Lyon in wait for Pujara prey
Lyon-Pujara is on track to join McGrath-Atherton, Bedser-Morris and Warne-Stewart among Test cricket’s greatest predator-prey relationships.
Nathan Lyon dismissed Cheteshwar Pujara in both innings in Indore to have breached India’s great wall 14 times in their decade-long rivalry.
Lyon has not claimed any other individual batsman more times as he nears 500 wickets; Pujara has not fallen to anyone else more often despite getting out 173 times from the 16,024 balls he has faced in his career.
Their rivalry compares to the most prominent in the game’s history.
Glenn McGrath dismissed Mike Atherton 19 times to be the greatest nemesis to any individual Test batsman in the game’s history; Alec Bedser had such a hold over Arthur Morris that the Australian opener actually carried a newspaper clipping to show that he had scored two centuries against the England seamer to go with his 18 dismissals; and Shane Warne regularly powered deadly flippers into Alec Stewart’s stumps and pads on the way to his 14 scalps.
With two more potential wickets in Ahmedabad, a likely match to decide the World Test championship in June and the prospect of at least two more five-Test series while the pair are still integral parts of their teams, it is possible that the pair could surpass the McGrath-Atherton nexus.
They have an intriguing and rather appropriate relationship.
Both players rely on patience, reliability and adherence to a simple game plan.
Neither is a flamboyant exponent of their skills; neither is surpassed by any other cricketer on the planet at what they do best.
It is only the rarest off-spinners in Test history (Lance Gibbs and Jim Laker, perhaps) who have been able to hit a spot with the same metronomic certainty that Lyon has done for the past decade.
He lands six balls an over, hour after hour, session after session.
Pujara provides the reverse of that coin.
Armed with seemingly limitless supplies of concentration, he sets himself to defend with the most ferocious intensity.
Occasionally, he unfurls a stoke, a flick of the wrists through midwicket or a cover drive that suggests he watched, admired and learnt from VVS Laxman a batting generation ago. He even lofted a six in Indore.
Mostly though, he wears down bowlers. No one in Test history has scored fewer runs from more balls though he is approaching the chiselled granite records of Colin Cowdrey (7624 runs from an estimated 20,000 deliveries at a strike rate of about 36), Atherton (7728 from 20,609 at 37.50) and Geoff Boycott (8114 from 21,193 at 35.49).
Plodders all and none with Pujara’s relatively electrifying strike rate of 44.41 for his 7112 runs.
Like Lyon, Pujara has improved over the series.
That is just one of the advantages of the increasingly rare longer series where story arcs can develop over an extended period.
Lyon was out-bowled by debutant Todd Murphy in the first Test but having his pride pricked has created a remarkable turnaround in the past two.
He increased his pace significantly in Delhi and Indore where his tempo was as measured and incisive as it has ever been.
There are only minute margins at the very pinnacle of the game but Lyon demonstrated that he was at the peak of his powers throughout both innings.
The dismissal of Bharat was a beauty. He had been spinning the ball back into the right-hander but through natural variation as the ball skidded rather than gripped the surface, it maintained its line to clip the off stump.
The set-up was exquisite; the execution sublime.
Compare Lyon’s display to that of his opponents, with Ravi Ashwin and Ravi Jadeja bowling relatively poorly as they searched desperately for rhythm on a surface designed to make them unplayable.
Hampered by Rohit Sharma’s poor match as captain – his DRS judgment was well off and his tactical moves misguided – the Indian approach played into the spinning hand of the Australian match-winner.
Murphy played his role by building pressure, often approaching 100kmh as he fired the ball at the pads in a fashion easy to mimic but difficult to mirror, but his inability to get significant sidespin makes him less of a challenge than the senior spinner.
Lyon is now on track for the best series of his career. He claimed 23 wickets against India at home in 2014-15, including a match-winning fourth innings effort at Adelaide in the match that each of Phil Hughes’ close mates produced stunning commemorative performances, but could pass that next week.