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Lyon, Head pull things back on either end of India's lower-order brilliance

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Last updated on 18 Feb 2023 | 06:07 PM
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Lyon, Head pull things back on either end of India's lower-order brilliance

Both teams defied each other but Australia edge out India through Travis Head's counter-attack in the final 30 minutes of play

Lyon roars out loud

Cricket can be a weird sport sometimes. You just need to go back to Dom Bess’ words after a five-wicket haul in Sri Lanka in January, 2021. "I didn't feel like I bowled very well. It was bizarre. I haven't had a five-for like that before,” Bess said as his five-for was loaded with poor stroke-making by the opposition batters. He also mentioned there would be days he will bowl much better without getting the rewards. 

Nathan Lyon would have resonated with those words. He bowled pretty tightly in the Nagpur Test (49-13-126-1) but it was Todd Murphy who fetched all the limelight for his seven-wicket haul on debut. Lyon, however, didn’t move away from his methods and it paid rich dividends on Day 2 of the Delhi Test. 

Consistency and patience have been the key factors in Lyon’s rise. He doesn’t have the variations of Ravichandran Ashwin. In Australia, his trait is about pitching the ball in the right areas, to extract the extra bounce while turning the ball just enough at a tight angle. The extra bounce is obviously unavailable in India. Lyon still stuck to his strength, playing the consistency and the patience game. 

Except, he had the reward factor going his way, which was absent in Nagpur. Within three overs of his new spell, Lyon had figures three big wickets in his pocket - KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara. Three overs later, he added Shreyas Iyer to his tally. 

Australia brought in the left-arm spinner Matthew Kuhnemann, citing the dubious record of a few Indian batters against the bowling type. But it was Lyon who roared out loud. All his five wickets were of right-handers, KS Bharat being the fifth. 

The 35-year old bowled 15.2 overs against the right-handers out of which 14 were bowled from around the wicket. Lyon bombarded the perfect area; the line around the off stump and the length that drew the batters forward without letting them reach the ball. That is how he trapped Pujara and Rahul. Rohit gained the time to read the ball by going back but was still castled on what was a straighter delivery. 

India managed to get back on track with a lower-order partnership. Lyon had a chance to dismiss both but was let down by the close-in fielders. In any case, his spell of 5/67, holds the potential to turn the series, depending on how the visitors are able to make it count on Day 3. 

India’s lower-order to the rescue

There was a time when India’s lower-order had minimal contribution. From 2018 until July 2021, India’s last four batters (number 8 to 11) averaged only 13.4 runs per wicket. Since then, the number has soared up to 20. In India, the number is 30.3. And this series, it is 40.7 runs per wicket. 

It is highly significant given India’s top-order is prone to tweakers. Rohit’s hundred in Nagpur has boosted the average of India’s top four this series to 32.9, still 7.8 runs lower than that of the last four. 

Ravindra Jadeja bats at six but Axar Patel has been the main hero. In Nagpur, he scored 84 off 174 deliveries, boosting India’s score from 240/7 to 400, batting at number nine. On Saturday (February 18), he walked in at a grimmer point. India were 135/6, staring at a big first-innings trail. However, in successive innings, Axar the batter stood up, this time scoring 74 off 115 deliveries. Ashwin contributed with 37 off 71 balls. By the time their stand was broken, India were only 9 runs away from Australia’s first innings total. It is almost a cheat code. 

For long, India wanted to replicate England’s bowling model, where everyone in the tail could bat. However, they forgot that England were not compromising their bowling in order to load their tail with batting talent. They were lucky that their first-choice seamers could bat. In Ashwin, Jadeja and Axar, India finally have three first-choice spinners who can add value with the bat, which makes them further invincible in home conditions. If the top-order doesn’t get you, the lower-order will. 

A blessing in disguise

The day started with David Warner subbing out for the Test. He copped multiple blows on Day 1 which led to a concussion and a hairline fracture. As unfortunate as it is, the development turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Aussies. And to their credit, they have been proactive in making things go their way. 

Australia had only 13 overs (eventually 12 overs were bowled) to bat after bundling out India late in the session. They only gained a 1-run lead. There were two options to tackle those few overs; a) defend through with the opening pair of Usman Khawaja and the replacement player in Matt Renshaw, b) attack through Travis Head. 

While the second one was riskier, the first would have allowed India’s spin trio to put pressure which, based on the proceedings of the series, could have pinned Australia down. The visitors went for the latter and Head, defying his subpar record in Asia, went on to score 39 off 40 balls. Head’s effort has been a counter to India's fightback through their lower-order. It was evident when Ashwin erred with a full toss, which the left-hander smashed for a six. Australia are 61/1, putting some pressure back on the hosts and setting up things nicely for Day 3. 

The same counter-attack seems inconceivable with Warner who has struggled for runs in Asia. 

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