• Will Browne

OPINION | The Nathan Lyon spell that *might* influence England to this day

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Nathan Lyon's bowling on the first day at the Gabba in November of 2017 set the tone for the series and England's selectors don't seem to have forgotten it.

After telling the press that he hoped Australia would "end the careers" of various England players, 24 wicketless overs on the first day of an Ashes series suggests that Nathan Lyon bowled underwhelmingly rather than unforgettably. Not a bit of it. The offspinner dictated to the batsmen all day and proved an near-perfect foil to the Australian pacemen. Andrew Miller of ESPNCricinfo declared that he'd witnessed one of the "finest wicketless spells of first-day offspin ever witnessed in an Ashes contest".

On 23rd November 2017, Joe Root won the first toss of the series and England batted. Despite Cook's dismissal at the hands of Starc, Steve Smith decided to introduce his wiry offspinner after just 17 overs on the first morning, well before lunch was due to be taken. Bowling for much of the day, Lyon extracted fizzing turn and troubling bounce from an otherwise well-behaved Brisbane pitch.

Lyon pinned England down, going for less than two an over on the first day, while remaining a constant threat. His bowling set the tone for the series; after five Tests, he finished with a highly respectable 21 wickets, bowling the most overs out of anyone at an economy rate bettered only by James Anderson. In a country where offspin is not regarded to be much more threatening than throw downs, this was a serious achievement.

English supporters might remember the optimism of day one at Brisbane, an optimism that sits directly on the brave/foolish border, familiar to England fans who sacrificed their body clock to follow their team's travails in Australia. A similar feeling to when Collingwood and Pietersen put on 310 in the second Test in 2006 or when Broad had Australia 100-5 at Brisbane in 2013. While such hopes are often dashed, when Stoneman and Vince were at the crease at 127-1, things did seem rosy. Vince in particular looked to be silencing his critics, his flourishing cover drives serving him well on this particular day. 

Once Cummins had winkled out Stoneman, with the aid of some reverse swing, it was Nathan Lyon the fielder who did for Vince. Having already had Vince dropped by Tim Paine, Lyon decided that it would be remiss to give Vince a second life and punished a risky single with a razor-sharp direct hit from cover. Nonetheless, England made it through to stumps at 196-4 and at that point it genuinely seemed like there was a realistic prospect of a close-fought series.

Five Tests and four Australian victories later, English positivity had been replaced by dreary post-mortems, where batting techniques, bowling speeds and Steve Smith were all discussed at great length. One of the big points for the pundits was the disparity between the two frontline spinners. Moeen Ali, who went into the series as Nathan Lyon's opposite number, took only five wickets in the series and they cost him over a hundred runs each. He was troubled by self-doubt and a finger injury, picked up from gripping the Kookaburra ball. The latter seemed to exacerbate the former.

Lyon cut a much more assured figure and while his pre-series comments about ending careers may have seemed more like bluff and bluster than genuine confidence, his bite matched his bark. Lyon has three main weapons in his arsenal, which he used brilliantly throughout. He imparted a high number of revolutions on the ball, his release generated "overspin" and his control was almost superhuman.

The consequence was that Lyon extracted turn and bounce from each surface he played on, he got the ball to dip and drift in the air, and he very rarely let the batsman off the hook. 'The GOAT' also ensured no batsman could settle by subtly varying his pace, line and angle of delivery. After surviving the fire of Starc, Hazlewood and Cummins, Mark Stoneman and James Vince could have been forgiven for thinking they were being afforded a break when they saw Lyon warming up on that first morning.

The way Lyon bowled ensured that such disrespectful thoughts were dispelled from the minds of the English batsmen and little has changed since. Lyon bowled equally well in England in 2019, with the exception of one afternoon in Headingley, where an absurd Ben Stokes innings briefly made him lose his composure.

In comparison, England have struggled to find an established first choice spinner. Whilst Lyon has churned through 96 Tests as the frontline spinner, England have failed to establish a spinner on a consistent and top class footing.

Moeen has been in and out of the Test team, mixing moments of brilliance with mediocre performances, and hasn't played since the Australians took a fancy to him at Edgbaston in 2019. In between Ashes series, Moeen's good friend Adil Rashid had a run of games in 2018, but never seemed to win the trust of his captain, despite some key wicket-taking spells against India and Sri Lanka.

And then who could forget Jack Leach. Leach's brave defiance in the face of the Australians with Stokes at Headingley in 2019 could be his defining moment as a Test player, regardless of what he does for the rest of his career. Unfortunately, several terrible unlucky illnesses and injuries have conspired against his England career so far. Having said that, his performance in Sri Lanka, where no Englishman took more wickets, showed why he was picked.

In 2018, another spinner made his Test debut at just 20. After Jack Leach broke his thumb in the nets, newly appointed selector Ed Smith called up Leach's Somerset team mate Dom Bess to the Test side, in a move that many saw as surprising. A combative offspinner with a tall action, he'd made a strong start to his county career and had played well for the Lions in the winter. Still, the selection was a shock and there was a suspicion that Test cricket was a bridge too far for Bess at that point. 

Bess did not disgrace himself, nor did he cause undue trouble to the Pakistani batsmen, who played him well. He did impress with the bat and in the field, showcasing two more strings to his bow. Nevertheless, despite a fifty on debut, as well as a screaming catch and a few wickets in his second match, he was dropped for Rashid for the next series against India. Bess was given the task to go back to county cricket, keep taking wickets and hone his craft.

Unfortunately, this wasn't as straightforward as it seemed. Bess struggled to hold down a place in the team in the 2018 season, due to competition with Leach. He even played several games for Somerset's second XI in the same summer that he made his Test debut. In the first half of 2019 he spent some time on loan at Yorkshire, where he impressed with some tidy returns (to the extent that they've now signed him on a permanent deal). He continued this form at Somerset, with a solid 26 wickets at an average of 26. Bess had successfully revived his county career, but England still seemed far off.

Fast forward to January 2020 and Bess, surely even to his own surprise, was in the line up to face South Africa at Newlands. When England had left for South Africa, Bess was not in the Test squad, but a bug (not COVID-19) had struck down many of the travelling party, including the incumbent first-choice spinner Leach, who was still trying to recuperate from the sepsis he suffered just weeks before.

Bess was given the call up fresh from a spin bowling training camp in Mumbai. He had been there at England's request, soaking up all he could from coaches Richard Dawson and Rangana Herath. Matt Parkinson was already in the England squad for the South Africa tour, but doubts about his ability to tie down an end and Bess' impressive training performances meant that it was Bess who found himself playing in the second test.

The work that he put in was clear to see; his consistency was improved, he was putting more on the ball and he had added some subtle variation. In his first Test back Bess tied the South Africans down with his accuracy, and in his second he took his maiden five-wicket haul. One of these wickets, a ball that deceived South African captain Faf du Plessis, bowled with a slightly rounder arm, he attributed to working with Herath.

With their faith in Bess rewarded, Ed Smith and his fellow selectors stuck by Bess for each of the Tests to be played in the COVID-hit summer of 2020. This was despite Moeen's return from a self-enforced break from red-ball cricket. Bess' bowling flew fairly under the radar; he took seven wickets over six Tests against the West Indies and Pakistan.

He did have good moments, including a perfect off-break that hissed out of the rough outside Jason Holder's off stump and bowled him through the gate. He also had several missed chances off his bowling and the success enjoyed by the seamers meant that his opportunities were limited. Disappointingly though, his consistency was not what it was in South Africa and he wasn't as threatening as England would like him to be.

England have invested plenty in Dom Bess and he's fared about as well as one would expect of a young bowler who is learning more about himself everyday. When examining the reasons why England have taken so much trouble to turn Bess into a Test match spinner, it seems significant that his action bears a definite resemblance to Lyon. Both bowl with good height and both exert overspin, generating bounce as well as turn. Anyone watching Sky Sports' coverage of the Test match summer would have seen the split-screen comparisons and dissections of the two bowlers' actions.

Bess has made no secret of his desire to emulate the aura that Lyon possesses as a bowler and there is plenty more of Lyon that he could add to his game. For example, he could put more revs on the ball, rotate his right hip in his delivery stride with more force and use the width of the bowling crease to greater effect when bowling to right handers (who he bowled most of his overs to in the summer). He also would want to hone his control of length a bit better than he did in the past few Tests.

These are all tweaks he won't necessarily be able to make overnight. Still, if he works as hard as he has over the past 12 months, you'd back him to make further strides next time he pulls on his whites. Not that the aim should be to turn Bess into a carbon copy of Nathan Lyon. There's plenty about him that is impressive in his own right, such as his unrelenting determination to improve and his preference for honesty rather than mind games.

Nonetheless, England have put in a lot of thought into the 2021 Ashes. They dropped Stuart Broad, their in-form seam bowler, for the first Test of the summer to accommodate a fast bowling duo of Wood and Archer. While that didn't do much in the short term (other than to fire up Broad), the move was made with an eye fixed 18 months ahead, where they want to field an attack which will make Steve Smith et al. uncomfortable. Picking Bess all summer was partly down to his form in South Africa, but it feels as though the selectors also had Australia in mind.

While Ed Smith might keep most of his thoughts hidden behind a calm demeanour and designer shades, this selection decision seems telling. When he pictures that moment on Day One at Brisbane, when the quick bowlers need a rest and it's time to turn to a spinner, is he only imagining Dom Bess at the end of his mark, poised to play the Lyon role? Only Smith knows and much will change in the fourteen or so months between now, particularly in pandemic-stricken times. Still, it would be a shame not to speculate.

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