In the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston, Australian off-spinner Nathan Lyon bowled his team to victory with a 6-wicket haul and, in the process, picked up his 350th Test wicket. The growing reputation of Lyon as one of the world's finest spinners and a major threat to any team was further boosted by his living up to the expectations of his team's fans.
What made this performance even more special was the fact that on the same pitch, albeit a day before, his English counterpart Moeen Ali was made to look ordinary by the Aussie batsmen. Lyon, on the other hand, made the track appear like a landmine and ended up with a 9-wicket haul in the match.
So, what is Lyon's current status among the spinners, and more specifically, off-spinners in the world? Is he the best off-break bowler in international cricket today? This question would invite some frown from Indian fans as they are likely to consider Ravichandran Ashwin as the rightful owner of that epithet.
Is Lyon the best?
Does Lyon have a strong case for being considered the best? Well, the performance at Edgbaston certainly suggests so. Let's understand why.
In terms of numbers, Ravichandran Ashwin had a good year in 2018. But he failed to live up to the expectations of his team on three separate occasions, including once in England.
The first occasion was the second Test against South Africa at Centurion. On a pitch that looked more Indian than South African, South Africa only had a 28-run lead after the first innings and were expected to struggle against the Indian offie in the second innings. This was a golden opportunity for the spinner from Chennai to bowl his team to a victory outside the subcontinent. But he fluffed his lines and picked up only one wicket in 29.3 overs, that too the no. 11 batsman on the last ball of the innings.
The second big let-down by Ashwin occurred in England. In the fourth Test of the 5-match series, played at Southampton, the pitch was dry and deteriorating. India got a lead of 27 runs in the first innings and the stage was again set for the Tamil Nadu offie to bowl his team to a victory. But once again, he failed to rise to the occasion and ended up bowling 37.1 overs in the third innings of the match with just one wicket in return. How disappointing this performance was came to be realised when Moeen Ali bowled beautifully in the fourth innings and picked up four wickets.
The third and final missed opportunity for Ashwin came in the first Test of the series against Australia. At Adelaide, India gave Australia a target of 323 to chase in the final innings. On the fifth day, Ashwin, with two wickets already in the bag from the fourth day, was expected to rout a weak Aussie batting line-up and finally have that match-winning performance outside the subcontinent that he needs. But, he only picked up one wicket in the day, the last one to fall in the match. In the end, he had bowled 52.5 overs for three wickets in the entire innings.
Now, Lyon, playing in an Ashes Test, on English soil, with the expectations of fans weighing upon him, bowled beautifully to win the match for his team. This performance isn't an exception either. He has been picking up wickets in all types of conditions, against all manner of opposition, on a consistent basis for the last couple of years. Ashwin, on the other hand, hasn't been living up to the expectations.
While the records of the two players seem to suggest that Ashwin is way better, when one takes into consideration that the two players play in vastly different conditions – Ashwin on dry turners and Lyon on rock-hard, non-spinning pitches – it is to be expected that the Indian would be ahead. But Lyon has succeeded in the most adverse conditions a spin bowler could find – Australia – while also picking up wickets elsewhere. The contrast between Lyon's match-winning spell and Ashwin's failure last year would boost the former's claim to being at par with his Indian rival, maybe even better.