Such a feat places both bowlers amongst the all-time greats, but whilst Morkel has bowed out after 11 excellent years of test cricket, Lyon looks set to continue as Australia’s Number 1 spinner for years to come. I’ve taken a look at some of the pertinent stats to try to ascertain just how far he could go, and whether ‘the GOAT’ really could become the greatest of all time.
Currently, Nathan Lyon has 306 test scalps from 78 tests, at an average of 32.21 at a strike rate of 62.7. He is 30 years old. This is already the 33rd highest total in test history, 7th on the Australian all-time list, and he has the 5th highest wicket tally of any spinner up to the age of 30 (full list here). He is already the top Aussie off-spinner in history by an enormous margin and he potentially has years left to continue to add to his total.
At present, the spinning stocks in Shield Cricket are looking pretty thin, with Lyon seemingly having seen off the challenges of Steve O’Keefe and Fawad Ahmad. Plenty of column inches have been written about the potential of Lloyd Pope, but at 18 he’s yet to play his first Shield game for South Australia and even Shane Warne didn’t earn his first Baggy Green until the age of 22. Spinners tend to develop and mature a little later than quicks, and due to the lower forces applied can also continue later into their 30s.
Looking at the other greatest spinners in the game, it’s impossible not to conclude that Lyon is in a position to end his career far higher up the all-time lists in the pantheon of the greatest spinners to have played the game.
Taking the top 8 spinners in cricket history (by number of test victims), 5 are already retired and 3 (including Lyon) are still playing. Looking at that top-8, the average age of retirement is above 35. I’ve included Herath (currently still playing aged 40!) to find that figure, as to exclude him skews the figures somewhat. Given another 5 years of test cricket without being dropped or injured, Lyon is likely to play around 60 more tests. At present he averages 3.9 wickets per test, so a further 60 tests would see him finish his career on 541 test wickets. That would currently place Lyon 5th on the all-time wicket-takers list, 3rd Australian behind Warne and McGrath.
You can see the full list of Test cricket’s top wicket-takers here.
However, I believe that we can expect to see greater than average longevity from Lyon, given that he entered professional cricket later than usual, making his first-class debut the same year as his test debut, aged 23. Added to that, he plays much of his cricket on the pace-friendly surfaces of Australia, meaning he tends to bowl fewer overs per innings than spinners based on the sub-continent and as such, he hasn’t bowled as many overs as many others his age. Playing past the age of 37 (as Murali, Warne, Kumble and Herath all have) could see Lyon finish close to Kumble’s 619 victims.
Despite the increasing risk of injuries for spinners in their 30’s, the added maturity and experience seem to balance the effects of ageing to allow the top spinners to take roughly the same number of wickets after turning 30 as they managed before 30. Although Vettori and Harbhajan dried up after the age of 30, Warne and Kumble actually took the majority of their test wickets after passing 30. Herath has taken 92% of his wickets post-30 and that figure can only increase! Looking at the top 8 (with Lyon and Ashwin removed due to their ages), bowlers took 48% of their career total after the age of 30. If Lyon were to follow this pattern, he would take another 242 wickets and finish his career on 548, very close to catching Glenn McGrath (563 wickets).
Of course, at present there are other bowlers still playing who could possibly alter the numbers towards the top of the tree. James Anderson could yet climb above McGrath if he can play another full season in England where he is likely to take a sack of wickets in six tests in home conditions against Pakistan and India. However, it’s hard to see Anderson continuing far beyond this English summer.
At the age of 40, Herath is probably taking wickets with more consistency than at any time in his career. His current total of 415 places him 12th and with several other greats firmly in his sights, Herath looks likely to end his career inside the top-10, but surely at some point someone will discover the shrivelled painting hidden in his attic that is the secret of his eternal youthfulness.
Ravi Ashwin is Lyon’s only real contemporary in the top 8 of all time. He has a very similar number of wickets (311 to Lyon’s 306) at a similar age (at 31, Ashwin is just 14 months his senior). Ashwin has the better average, the better strike rate and therefore (on paper at least) is likely to finish his career on an even higher number of test wickets than Lyon. Ashwin is currently in a position to challenge the top 3 bowlers of all-time, with time on his side and plenty of home tests to be played on surfaces that will help rather than hinder. The one factor that could limit Ashwin is the fierce competition for places in the Indian team. If he were to pick up an injury or his form should falter, it is more likely India would be able to replace him than Australia could currently replace Lyon. As a result, although Ashwin’s current trajectory is stratospheric, it may be harder for him to play another 50 or 60 tests than it is for Lyon.
Given Lyon’s rise to become one of the most experienced and reliable performers in the Australia squad, it seems he may be in a position to help shape the way Australia plays in future and carve his own place in the annals of the sport as he does so.
What do you think? How many wickets will Lyon have when his career eventually ends? Is he up there with the greats?