Let’s be clear on one thing: both Nathan Lyon and Ravichandran Ashwin are all-time great bowlers; in fact, Nathan Lyon is certainly Australia’s greatest off-spinner, and Ashwin, too, has a strong claim to being hailed as India’s greatest off-spinner.
Both off-spinners made their Test debuts in 2011 and continue to remain their country’s premier, first-choice off-spinner in the longest format.
Nathan Lyon recently became a member of the 500 Test wickets club. He has 509 scalps in 125 Tests at an average of 30. R Ashwin is likely to get into this club in the upcoming home series against England: he has 490 wickets under his belt in 95 Test matches at an average of 23.
While the difference in the Test bowling averages of Lyon and Ashwin is significant, it should always be noted that Ashwin has had the home advantage of bowling on dry tracks – which have been even more spin-friendly, tending towards extreme sometimes, since 2015 – while Lyon has had to toil over the flatter, more conducive to pacers than spinners surfaces in Australia. So it would be unfair to compare their overall records.
What would give a much better comparison between the two great off-spinners would be in their performances when both played together, both in India and in Australia.
R Ashwin vs Nathan Lyon in India:
Ashwin is simply a beast in Indian conditions. Lyon is nowhere near him. In the 11 Test matches that have featured both of these off-spinners in India, Ashwin took 69 wickets at an average of 21, while Lyon took 56 wickets at an average of 27.
Ashwin and Jadeja’s success in India has made India the best home Test team in the world over the past decade, as they have not lost a single home Test series and have lost only three Test matches in this period.
R Ashwin vs Nathan Lyon in Australia:
Nathan Lyon vs R Ashwin in Australia is a contest that is always keenly observed. Sometimes, it feels unfair on Ashwin when the fans and media draw his comparison with Lyon only with his performances in Australia, as if his contributions at home don’t matter much or are disregarded, pointing out the spin-friendly tracks.
Despite Ashwin struggling on his first two tours of Australia, the Indian off-spinner has matched nicely with the Aussie off-spinner.
Both have played 10 Test matches together in Australia. In those, Ashwin took 39 wickets at an average of 42.15, and Lyon took 32 wickets at an average of 42. Ashwin has a slightly better economy than Lyon (2.93 to 3.04).
It’s a huge blip in the career of Nathan Lyon that he was part of the bowling attack that lost two Test series to India, especially the second one in 2020/21, when he was expected to bowl India out on Day 5 of the Sydney and Brisbane Tests.
Conclusion: While both remain two of the greatest off-spinners of all time, the numbers do suggest that Ravichandran Ashwin has been a greater off-spinner and a bigger match-winner than Nathan Lyon.
It can be said with conviction that R Ashwin has outbowled and outperformed Nathan Lyon in their head-to-head encounters.