of 29.4. In 2013 the Australian spinners picked up 27 and this figure rose to 38 in 2017 but to pick up 45 wickets, which they did in 2023, is some feat.
To think that neither Kuhnemann nor Murphy had made their debut before the series, and yet were involved in the best ever spin attack to visit India, is astonishing. Just for context, in 2012, the English spin duo averaged 28.6 and picked up 39 wickets.
Lyon-Murphy-Kuhnemann averaged 26.3, and picked up 45 wickets. It wouldn’t have been possible if not for the influence of Lyon on this bowling crop.
“I was a bit taken aback (Rohit’s comments), it is more than the stats, someone like Rohit Sharma is one of the greats of the game, and especially here in India. He’s dominated international cricket, for him to come out with such kind words, it is more valuable than the wickets you have picked.”
And ultimately all that Lyon did in this series was roll up his sleeves and get into the fight. His hair might have turned grey, he might have turned 34 but the quick-witted off-spinner indeed forged a fire in India’s own backyard.
Rohit was right and wrong. Nathan Lyon isn’t one of the best spinners to have visited India. He’s the best bowler to have ever visited India in Test history.