Close up of Nathan Lyon

King of the Jungle

In Bowling by Bill Ricquier

Australia don’t normally “do” finger spin. For them it has traditionally been the wrist spinner who has held sway among the slow bowlers. From the early days, with ‘ Doc’ Hordern and the whimsical Arthur Mailey, down to the recent past, with perhaps the greatest exponent of wrist spin who ever lived , Shane Warne, the best Australian teams have usually had at least one leg spinner.

When Bill Woodfull led his team to England in 1934 for the first Ashes series after Bodyline – it was all very friendly: no Harold Larwood, no Bill Voce. Australia had three wrist spinners in the squad. They were the leg spinners Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O’Reilly and the slow left armer ‘ Chuck’ Fleetwood-Smith.

Extraordinarily, each of them took over a hundred first class wickets on the tour. Fleetwood-Smith did not play in the Tests but between them Grimmett and O’Reilly took fifty three of the seventy one English wickets that fell to bowlers. Australia won the series two-one. England’s victory at Lord’s – their only Ashes win there in the twentieth century – owed everything to left arm finger spinner Hedley Verity, who took fourteen wickets in the match.

There were three leg spinners in Lindsay Hasset’s side that toured England in 1953, Doug Ring, Jack Hill and Richie Benaud. They performed rather less outstandingly, taking eleven wickets between them in the seven matches they played (seven of them to Hill, who was thought, wrongly as it turned out, to “have the wood” on Len Hutton). Ring had toured in 1948, as one of Don Bradman’s Invincibles (Colin McCool, another leg spinner was also in that side). Ring and Benaud were in the eleven at the second Test at Lord’s when Australia seemed to have a great chance of taking a lead in the series but Willie Watson and Trevor Bailey heroically defied them to secure a draw that was critical to England’s regaining The Ashes for the first time since Bodyline.

Even quite moderate Australian sides would usually have a decent leg spinner. Allan Border’s team lost three-one to England in 1985 but Bob Holland’s five for sixty eight in England’s second innings helped them to victory at Lord’s.

There were plenty of terrific wrist spinners who could not cement a place in the Australian side and who forged significant careers in English county cricket. McCool was one; he went to Somerset. There was Bruce Dooland at Nottinghamshire, George Tribe at Northamptonshire and Jack Walsh at Leicestershire. Much later Kerry O’Keefe played a few Seasons for Somerset.

All these players had terrific records in Australia. There is something about the hard, baked surface of the traditional Australian wicket that really suits wrist spinners. England is different. The soggier environment has always made things more comfortable for off spinners and slow left -armers. Leg spinners have rarely thrived at the highest level. Kent’s “Tich” Freeman picked up thousands of wickets in county cricket but reaped meagre pickings in Test matches. Mason Crane, who is not a regular in Hampshire’s red ball team, is the first specialist leg spinner to be chosen in an Ashes squad since Doug Wright in 1950-51.

England’s selectors have always crossed their fingers and hoped that their orthodox spinners could work some magic in Australia. It doesn’t usually work. The slow left armer J C “Farmer” White had a good series against a poor side in 1928-29. There were three off spinners in Ted Dexter’s side in 1962-63, Fred Titmus, David Allen and Ray Illingworth. Titmus had a great series, taking twenty one wickets. He and Allen returned in 1965-66, and bowled England to victory in the Melbourne Test, each taking four wickets for forty-ish in Australia’s second innings. But neither managed ten in the series and the other wickets they did take were expensive.

John Emburey and Phil Edmonds did their bit on Mike Gatting’s victorious tour of 1986-87, as did Graeme Swann in 2010-11; Peter Roebuck thought he was a better bowler than Titmus, Allen and Illingworth. Bob Appleyard and Jonny Wardle – who mixed a bit of wrist spin with his orthodox slow left arm provided great support to Hutton’s pace attack in 1954-55. But otherwise there have been slim pickings, though Derek Underwood’s unique style meant that he always posed a threat and was rarely collared.

But Australian finger spinners? Ian Johnson is a considerable figure in Australian cricket history , another of Bradman’s Invincibles and captain in the mid-1950s. But as an off spinner he hardly compared with his great English contemporary, Jim Laker. The most intriguing Australian finger spinners have been unorthodox ones, like Jack Iverson, who played one series, against England in 1950-51, taking twenty one wickets at an average of fifteen. The middle finger of his large right hand flicked the ball out such that it was difficult for the batsman to determine which way it would turn. He was no athlete. Pictures show that there was often a fielder stationed very close to the non-striker, not, like James Anderson in the recent Adelaide Test, so as to irritate the said non-striker ( Steve Smith) but because it was easier for someone to hand the ball to Iverson than to throw it to him. He was a tragic figure, who took his own life. John Gleeson emulated Iverson’s style in the 1960a and 70s. Most Australian finger spinners, however, have been workmanlike performers such as Tom Veivers, Bruce Yardley and Ray Bright.

All of this makes the emergence of Nathan Lyon as the most potent member of the Australian attack quite extraordinary. Lyon is Test cricket’s leading wicket taker for 2017 and there are still two matches to go, with England’s batsmen, particularly their clutch of out of form left handers, apparently queuing up to provide him with more success.

The obvious comparison is with Ashley Mallett, who provided invaluable support for the formidable pace trio of Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Max Walker. Mallett was a fine off- spinner – his eight for fifty nine against Pakistan at Adelaide in 1972 remains the best analysis by a finger spinner in Australia. But in that quartet his was always a supporting role.

That was very much Lyon’ s remit in the last home Ashes series , in 2013-14, when England were undone by Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle. Lyon was a different bowler then. Warne was very critical of a habit he had of walking backwards to his mark after the ball was thrown back to him by the keeper, rather than turning round and walking back normally. Warne thought it indicated a lack of confidence. No one is accusing Lyon of that now. “Bowled Gary!” Is becoming as familiar as “Bowled Warnie!”
There may be a few factors in play here. One must be success on the subcontinent. Although Australia lost to India earlier in 2017, Lyon bowled brilliantly, a worthy match for Ravichandran Ashwin.

Another factor is the pitches. Drop-in wickets are now the rule rather than the exception in Australia. Neither Brisbane nor Adelaide played as one would have expected given their historical, as it were, track records.

The ironical thing is that England appear totally ill-equipped to exploit this fortuitous development. The nagging doubt that, despite his many qualities, and in fairness his actual. figures, Moeen Ali is really a batsman who bowls rather than a genuine all-rounder , is beginning to grow. As he is also currently a batsman who is not scoring enough runs, having been out four times out of four to Lyon, his under-performance, combined with the absence of Ben Stokes, is playing havoc with the balance of the side.

Lyon, though, fielding like a man possessed and even batting with more purpose than any of England’s tail-enders, is having the series of his life.

Bill Ricquier. 13/12/2017

This article was published on Scoreline Asia:

Feature Image: Nathan Lyon – King of the Jungle. Taken from image on Flickr PJ R under [CC BY-NC 2.0]

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