Among specialist spinners from outside Asia, only two - Shane Warne and Daniel Vettori - have played 100-plus matches in the history of Test cricket. That stat encapsulates the significance of what Nathan Lyon will achieve at the Gabba on Friday. Should he take four wickets in the game, he will also join an even more exclusive club - non-Asian spinners with 400-plus wickets - which currently has only one member: Warne.
While 100 Tests or 400 wickets is a special achievement for any player, both are landmarks which a bigger group of cricketers have reached: 67 have played 100 Tests, and 15 are in the 400-wicket club, including five spinners. Lyon's achievement is remarkable because it is extremely rare for a spinner from a non-Asian country to last long enough, and have enough success, to bring up those milestones. Lyon started with a wicket off his first ball, and five in his first innings, and while it hasn't all been smooth sailing over the next decade, it has largely been characterised by consistency and control: in the 10 years from 2011 to 2020, only twice has his annual average exceeded 35. And an average of 29.14 in his last 36 Tests indicates that his stats are moving in the right direction, despite poor returns in the ongoing series against India.
Over the last 40 years, the pickings for non-Asian spinners have been surprisingly slim, in terms of career longevity and wickets. Only four have taken 250-plus wickets, five have breached the 200 mark, and just seven have more than 150. Admittedly, conditions in Australia don't make the spinner as redundant as they do sometimes in England, New Zealand or South Africa, but even so, these are all teams whose bowling attacks revolve around pace. Spinners in these line-ups have usually had much shorter careers. Warne was a wizard and in a league of his own, but for the rest, it has generally been a struggle to find a regular place in the Test line-up.
Lyon has generally played as a member of a four-bowler line-up, and has done his job well, picking up nearly a quarter of the bowler wickets. His 23.5% sits well when compared to the other fingerspinners in the group. Warne and Stuart MacGill have higher percentages, but MacGill played only 44 Tests, while Swann took 25.9% of England's wickets in the 60 Tests he played. For comparison, R Ashwin has taken 30% of India's bowler wickets in the 74 Tests he has played, while the percentages for Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble are 26.3 and 30.7. Rangana Herath, too, took 30% of Sri Lanka's wickets in the 93 Tests he played, but all those percentages pale when compared with Muttiah Muralitharan's 40.4%.
In the decade in which Lyon has been playing Test cricket, Australia has been one of the toughest places for spinners: spinners collectively average 46.64 in Australia since Lyon's debut, which is the poorest among all countries which have hosted at least five Tests, except New Zealand (50.18).
Lyon has found a way to succeed in these conditions, relying on overspin and bounce, more than huge turn, for his wickets. It helps, obviously, that Australia have been dominant at home in this period with a 36-7 win-loss record; their pace attack has generally been relentless in home conditions, while the batsmen have been far more prolific at home than away. Those factors have obviously helped Lyon's success rate by allowing him to usually bowl with attacking fields to batsmen under pressure. But even so, the fact that Lyon has outbowled other spinners so convincingly says a bit about his quality: exclude his numbers, and the average for the rest of the spinners in this period balloons to 62.16.
In fact, one of the disappointments for Australia in the ongoing series is the way Lyon has been outbowled - at least in terms of numbers - by Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. It is true that catches have been dropped off his bowling and he hasn't had luck going his way, but the cold numbers show that Lyon has conceded 57.66 runs for each of his six wickets compared to Ashwin's average of 28.83 and Jadeja's 15. Collectively, the India spinners have averaged 23.7, which is 33.9 runs better than Lyon's average. Never before has Lyon been outbowled so comprehensively by the opposition spinners in a home series.
Bowling in Australia has obviously been his strength, but his numbers in Asia are improving too. In his first eight Tests in the continent - three Tests each in Sri Lanka and India, and two in the UAE against Pakistan - Lyon averaged 49.11, and leaked 3.84 runs per over. The UAE tour, especially, was a nightmare: he returned figures of 3 for 422 in 110 overs.
In his last 11 Tests here, though, those stats have improved considerably: 69 wickets at 24.50, including 22 wickets in two Tests in Bangladesh, and 19 in four matches in India. The economy rate has dropped from 3.84 to 2.80. And if we do a similar comparison between Lyon and the opposition spinners in Asia, the improvement in the last three series is significant. Overall, in the 99 Tests Lyon has played, the opposition spinners have averaged 38.99 to Lyon's 31.98.
Like all offspinners, Lyon relishes bowling to left-handers: he averages 24.16 against them compared to 36.52 against right-handers. His tally of 146 wickets of left-hand batsmen is second since his debut among all spinners, next only to Ashwin's haul of 193.
However, the two batsmen he has dismissed most often are both right-handers - Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, both 10 times each. Pujara averages a healthy 49.90 against him, but given that he averages 75.23 overall against spin, Lyon hasn't done too badly. Rahane, on the other hand, averages only 31.80 against him, which indicates Lyon has had the better of him in their head-to-head battles. A 11th - or 12th - dismissal of either of these batsmen would be a fine way to celebrate his 100th Test, and perhaps his 400th wicket.