Lyon overcomes discomfort of expectation
On tours, especially of the subcontinent, the Australian players tend to stand out. But Nathan Lyon rarely does, he looks more likely to be standing with Lukey Sparrow's flag wavers than walking out to play for Australia. The only time he is truly noticed is when he's appealing so hard, the veins in his forehead resemble the pattern on the Bengaluru pitch, or when his wicketkeeper says his nickname so often he becomes a meme.
Lyon has played in this team as a permanent member who doesn't feel that permanent. Always one bad Test away from being dropped. Or, as he found out the last time he was playing here, one seven-wicket haul away from being dropped.
Nathan Lyon averages 33.66 in Test Cricket. Being that the average for all combined bowlers in the modern era is roughly 34, it makes Lyon marginally better than average. As an offspinner who plays in the toughest place for his kind on earth for half his Tests, he's actually going okay. In Australia, he has a better record than Tim May, Graeme Swann, R Ashwin, Fred Titmus, and Muttiah Muralitharan.
But it is Asia where he is supposed to be at his best, and he hasn't been, not even close. There have been performances like the five wickets on debut in Sri Lanka, and that seven-for against India, but they are the only two times he has taken a five-wicket haul in Asia. While Ashwin, Herath and Yasir have been cashing in, Lyon's average in Asia is 38, worse than his average in Australia.
Lyon does well at home, he goes pretty well in the places that seam is expected to prosper as well, but in Asia, he doesn't stand out, he barely stands up.
The advantages of Mitchell Starc are pretty clear, he can win a game in 45 minutes, he is good against the top order and tail, and occasionally he hits a few out of the park. But his shadow, well at least his footmarks, are almost as important for Lyon.
While O'Keefe was struggling to get any turn, Lyon went straight into Starc's bit of rough, and instantly was more threatening than O'Keefe. Lyon's first ball pitched outside off stump, on a good length, it spun back more than any from O'Keefe all morning, and it bounced over the stumps. That was his first ball, that was most of his balls.
Just over and over again, in the same place, the cluster was incredible, all of them ripped, most of them bouncing, the odd going straighter, some keeping low, and always varying the pace. It was what offspinners dream, and plan, to do.
Rahul had tried to paddle and reverse-sweep him to put him off his line, Lyon didn't move an inch. Pujara just looked trapped, Lyon just kept going at his thigh pad, ball after ball. Unlike Pune, where no matter how well Lyon bowled - he probably, pound for pound, outbowled O'Keefe in the first innings- nothing went for him. This time Pujara took the edge, which popped up beautifully to short leg, and he was away.
When a former international offspinner became a first-class coach, he struggled to handle his spinners because he couldn't understand why they just couldn't rip it and land it in the right spot every ball. Most spinners don't make it because they are rollers who are accurate, or they rip it, and therefore don't land it enough.
It's rare that Lyon would ever lose control massively, mostly he is in control of his game. But at times, he does hold himself back a bit and gets into a club-like groove. He doesn't try enough new things, he doesn't come wider of the crease, he doesn't look for more sidespin, and he continues at the same pace, as people lose patience.
Part of his charm, or lack of, is that he is just an offspinner, there are no special tools or magic, he will bowl from relatively close to the wicket, the ball will be outside off stump, and it will come in towards the stumps. It is only side-on that you realise why Lyon is such a good bowler. The ball is floating and then just as it gets to the batsman, it dips violently, like it has fallen off an imaginary cliff. And the same overspin that causes the dip, causes the bounce.
It isn't sexy; it isn't a doosra or a mystery teesra, it's just good Australian style offspin.
When Virat Kohli left a straight ball, then reviewed the straight ball, and then left the crease remembering he had left a straight ball, it would be easy to say that India was batting with all the confidence of an 80-pound sumo wrestler. But while Kohli must take the blame for his horror run, Australia have bowled well to him. It was clear in the way that Kohli batted, right up until he left that ball, that he was trying to score and get off strike to Lyon. Unlike Pujara, he wasn't going to be a sitting duck. Instead, he plucked himself, placed soy sauce, mirin, honey, sesame oil, chilli oil, garlic and ginger in a small saucepan, and then jumped in.
Rahane survived a big lbw shout, there was another half shout that went close to his inside edge, then a ball that stayed low, and after all that, Rahane knew he had to do something, so he ran down the wicket and whacked one. A few overs later, there was one that was probably off Rahane's glove that popped up in the air, and two next two balls Lyon bowled a bit wider. The first was defended, the second one, Rahane couldn't help himself.
Rahane probably didn't know it was the widest ball bowled by Lyon so far. He couldn't have known that it wouldn't spin. And even though he could have guessed that Wade might not glove it cleanly, there was no way he'd know it would land right in front of the keeper to allow him to take the stump out of the ground in the act of aggressive desperation.
The Bengaluru pitch has almost an Adelaide day four feel about it. Adelaide day four is where Lyon should be bowling at his best, it was South Australia, not his native New South Wales, who gave him his big break. The problem for Lyon, many times in his career, has been when he has been expected to take wickets, he hasn't.
Since South Africa outlasted him in Adelaide all those years ago, there has been a feeling that he tightens up when he is needed, and that he is too robotic when things aren't going well. Even the few times he has proved either of those things untrue, the talk never truly goes away. Lyon is perennially unfashionable.
Had Cricket Australia adopted a less objective and more subjective method of picking their players, O'Keefe might have replaced Lyon a few seasons ago, or perhaps, take the spot for himself before Lyon even debuted. But it was finally last season when it looked like Lyon would miss out in Adelaide, only for O'Keefe to be injured, allowing Lyon to take a few wickets.
But still at the Gabba, where spinners don't prosper, but Lyon does, talk returned to leaving him out. This time, for a fourth seamer. Then at Melbourne, as he almost broke the internet by taking a wicket on the "Nice, Garry" ball, it overshadowed the fact he had a shocking first innings, but got caught up in the happy hour of the second innings.
And all this had been festering for a while. Lyon hadn't taken a five-wicket haul since 2014, he wasn't terrible in Sri Lanka, but more was needed from him, and when he bowled in the UAE, he took three wickets for a million runs. If this wasn't the series he broke through, with O'Keefe being a better all-round cricketer, there was every chance he'd be pushed aside as Australia looked at their up and coming wristspin armoury.
The first three balls Ashwin faced of the 61st over were pretty quick from Lyon, the fourth one was far slower, it was the one that took Ashwin's glove on the way through to leg slip. The Saha ball didn't spin or bounce as much as the others, and Smith took a decent catch on the second attempt. The Jadeja wicket was from another one that didn't spin or bounce as much. Sensing that Rahul, who had just wrenched his shoulder again, and was now batting with a shaky looking tail, Lyon flighted one to Rahul who hit the ball twice - neither of them were good - and the second hit went to mid-off.
When Ishant Sharma middles one into his pad, and the ball finds short leg, instead of going for a victory lap, Lyon turns and appeals for the wicket. It's out, it's obviously out, but he is still asking. Today, of all days, he doesn't need to ask.
Maybe he had some luck. Perhaps in the middle session, the wickets of Rahane and Kohli were more to do with their errors than his brilliance; possibly he found a wicket that gave him the sport of bounce he likes at home, the sort of turn that spinners love, and yes it was all helped by Starc's huge feet. For most spinners, their real tests are when the conditions don't favour them. Lyon has been doing well at that for years. His real test was this, and he couldn't have passed in more dramatically.
Usually, there are questions about Lyon; today there were only wickets. He stood up and stood out.
Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber