ROHIT SANKAR | 4 JANUARY, 2019
Was Mayank Agarwal’s Handling of Nathan Lyon the Turning Point?
It forced the spinner on the defensive, and changed how other batsmen handled him
"It wasn't easy to get hold of those emotions and focus there, but it needed to be done,” said Mayank Agarwal after his debut test innings, which followed a long wait that began when he accumulated 1000 runs in a month in first-class cricket, the first player to do so since Billy Ponsford nearly a century ago.
Agarwal was called up to the test squad for the series against West Indies at home, but wasn't given a debut. Frustratingly dropped for the series in Australia, in the end he benefitted from the poor form of current openers KL Rahul and Murali Vijay.
He was called up for the third test at Melbourne and made it count, with a superb knock on debut - a flashy 76 adorned with some exceptional batting against a quality attack - followed by a handy 42 in the second innings.
But what was iconic in Agarwal’s debut test was the manner in which he treated Nathan Lyon, the top wicket-taker in the series before the third match.
Lyon was a thorn in India's side in the first two tests, picking up a five-for in each and bowling with exceptional rhythm and control. He had the wood over most of India's top order, including their go to man Virat Kohli, whom he has dismissed eight times in test cricket.
Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane too had their flaws against Lyon, and the off spinner ruled even at Perth, winning man of the match on a surface green enough for India to have benched all their spinners.
As Melbourne and Sydney loomed, slower tracks both when compared to Adelaide and Perth, the threat of Lyon was imminent. Sure enough, once Agarwal and Hanuma Vihari had put on a decent opening stand against the Australian seamers, Tim Paine wasted no time in bringing in Lyon. With 16 wickets in two tests, Lyon had been superb and in form, and the Indians were evidently uncertain against the spinner.
Lyon’s first two deliveries to Agarwal were slashed through the covers, with the young opener going after the ball with long strides forward and confident, decisive strokes. There were shades of Mohammad Azharuddin and Virat Kohli in the debutant’s flamboyance and wristiness against the spinner. The first stroke was stopped at cover but the second raced to the boundary for a four.
Just these two deliveries, in a 90 over day, came to hold huge significance in the context of the game, possibly even the series. In Lyon’s next over the field was more spread out, mid on had moved back to long on, and the spinner was coming around the wicket - already a more defensive play.
And Agarwal kept Lyon on his toes. He flicked, drove down the ground, cut through point and moved around in the crease to keep the spinner guessing.
In the pre-match show, former Aussie skipper Michael Clarke had raised the point that India were faltering in their handling of Nathan Lyon. The off-spinner had a natural angle into the right handers, and by turning the ball into them made it very difficult for them to play him through the offside.
Lyon used his drift to all but negate offside play, and could keep a field heavy on the legside. For batsmen who stepped out to play him, the option was to either go through the well protected legside field, or block, which opened up the possibility of a catch to short leg or an inside edge, given the extra bounce Lyon can generate.
The first thing Agarwal did was disturb this trend. He used long strides forward to prevent a leg before, and put power behind his shots forcing Lyon on the defensive. When he stepped out, he made sure to stay outside the line by moving in mid-on’s direction.
This opened up the offside, and Agarwal’s shots against Lyon were marked with drives through cover or down the ground past him. He even smashed Lyon for three sixes in the test, as he played the spinner decisively, the way subcontinental batsmen ought to play spinners.
What resulted was the shattering of Nathan Lyon, Australia's go-to man in tests of late. For once the zing in Lyon’s steps was missing.
With two five-fors in as many tests, at the Melbourne Lyon had just one wicket to show for 61 overs’ toil, and conceded 150 runs in the process. Agarwal’s scything attack changed the way Lyon was treated by other batsmen as well and India, after a win at Melbourne, now have the advantage as they head down to Sydney, where they could well seal their first ever series win Down Under.