Sumptuous cricketing battles in Australia have effectively been about aggressive batsmen again fiery pace, and the pink-ball Test in Adelaide first up will add swing bowling to the equation. Not an ideal setting for spin, but that should only fire up the generation’s finest off-spinners, R Ashwin and Nathan Lyon.
At 34, this Test series may be Ashwin’s last big opportunity to make an impact, in Australia and on numbers overseas. In 2018-19, he took six wickets in a day Test in Adelaide to help India go 1-0, but broke down to play no further part in a series that ended in a historic victory for India .
Fitness apart, Ashwin will need to convince the management he is the specialist tweaker they need in a pink-ball game. Lyon has been a Test regular for Australia thanks to consistency around the world. And he averages a superb 23.44 in the four pink-ball Tests Australia have played, and won, at Adelaide.
Visiting spinners have struggled in Day/Night Tests. New Zealand’s Mitchell Santner (left-arm 31) and Mark Craig (off-spinner 37) shared just three wickets while Pakistan’s Yasir Shah returned 0/197 last year. Fellow leg-spinner Tabraiz Shamsi of South Africa averaged 75 (2/150). England’s Moeen Ali didn’t take a wicket (29-3-99-0).
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While Lyon is certain to play, Ashwin has a modest overseas record. And but for Ravindra Jadeja’s injury, he would have to also contend with the latter’s better batting and electric fielding. Hanuma Vihari’s part-time off-spin too can tempt India to pick an extra seamer. Ashwin’s challenge is clear.
Still, the Lyon-Ashwin rivalry is certain to emerge as the series unfolds. The career of Lyon, 32, has run parallel to Ashwin’s. Their overall hauls are not far apart, though Lyon has an advantage. Flatter pitches and a kookaburra ball not great to grip are at his home turf. Friendly sub-continent conditions are a bonus.
There is little to separate in terms of overall numbers. Lyon has 390 wickets in 96 Tests while Ashwin has a tally of 365 in 71. Lyon though has 191 scalps in 48 home Tests, including 51 in 11 versus India.
Ashwin’s early coach is confident he will have plans in place if picked for Adelaide. On the 2018 England Test series, at a seaming Edgbaston, Ashwin bowled Alastair Cook cheaply in both innings. This time, Steve Smith, a right-hander unlike the retiring Cook, looms as a far bigger threat.
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“I want him to surprise the pundits, surprise billions of others by getting a match-winning spell,” says Sunil Subramaniam, a former Tamil Nadu left-arm spinner who first noticed Ashwin at a state coaching camp and guided him.
Doing well in Adelaide will be crucial for Ashwin when Jadeja regains fitness. But in seven Tests in Australia, he has 27 wickets at an average of 48.07 and a strike rate of 94.78. For his 254 wickets at home, he only has 111 away.
Shivlal Yadav, who was India’s main off-spinner on the 1981-82 and 1985-86 tours of Australia, says the key is to adapt.
“To succeed in Australia, the basic thing is to flight the ball. Flight and impart finger spin and you will get the same amount of help from the pitch. The faster you bowl, easier it is for the batsmen. That is why S Venkatraghavan was not that successful in Australia while EAS Prasanna (31 wickets in 8 Tests) always was and I did reasonably well,” said Yadav, who took 23 wickets in five Tests in Australia.
Ashwin was in good rhythm in IPL though a shoulder injury forced him to sit out some games. Besides, he has not always been the first choice. In 2014-15, debutant leg-spinner Karn Sharma was chosen over him for the first Test. After an indifferent show in the loss, Ashwin was recalled, and took 12 wickets at 48.66 in three matches.
“I don’t think being in-form or out-of-form would have a say in how he performs. He can draw upon his experience, intelligence. The only thing would be injury, as he has had them (on recent tours),” said Subramaniam.
“Lyon is a more classical off-spinner—side-on, semi-open and uses his body fully. So, he extracts more out of wickets that doesn’t assist. Ashwin is a finger-and-hands bowler. He is not much of a body bowler. He makes up with his cerebral approach. He uses the angle of delivery and the crease. Both intrigue me. If you are a connoisseur of spin bowling, you would love to watch them (go head-to-head).”
According to CricViz data, Lyon imparts more spin on the ball. His average deviation is 4.18 degrees to Ashwin’s 3.13. Lyon bowls fuller and probes outside off-stump. Ashwin prefers to attack the stumps, middle-and-leg.
“Lyon is a brilliant spinner who has proved himself all over the world, be it South Africa or India. His action is so smooth that even if he bowls long spells he doesn’t lack penetration,” says Yadav.
At home, Lyon exploits the bounce and aims for bat-pad catches. With Virat Kohli flying home after the first Test, his main challenge will be how he bowls to Cheteshwar Pujara. The star of India’s 2018-19 campaign negated Lyon with two tactics—using the feet to kill the turn, and the pad to avoid bat-pad chances. In 11 innings, Lyon has dismissed Pujara four times. His average against Pujara is 61. Lyon has a good record against vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane, removing him six times in 14 innings, at an average of 32.16.
CricViz statistics also show the Aussie bowls wider more often while extracting more turn with the kookaburra ball that does not have a pronounced seam like India’s SG make. While 21.7% of Lyon’s deliveries are pitched wide, only 11.4% of Ashwin’s deliveries adopt that line. Just over 50% of their deliveries are on the off-stump channel.
Numbers also show that Lyon pitches full more often (36.2% to 30.0%) while Ashwin bowls a touch slower (86.6 kph to 87.4 kph).
The other side of the battle will be how Ashwin goes against Smith. In an ominous sign for India, Smith has run into great form in the ODIs. His record against the Indian bowling is intimidating, and the Australia No. 3 has dominated Ashwin. In the 14 innings they have faced off, Smith has got out to him only thrice and he averages 116 (348 runs off 570 balls) against him.
This week, Ashwin was nominated for the International Cricket Council (ICC) Men’s Player of the Decade award in a seven-player list. He is the fastest Indian bowler to reach 50, 100, 150, 200, 250, 300 and 350 wickets in terms of innings.
For such a prolific performer, making a mark overseas is yet to happen.
“If you look at the wickets we have played on for the last year or so, the spinner’s role outside India is to hold one end up and contribute with the bat. Jadeja has been doing that beautifully. Ashwin I suspect would play the same role. They can’t do more than what traditional finger spinners can do.