The Ashes: A tale of two spinners

I wrote an Ashes preview. It was boring. You won’t be subjected to it. Fortunately, when researching that I noticed a strange feature of Nathan Lyon’s bowling: he is great in the first innings of a Test.

At the time of writing it’s unclear whether we’ll see Moeen Ali vs Nathan Lyon as the opposing spinners in the 2019 Ashes – Ali’s batting has been poor of late, so it’s hard to justify his selection. Easier to make seam-friendly wickets and neutralise Lyon. Career averages show why that’s tempting:

Fig 1 – Nathan Lyon and Moeen Ali’s Test bowling records (as at 30/7/19)

That data masks two things – firstly, since 2017 both bowlers average 29. Secondly, and interestingly, how they perform through a match.

Fig 2 – Lyon (Yellow Triangle) and Ali (Green Square) by Innings of the match. Axes are the same in all four charts.

Let’s walk through that quartet of charts. In the first Innings, Nathan Lyon is about as good as it gets. An average of 32 is 11 runs per wicket better than the average for all spinners. He’s right up there with Ashwin & Jadeja. Moeen Ali is, frankly, awful. Averaging 16 more runs per wicket than Shane Shillingford. That Green Square is poles apart from Lyon’s Yellow Triangle.

Through the second and third innings, Nathan Lyon stubbornly refuses to improve. The chasing pack catches him, then outshines him by the third innings. Ali is comparable with him at that point (and within touching distance of the rest).

Now it gets weird. If anything, Lyon is worse in the fourth innings. A bowling average of 34 is now ten runs worse than that for all spinners since 2010. The control is still there, as his economy rate is unaffected. The sample size is fine (58 wickets in the fourth innings). Odd.

Meanwhile, the fourth innings is Ali’s playground. 59 wickets at 22, he’s right up there with the big boys. Go Green Square, go!

Let’s end with some practical uses for this, before it becomes pub trivia.

  • Nathan Lyon can be part of a four man attack for Australia – he can bowl effectively in the first innings, so Australia don’t need to play four quicks to have sufficient firepower early in the match.
  • Moeen Ali shouldn’t bowl in the first innings for England. Stokes can play the role of fourth bowler, and Ali should bowl no more than ten overs per day. Save him for later in the game.

Further Reading

Cricinfo independently noticed this back in 2017 (ie. I haven’t copied them, honest!) Unfortunately for them, they attributed the difference to the Asian continent. That quirk has now been ironed out.