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No.2 in Wisden’s men’s Test spells of 2023 is Nathan Lyon’s masterful 8-64 that routed India in the Indore Test match. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at one of the finest performances from a giant of the craft of finger-spin.
Wisden’s men’s Test spells of 2023, No.2: Nathan Lyon – 8-64
India v Australia
Third Test of fourth-match series
Holkar Cricket Stadium, Indore, March 2
Mid-way through Australia’s 2023 Test series in India, they had qualified for the World Test Championship final. India had not – yet – but they had already retained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The tourists could, at best, draw the series, but for Nathan Lyon, there was more at stake.
Being an Australian finger-spinner is not easy. At home, you bowl on true, hard surfaces that offer you little, with the Kookaburra, whose seam gets embedded into the ball early in the innings.
It is not a coincidence that Lyon is the only Australian finger-spinner with 150 Test wickets. Or that the redoubtable Johnny Wardle, who bowled left-arm finger-spin with the Dukes in England, bowled wrist-spin in Australia with great success. Perhaps Lyon would have too, if he could.
To chase 600 wickets despite these odds is indeed remarkable, without a parallel in the history of Test cricket.
The SG ball in India has been Lyon’s ally, but that one timeless performance has eluded him. He did take 7-94 at Delhi in 2012/13, but his 15 wickets in the series were expensive. When Australia routed India at Pune in 2016/17, Stephen O’Keefe did the damage with twin 6-38s.
Of course, there was a Lyon spell that time, the 8-50 in Bengaluru. Not only his career-best but at that point the best Test figures by a touring bowler in India. Lyon had run riot on the first day, with the surface at his best, but his team failed to chase 188 in the fourth innings. Then, at Dharamsala, his 5-92 restricted India to a 32-run lead, but Australia collapsed to 137.
It was no different this time. At Nagpur, the bespectacled debutant Todd Murphy, thirteen years younger than Lyon, had outdone the senior man with 7-124. Lyon held his own in Delhi with 5-67 before Australia fell prey to their own sweep-all tactic.
And now Matthew Kuhnemann, one Test younger than Murphy, ran through India with 5-16 in the first innings, outbowling Lyon (3-35) on a rank turner in India. Australia led by 88, but then, they had also led by 87 in Bengaluru six years ago.
They need a target even R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, and Axar Patel cannot defend on viciously turning pitch. For that, they need their biggest name to step up.
The Lyon’s share
Lyon does not get the new ball in the four overs before lunch on day two – this is only the third innings – but replaces Starc immediately afterwards.
He comes round the wicket, as have finger-spinners from both sides have in this series – right-arm spinners to left-handers, southpaws to southpaws. The pitches have offered turn, often to ridiculous proportions, but unlike 2016/17, there ball has seldom spat off a length. The bat-pad catches have dried out.
The spinners have adapted. They have come round the wicket and bowled off and middle, trying to beat either the inside edge with a ball that turned sharply or the outside edge with one that held its line.
Shubman Gill goes first. He tries to step out on before the ball gets old. Intelligent, you would say, but Gill is nowhere close to the pitch of the ball. The slog is almost certainly predetermined. Gill does not connect, and is bowled.
Runs come in a trickle, not only from Cheteshwar Pujara but also from Rohit Sharma. They survive but cannot score, and it’s not until the 13th over that India hit a boundary.
They know that they cannot outsurvive the Australian spinners, especially Lyon. Rohit tries to flick off the back foot. Not a bad shot playing with the turn, but he is playing off the back foot as well, on a pitch with low bounce. The review seems irrelevant once the ball beats the bat to hit the pad.
Kuhnemann takes out Kohli at the other end. India promote Jadeja to counter his left-arm spin. He survives Kuhnemann, but Lyon beats his bat again and again before producing a classic. The ball drifts into the left-handed Jadeja – who plays outside – and holds its line to hit him on the front pad. Steve Smith, standing in for Pat Cummins, claims the review and gets the decision in his favour.
India trail by nine runs at tea, but Pujara and Shreyas Iyer score 31 in three overs once play resumes. Iyer, in particular, threatens to take the game away, but Starc returns to take him out.
The stage is now set for Lyon to run through even if Pujara stands tall. He gets KS Bharat first: the ball, pitched on off stump from round the wicket, holds its line, beats the outside edge, and hits timber.
Smith gives him a break for two overs, but Lyon returns to take out Ashwin with the first ball of his new spell. Ashwin does not play for the turn, but this one pitches on off and is set to hit leg. He is out, leg-before.
At the time of writing this piece in 2024, only Smith (577 off Stuart Broad) has scored more runs off one bowler than Pujara off Lyon (571), and only Herbert Sutcliffe (1,748 off Clarrie Grimmett) has faced more balls than Pujara’s 1,296 against Lyon.
It has been one of cricket’s longest-running duels, but for the first time Pujara hits a six off Lyon – over mid-wicket. It is evident that he is trying to hit India out this quagmire despite Axar’s solidity at the other end.
It does not last. Pujara middles his leg-glance but cannot keep it down – or clear of Smith, diving low, full stretch to his right from leg slip. Umesh Yadav gets a first-ball LBW decision overturned, but hits the next ball to deep mid-wicket. And Mohammed Siraj’s dismissal is a near-encore of Gill’s.
Lyon finishes with 8-64 to become the second spinner, after Muttiah Muralidaran in England, to take two eight-wicket hauls in Test matches in the same overseas nation. Include the seamers, and only Bob Massie in England and Angus Fraser in the West Indies make it in the last hundred years.
And unlike that 8-50 in Bengaluru from six years ago, the target is only 76 this time.
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