Nathan Lyon proving to be Australia’s unglamorous linchpin in India

Spinner has gradually become a formidable operator in Asia, where he has more Test wickets than any other visiting player

Geoff Lemon in Indore

In Bengaluru in 2017, Nathan Lyon took eight for 50; his best figures in a Test innings. He dismissed India’s key players at their peaks: Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane. He toiled for more than 22 overs, and later a further 33. He put his teammates into a dominant position with a modest target to chase. Then he watched them lose.

In Indore in 2023, Nathan Lyon took eight wickets for the second time. After a long day of off-spin bowling, the figures were a similar eight for 64. This time he took them in the third innings of the match, not the first. Even so, like a fold in the fabric of space-time, echoes of 2017 kept coming through.

The previous time, Australia had bowled out India cheaply and then failed to take advantage by posting a lead of 87. This time, Australia bowled out India cheaply then failed to take advantage by posting a lead of 88. Last time, Australia ended the fourth innings with a collapse of six wickets for 11 runs scored. This time they ended the second innings with a collapse of six for 11.

Last time, India rallied in the third innings as Pujara batted for hours and made a half-century while guiding them to a lead. This time, Pujara batted most of the overs and moved to his 50 after helping to wipe off the deficit.

This time, though, Lyon got him out twice. In 2017 the spinner took his wickets in the first innings but picked up none in the third. In 2023 he had already contributed with three wickets in the first dig, before collecting his big bag second time around. Instead of Pujara making 92, he was held at leg slip for 59. Instead of helping add 197 runs, he helped add 140. Instead of two other players sneaking past 50, the next best score was 26. It all combined to leave Australia’s victory target at 76 runs instead of 188.

Barring disaster, the upcoming third day should offer Lyon vindication. Meme-able nicknames aside, he is underestimated. He is an unglamorous man practising an unglamorous craft, however skilfully. His record doesn’t feature a savage bowling average in the 20s, but a statistical anomaly of consistency, hovering around the low 30s in every category of theatre or opponent. He has never been a devastator, he grinds away instead. Some teams have outlasted him, some memorably, no matter if others have not.

KS Bharat of India is bowled by Nathan Lyon.
KS Bharat of India is bowled by Nathan Lyon. Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Cynical minds implied disrespect in 2021 when the Indian team presented him a signed shirt after his 100th Test match, given they had just beaten Australia in Brisbane. This wasn’t the case – the gesture was planned before the result was known, and then Australians recently reciprocated for Pujara. But there has been a sense from Indian camps over the years of not rating Lyon’s bowling, a feeling evident again after his indifferent start to the current series in Nagpur. Some home supporters have similar attitudes, keen to pension him off as soon as Todd Murphy bowled well on debut.

One thing held against Lyon is that he has never carried his team to win a match in India. Australia’s only success during his three tours came at Pune in 2017, when Steve O’Keefe took 12 for 70. Lyon’s performance the following week was lost in bad batting. In the peculiar way of sporting memory, great feats can vanish if other players fail to make the most of them. After two days of the ongoing Indore Test, Lyon’s eight for 64 hangs in the balance.

It shouldn’t. Lyon is now 10 wickets clear of Shane Warne on a list that is not often thought about but which carries weight: the most wickets in Asia by a player from outside the continent. Lyon has 137, Warne 127, and they are alone in triple figures. The dressing room was aware: they even knew that the current assistant coach, Daniel Vettori, occupies third spot with 98.

Lyon is also two wickets from the record for any visiting bowler in India, having passed Richie Benaud’s Australian mark of 52 to sit behind Derek Underwood’s 54. He is up to 113 wickets against India, trailing only Jimmy Anderson with 139 from 10 additional Tests. Nobody has more five-wicket hauls against India than Lyon’s mark of nine.

In the broader continent, Lyon has set up wins in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. At first he was unsure how to bowl on proper turning pitches. He was in and out of the side visiting India in 2013, and ineffective in Sri Lanka in 2016. Over time he has learned the variations and the craft. Of his 23 five-wicket hauls, 11 of them have come in Asia. A further four came against India at home. Performances and numbers are not always the same. But as he hurries towards 500 Test wickets, surely Lyon has enough of both.