The Ashes: The Urn is Returning!!! Time for some credit where it is due!

I have been a fan of cricket since as long as I can remember. I have loved the game of cricket since the first time I picked up a Symonds Tusker from the club under 12 kit bag as a 9 year old and strode out to take guard for Booval Cricket Club at Silkstone State School. In my now 27 years of loving this wonderful game I have bled the maroon of the Queensland Bulls and I have bled the green of the Australian baggy green as those teams have gone into battle. It would be fair to say that I can not remember a series of cricket nor a win of a series as this Ashes series just won by Australia that has effected me as much as this one has. I am not ashamed at all to admit that I had watery eyes after the final wicket was taken.

I have been pondering why this is and have come to a pretty simple answer: I hate losing and, more to the point, I hate losing to England. Losing to England to me is just as bad as losing, as a Queenslander, to New South Wales in State of Origin (or anything else for that matter).

Off the back of the English regaining the Ashes 2-1 in 2009, they absolutely smashed Australia on our own turf in 2010/11 (the result in Perth was an aberation) and then just this winter gone Australia was beaten without finding a way to win again in England. And I have hated every minute of it!

Coming into this series I was hopeful for a positive result and yet dismayed at what I saw was a poor preparation from the Australian team. I tipped England to win the Ashes which was my head leading me astray when my heart was screaming “WE CAN WIN THIS!” and “COME ON YOU BIG BASTARD, GET BEHIND YOUR TEAM!”. I was wrong. Scratch that: I was spectacularly wrong and win it Australia has.

This series win is a triumph for many. Whilst there are many who get the obvious plaudits, the names Johnson, Warner and Clarke the headliners (don’t get me wrong: they have been brilliant but I want to focus elsewhere), here are the players / coaches I most happy for and, to me, deserve as big, if not bigger, coronations that usual suspects because of the roll that they have played in the dismantling of England and their domination of their direct opponent:

Nathan Lyon

I am an unabashed Nathan Lyon fan. I was not always but I was swayed both by looking at his numbers and by the injustice of the manner with which those in power (Invers and Howard) treated him, particularly in England this winter. It is easy to forget that he was not included in the team for the first two tests of the English winter series in favour of a 19 year old who had played only 3 first class games. He has been a vital part of Australia’s bowling attack this series: taking a wicket at least in every innings Australia has bowled and, more particularly, taking what could be described as “big wickets” when his team needed them most. The ultimate team man and the singer of Australia’s victory song he has gone from a forgotten man to a vital cog in the bowling attack that returned the Ashes. He has been easily the better of the two principal spinners: stats don’t lie and with Swann averaging 80 runs per wicket compared to Lyon’s 31.40 is enough said.

Brad Haddin

Converse to my position on Nathan Lyon, I have taken a long time to warm to Brad Haddin and his return to the test team for the series in England. I have strongly advocated for the elevation of Chris Hartley to the team. That statement out of the way: there can be no denying that Brad Haddin has been Australia’s player of the series so far. Vital runs just about every time he has batted has been combined with a display of wicketkeeping that has had even the harshest of judges of wicketkeepers (other wicketkeepers including I Healy) waxing lyrical about his work behind the stumps. Again, the comparison between his form and that of his direct competitor, Matt Prior, is an easy one and can be pin pointed as one of the principal reasons Australia is leading this series 3-0. Simply put Prior is in the worst form of his career with both the bat and the gloves whilst Haddin could now, hypothetically, play into his 40s should he wish to.

Craig McDermott

Much of the applause for Australia’s performance, from me included, has gone to Darren Lehmann. Deserving of just as much as credit for the current score line is the bowling coach, Craig McDermott. The architect of the bowling plans that have been so successful (one assumes) and the man who has gotten inside the mind of Mitchell Johnson deserves great credit for effect the bowlers from Australia have had on shaping this series. In Brisbane, the short pitched barrage rocked the English back on their heels whilst the advocation of a fuller length in Perth reaped excellent results epitomised by by Ryan Harris’ delivery to bowl the English captain with the first ball of the English second innings. David Saker, conversely for the English and surprisingly given his years in the Sheffield Shield competition, has not been able to get the best out his bowlers and they have failed to execute on any of the plans he would have put in place at the start of the tour.

I am sure there are others who deserve much praise for their roles in shaping this Australian team and this series however these are the three men for me who deserve a massive amount of kudos and whose results in this series have given me the most pleasure.

This series has renewed my formerly flagging love of the game that had been battered by the idiocy of some of the decision making at the top of the ICC and CA and the insurrection into the game that has been T20 cricket. I can not wait now until the Boxing Day for the start of the fourth test of this series. More particularly I can not wait to be in Sydney for the handing over the Urn at the end of the fifth test (I love it when a plan comes to together). That said: there is now a nine day break in hostilities and it is time for Australian players, coaches and fans to enjoy the return of the Urn. I know I will!

Cricket: What more does Nathan Lyon have to do?

Imagine you are Australia’s off spinner Nathan Lyon for a moment. You have made your way back into the Australian team in England after the selection of a 19 year old who had played 5 first class games for the first two tests of the Ashes failed dismally. You have just finished a test match in which you have taken 7 wickets over 42 overs and had an economy rate of 2.30 over those overs. You have snared your main tormentor in the English batting line up, Kevin Pietersen, twice in the test match as well as extracted England’s other best batters in Trott and Bell in a magical first innings spell.

If you were Nathan Lyon right now you would have cause to feel pretty happy with your lot in life (save for the pain of defeat) and you would be feeling like you had done enough to secure your place in the Australian team, again, wouldn’t you?

Then you read this quote from the Chairman of the National Selection Panel, John Inverarity, talking about Fawad Ahmed and whether he is potential starter for the return Ashes series in Australia:

“He would be in contention for that," said Inverarity."We’ll see how he goes. He played in some Shield matches at the end of the last Australian summer, bowled well and took wickets, so we’re just keen to see how he goes at international level. He and a number of other spinners will be contention as well."

Nathan Lyon, reading that over a cup of tea and some toast this morning, would have every right to spit out said tea and blow up in disgust. He has done everything asked of him in my opinion and has shown maturity and poise in what must have been a difficult situation for him. Yet he has the chairman of the Australian selection panel tell a phalanx of journalists that there are a number of spin bowlers in contention for the return Ashes series and one of them is a player with limited first class experience and is 7 years older than the incumbent.

Can anyone explain the logic to me? There once was a time when Australian cricket selectors stuck with a team and backed the players that they considered to be good enough to do the job. Nathan Lyon surely has shown that he is one such player. Unfortunately he is playing in what I have started calling the “Inverarity Era” which has proven already to be an era of instability in selection and “project players” rather sticking with a team, supporting the players in the team and actually doing an apprenticeship in first class cricket before one is put into the cauldron of test match cricket. No wonder our team looks down on confidence: they do not know whether the next test match will be their last.

The Nathan Lyon Conundrum: the second inning fallacy

I wrote earlier in the week about Nathan Lyon and the obscene haste with which Fawad Ahmed seems to have been pushed forward as his replacement. I received a large number of comments with respect to that post but a common refrain was that Lyon was not a performer under pressure in the second innings of matches. I found this to be an interesting argument and sought to look deeper at it.

Simply put: I consider the argument that Nathan Lyon is not a performer in the second innings of matches, when he is supposed to be winning games for Australia, is an absolute fallacy. What follows are my reasons for this view:

Venue

Nathan Lyon has played 22 test matches for Australia. Those test matches took place at the following venues for the following results:

Lyon #1

Considering the venues in question, it can only clearly be said that the Indian venues and possibly Sydney and Adelaide are what might be termed spinning wickets or even wickets on which a spinner would be expected to win a game for his team. Simply, Lyon has not played a plethora of games at “spinning venues” to date.

How much is Lyon actually bowling?

Obviously comparisons will be made between the various spinners in the game at the moment. Here are the statistics on current spin bowlers playing test matches for their respective countries presently and their records in the second innings. I have filtered this table to only include performances since the retirement of SK Warne:

Lyon #2

The results of this analysis are obvious: Nathan Lyon only bowls some 14.54 overs in the second innings of matches. This, when compared to his fellow spinners, is arguably consistent with significant underbowling. The best bowlers of this period have consistently, in the second innings of said matches bowled, on average, more than 10 overs an inning more than the Australian spin bowler. Simply: if he is not being given the overs to bowl how can he be expected to take wickets?

The 4th Innings: that is the real question

The problem with the blanket statement that Nathan Lyon is a non-performer in the 2nd innings of matches ignores that quite often a bowler will actually be bowling in the 3rd innings of the game rather than the 4th innings. If the question is one of performance under pressure by Nathan Lyon then surely the 4th innings of matches needs to be considered and, further the target that Lyon has had to bowl at. The following table is instructive:

Lyon #3

There are some compelling points that come from this table:

1. The last 3 tests Lyon has played have seen the opposition team, India, run down small targets. He has bowled a high proportion of overs in those innings in obvious losing causes. He can not be blamed for this.

2. If you exclude the last 3 tests in India, Australia’s record when bowling in the last innings of a test match to win it is simply outstanding with only one loss to the South Africans in Capetown the only blemish. It is compelling that in that game Lyon was only given 3 overs over 50.3 on a seaming wicket and that Australia was trounced by 8 wickets.

3. I concede that there are some games in this list that Australia has won where I would have expected Lyon to play a bigger role in the win. However, there are reasons for this: for example the game against Sri Lanka in Hobart was one dominated by fast bowlers and in which Lyon played a key roll in keeping one end tight whilst the fast bowlers where rotated.

4. The draw against South Africa in Adelaide is a game that sticks in the mind of many. I think people need to look again at this game though because Lyon is the only spin bowler in a game that took a wicket. Indeed the spinner from South Africa, Imran Tahir, had game comparable to that of Bryce McGain’s first test and has not been sighted since for the Proteas.

So where does this leave N Lyon?

The fact is that at venues where one would expect Nathan Lyon to lead the Australian bowling attack to victory, particularly in India, he has never been given enough runs to actually bowl at to do so. In games that Australia has won and he has bowled a large number of overs in the final innings of the game he has, to be frank, played a significant positive roll in those victories whilst not always being the match winner. That, of itself, is admirable given that he is bowling for captain who does not bowl him anywhere near as much as his contemporaries from other countries.

To suggest that Nathan Lyon is not a “pressure bowler” and does not bowl well in the final innings of games is not supported, in my view, by the objective evidence. Of course many people will have a subjective view and that is based on their own experiences watching him play. I simply ask those of you with that different view to take a look at the numbers above and reconsider!

I think Australian cricket has, continues to, do Nathan Lyon a disservice by the seemingly constant pressure being placed on his position. He can only bowl when he is asked to and within the construct of the match situation given to him by the other ten players on the field. To say that he has done anything other than his job and that he is anything other than a solid international spinner is just a fallacy.

Postscript: the tables created for this post have been done by me from score cards retained on the Cricinfo website. Any errors are my own and I apologise for the bad formatting!

Come in spinner: why is finding one for the Australian team so hard?

It has long been the lament of fans, pundits and journalists alike that in the “post Warne” age we (Australian cricket) have not had a consistently selectable or, indeed, match winning spin bowler. This problem has become so “acute” in the prelude to the coming battle for the Ashes against England that the parliament of Australia has seen fit to change the laws of immigration in this country to allow for the fast tracked citizenship of a 31 year old leg spinner from Merguz in Pakistan who has played only 13 first class games just so he may be available.

Before the “Era of Ahmed” a compendium of spin bowlers used by Australia since 5 January 2007 (when the “Era of Warne” ended) reads like this (this list necessarily removes batsmen who bowl a bit): 

SCG MacGill (4 matches)

GB Hogg (3 matches)

B Casson (1 match)

CL White (4 matches)

JJ Krejza (2 matches)

NM Hauritz (16 matches)

MA Beer (2 matches)

BE McGain (1 matches)

XJ Doherty (4 matches)

NM Lyon (22 matches)

GJ Maxwell (2 matches)

Australia has played 67 test matches in that span and have won 33, lost 21 and drawn 13 of same.  The present incumbent, Nathan Lyon, comes into the Ashes with a record that shows that he has taken 76 wickets in his 22 test matches at an average of 33.18 runs per wicket and with an economy rate of 3.12 runs per over. 
Am I alone in considering those numbers to actually be good numbers and, indeed, unworthy of the pressure being placed on Lyon’s place in the team by seemingly all and sundry including Cricket Australia?  Let’s consider for a moment the records of the other spinners presently playing test match cricket and see how the record of Lyon compares (the qualification make for this exercise is 20 wickets taken):

Player  Games Wickets Average Economy 

Swann  52        261       28.69      2.91 

Singh   44         175       35.79      2.86 

Herath  35         165      28.48      2.71 

Ajmal    26         133      27.6        2.66 

Ohja     22         102      31.78      2.68 

Ashwin 16          92       28.53      2.89 

Patel     18         49        49.02     3.22 

Vettori   39        131       34.66     2.45 

Panesar 35       122       33.8       2.71 

Mendis   17        64       34.2        3.08

Looking at this numbers now and comparing those of Nathan Lyon to them is all of the angst about his place in the Australian team and, indeed, the pressure being exerted by Ahmed’s selection really warranted?  His performances and statistics are all the more admirable give that he plays the bulk of his matches in Australian on less than friendly pitches, he rarely has the support of a second spinner and he has been, it must be conceded, poorly captained by captains who are themselves seemingly remembering the days of Warne.
Despite those impediments he is still tracking to have similar numbers at similar times as players of the stature of Singh, Vettori, Herath or Panesar.  I am more than a bit certain that Cricket Australia and cricket supporters of the Australian team would happily accept any of those players in the current lineup.  So, at the risk of becoming repetitious but still restating the question, what is the problem with relying on N Lyon? 
The answer to this question gets on back to an examination of the question posed in the title to this post:

Why is finding a good spinner for the Australian team so hard?

It must be clear from what has gone above that that question is unfair stated or, in fact, redundant because Australia already has a good spinner in Nathan Lyon.  The problem is that the Australian public, pundits and, possibly, players are NOT looking for a good spinner.  Rather they are looking for an answer to this question: 

Why is it so hard to find the next Shane Warne?  

That is a question that can simply must be answered this way: we will never find a spinner like Shane Warne again.  Therein lies the rub: we, the Australian cricket public, pundits and players, are searching for something we can not and will not ever have again.   Until we as a cricketing nation can get our heads around that immutable truth we are going to continue to “burn” our clearly good spinners with the pressure that comes with expectation.  Surely now it is time to get behind Nathan Lyon and back him to get the job done because, simply put, we already have a good spinner in him.