‘‘It’s easy,’’ Mark Taylor said in the euphoric afterglow of another win over England in Australia’s halcyon days. ‘‘We make 600, then get Warnie to take eight-for.’’ It was part jest, part Taylor’s faculty for driving to the heart of the matter. One of the keys to Shane Warne’s prodigious success was that his Australia made vast scores — and quickly — which was doubly oppressive on opponents because it not only put Australia into winning positions, but gained the attritional time even Warne needed to consummate them.
Dusting off that blueprint in Adelaide, Australia suddenly find themselves in a position — by winning here and avoiding defeat in Perth — to sit atop the Test table again in little more than a week. If that seems too soon and somewhat false (it is only a year since Australia lost a match to New Zealand), the truth will out next year in back-to-back Ashes series. For now, and presuming to factor in no rain and six wickets on Monday, a little basking is in order.
All that Australia have achieved in this match flows from the runaway batting of Michael Clarke and Dave Warner, also Mike Hussey, on the opening day. One who has profited is off-spinner Nathan Lyon. In long spells over two innings, he has been a significant force in the shaping of this match. His conquest of Hashim Amla and Jacques Rudolph on Sunday night effectively became this match’s last staging post, after which South Africa acknowledged that they could not win and set about the grimly inert business of trying for many hours not to lose.
In Rudolph, Lyon has found a Daryll Cullinan-like bunny to transfix. In the first innings, Rudolph tried to play a shot against Lyon and was caught. In the second, he tried not to play a shot, even to half-volleys, and was caught anyway.
But Amla was the trophy wicket. A series of creamy shots that sped straight to fieldsmen perhaps elicited in him a rarely felt sense of urgency. At any rate, he drove at a ball that spun less than the rest, and Clarke, at the second attempt, took the catch at slip. Clarke in this match has been like a Santa fun run along the banks of the Torrens, creating the impression that there are many of him when there is only, at best, one.
Lyon’s accomplishments are not on the Warne scale, but no one, least of all Lyon, is pretending that he is Warne. For a start, he bowls off-spin, an idea that resonates in the consciousness like chartered accounting and race walking. Warne’s legacy to Australian cricket, indeed world cricket, is perversely debilitating. The parks still are full of wrist spinners who one by one make the disillusioning discovery that they will never be even half as good as Warne. Worse, there are no off-spinners.
Lyon was found by his state team at the wheel of a groundsman’s tractor and picked for Australia as the latest in a long line of post-Warne hunches; at 12, people stopped counting. Unlike batsmen and fast bowlers, there is no specialist coach for him in Australia’s set-up; he depends instead on Ricky Ponting, who in his fleeting one-over exposition of the off-spinner’s art on Sunday night left all to think that he must at least be good at the theory.
Lyon’s hairline suggests much exasperated scalp-rubbing, but it is perhaps also part of his act, for it makes him appear unthreatening. It is not a criticism to say that he does not have Warne’s extravagant skill and showmanship, nor his insistence on having the ball. What he has shown, repeatedly, is that he has a Warne-like temperament, without which a spinner will only ever be a slow bowler. Still only 25, he is the youngest off-spinner to take 50 wickets for Australia since the 19th century.
The contrast between his toils in this match and those of the hapless Imran Tahir also tell its story. Tahir never struck a length, did not take a wicket and was smeared at the rate of seven an over, until at length he had 0-260, the worst match figures by any bowler in Test history. Whenever he bowled, an already fast-moving match put on a spurt. He was meant to add spice and flavour to the South African attack, but became salt to the wound of the laming of Jacques Kallis. Yesterday, he was cheered when he came on to bowl.
Lyon has yielded runs at less than two an over. In a match in which there has been a boundary just more than every 10 balls on average, he conceded nine in 44 overs in the first innings and none in his 15 overs on Sunday night. He also was cheered when he came to bowl. As Monday wears on, the pitch wears out (it is proving damnably resilient) and the Pattinson-less seam attacks grows weary, his role will be as his front foot is — a pivot.