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Lyon vs Ashwin: Who has been better?

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Ravichandran_Ashwin_Nathan_Lyon_India_Australia_CricketThere were many interesting mini battles within the main battle of the recently concluded India-Australia Test series. One of the most anticipated ones was between Nathan Lyon and Ravichandran Ashwin. Sadly, they only featured together in Adelaide – the sole Test that Ashwin played before succumbing to injury.

Both off-spinners have emerged as the best spin bowlers of the current era in the last few years. With contrasting careers and vastly different bowling styles, both have been match-winners in the truest sense for their teams.

Between the two of them, they share close to 700 Test wickets already; and this battle is only going to intensify in the years to come.

With two such terrific spinners from different countries standing out at the same time, comparisons are inevitable. While Ashwin has been absolutely outstanding in Asian conditions, he has struggled to be as effective outside Asia. Lyon, on the other hand, had a slow start to his career but has blossomed into a formidable strike bowler in all conditions.

The contrasting beginnings of Lyon and Ashwin

The careers of Ashwin and Lyon could not have been more different. Both spinners found success despite adopting vastly different approaches.

Lyon, who was initially a groundsman, has been brought up on hard Australian surfaces not conducive to spin bowling. He is an off-spinner in the classical mold with a side-on action that allows him to impart more overspin on the ball.

Ashwin has grown up on pitches that regularly assist turn and bounce. He is a true, new-age off-spinner with a front-on action and a variety of variations in his arsenal that get him more sidespin on the ball.

Both Lyon and Ashwin made their Test debuts in the same year – 2011 – but today Lyon has played 84 Tests with 339 wickets and Ashwin has 342 wickets from 65 Tests. While Ashwin’s record does appear more impressive, there are a lot of factors that need to be considered before passing judgment on who has been better.

Lyon came into the Australian side in the role of a support spin bowler; the fourth bowler who would offer some reprieve to the main pacemen. Ashwin, meanwhile, had come in when India were struggling to find a match-winning spinner – Anil Kumble had retired from the game in late 2008 and Harbhajan Singh’s form was on the wane. Hence, on the back of some good performances in domestic cricket, Ashwin was drafted into the side. He made an immediate impact - taking 26 wickets in his first 4 Tests.

In fact, for the first four years of his career, Ashwin surged ahead rapidly and Lyon hadn’t really made a significant impact. By the end of 2015, Ashwin had played 32 Tests and picked up 176 wickets at an average of 25.39. Lyon, on the other hand, had taken 182 wickets in 51 Tests at 33.31 at the same time.

It was notable that by 2015, Lyon had played 8 Tests in Asia – on wickets that suited spin bowling – and returned with only 26 wickets at a horrible average of 49.11 and an appalling strike-rate of 76.6.

Ashwin was the toast of Indian cricket at that point, performing consistently across formats and had emerged as the team’s leading strike bowler. Lyon was doing well in patches and wasn’t really seen as a major threat by opposition teams.

Things, however, took a very interesting turn from 2016 onwards.

Lyon’s turnaround and Ashwin’s dip in form

Since the beginning of 2016, Nathan Lyon has made a terrific turnaround in his game. He has been putting a lot more body into his deliveries, which helps him extract extra bounce and get more wickets.

The results of the little tweaks made his game more effective. From 2017, Lyon has been in outstanding wicket-taking form. In that phase, the off-spinner has taken 116 wickets in just 22 Tests at an impressive average of 28.69 with 7 five-wicket hauls and 1 ten-wicket match haul. In fact, Lyon was the leading wicket-taker in Test cricket in 2017 with 63 wickets in 11 matches and the third-highest wicket-taker in 2018 with 49 wickets in 10 Tests.

In this same phase, Ravichandran Ashwin has picked up 94 wickets in 21 Tests at 26.69 with just 2 five-wicket hauls. Notably, Ashwin couldn’t pick up a five-wicket haul in all of 2018, having played 19 innings. He managed 38 wickets from 10 Tests in 2018, which includes 14 wickets in 3 games at home against Afghanistan and West Indies.

So, while Ashwin hasn’t recorded poor numbers, the dip in his form has been noticeable, especially because of the high standards he had set earlier. This is where Lyon has managed to soar ahead and with each Test seems to be refining his game.

The improvement in Lyon’s form was first evident during Australia’s Test tour to India in early 2017, where he regularly troubled the Indian batsmen with his turn and bounce and ended up with 19 wickets in 7 innings at an average of 25.26. In the same series, Ashwin picked up 21 wickets in 8 innings at an average of 27.38. What the numbers don’t show is that the Australian batsmen countered Ashwin pretty well in the second half of the series.

Another point worth comparing would be Lyon’s form in Asia since 2017 and Ashwin’s form in South Africa, England and Australia (he is yet to play a Test in New Zealand) in the same period – these are places that are alien to both these cricketers and offer the toughest challenge to them at the moment.

Lyon has picked up 53 wickets in 8 Tests in Asia since 2017 at an outstanding average of 22.26 with 5 five-wicket hauls. Ashwin, though, has a poor record in South Africa, England and Australia in this period – 24 wickets 7 Tests at a moderate average of 30.16 with no five-wicket haul.  

Even Ashwin’s overall away numbers – 108 wickets in 27 Tests – would come down to 58 in 16 Tests if you take out the 50 wickets he has picked up in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and West Indies. Lyon, on the other hand, has done pretty well away from home – 179 wickets in 43 Tests.

It is clear that Ashwin struggles to perform overseas and has seen a drop in form of late. It might not be drastic, but it’s certainly a cause for concern. Lyon, at the same time, has hit a purple patch and is proving to be a genuine wicket-taker in all conditions for Australia.

At present, just from his body language and mannerisms alone, Lyon looked to be bubbling with confidence and energy. Ashwin has been very good in phases but has appeared to wither when things have not gone his way – the second innings of the Adelaide Test and his performance in England (11 wickets in 4 Tests) earlier this year are cases in point.

Two spin bowling greats

All said and done, there is no denying that both Nathan Lyon and Ravichandran Ashwin are masters of their craft and it is fascinating to observe them in full flow. This is a great era for cricket lovers as they get to witness two spin bowling giants rival each other. By the looks of it, they might well reach the heights of the Shane Warne-Muttiah Muralitharan rivalry from a little over a decade ago.

One hopes that after Nathan Lyon’s drastic transformation, Ashwin would also get better; that both the talented spin bowlers would continue to push themselves to be their best. World cricket desperately needs a crackling rivalry like this.



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