Why Nathan Lyon is not Spin Jesus

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Australian spin bowler Nathan Lyon leaps into the arms of Mitchell Johnson after he took the catch to dismiss Ian Bell off the bowling of Nathan Lyon on the third day of the fourth Ashes cricket Test match against Australia in Melbourne on December 28, 2013. AFP PHOTO/Mal Fairclough

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Nathan Lyon is not Jesus. He is not Shane Warne. He is not the commander of an L. Ron spaceship. He does not do showmanship. If you like those things, too bad. He’s here to stay.

That’s what the off spinner announced on the third day in Melbourne, taking his first five-wicket haul on home soil to hobble England’s push for a third-innings lead.

By now, there are few Australian players this Ashes series is yet to bless. Lyon is the latest, and perhaps this will stop condescension being so readily directed his way.

Over the last two and a half years, Lyon has been the least heralded member of this Australian team. He has been last picked, first dropped and last praised, denied even the dubious distinction of supporters’ ire.

Steve Smith, Mitch Johnson and Dave Warner are criticised and mocked, but that antagonism feeds from a recognition of their talent, and a resentment when they fail to fulfil it.

No one feels that strongly about Lyon. A state T20 player from Australia’s dowdiest city, in a league where the few stars are back-dropped by anonymous rosters, everything about him was underwhelming.

Personally, he gave the impression of being the world’s youngest 46 year old. As a cricketer, his were the least glamorous arts: a shaky forward defence, overs of sturdy, reliable off spin.

Lyon didn’t rip the ball. He didn’t talk a big game. He did a modest job in unexceptional style. Basically, he manifested all the reasons Australian fans derided Ashley Giles.

Here was Giles in cross-equatorial mirror image, and suddenly we were being asked to cheer for him.

The impression was so strong that he couldn’t even capture the imagination of selectors. After ploughing through Jason Krejza, Nathan Hauritz, Xavier Doherty and Michael Beer, they were desperate for someone to hold up an end.

Lyon made his way into Test cricket by what Homer Simpson called “the two sweetest words in the English language: de-fault, de-fault.”

However dependable his returns, there was the feeling that Lyon was a stop-gap until something more exciting came along.

Somewhere out there – we just knew it – was a spinner with a snapping wrist, sparkling fingers, an indomitable swagger on the field. Somewhere was the Magic Man who would lead his followers to a new golden age.

Somewhere in the distance was a land of milk and honey, a lush evening buffet. Lyon was the flavourless truck-stop sandwich that gets you through the day.

That sort of player can always make way for a hunch. After nine Tests he was left out for an all-pace attack against India at Perth.

Fair to pick a team for the conditions, but no rated spinner would be put aside.

He played 11 further games, but his lack of incisiveness was criticised, especially after South Africa’s marathon draw in late 2012.

By March 2013, he played in Australia’s first-up loss in Chennai, then was dropped at Hyderabad for limited-overs bowlers in Xavier Doherty and Glenn Maxwell.

In Mohali he came back to partner Doherty, in Delhi his partner was Maxwell.

Nine wickets in that final Indian Test made no difference: awaiting in England were Ashton Agar and Fawad Ahmed.

Everywhere you turned, Cricket Australia were looking for alternatives.

Lyon was duly dropped again for the first Ashes Test, letting Agar make his famed batting debut, but the teenage sensation didn’t come off with the ball. Two losses and the selectors were looking once more at Lyon.

The Melbourne Bitter of the Australian team, he had become the grudging fall-back when nothing better was available.

Despite solid Tests in England, talk before the current series still countenanced his omission for Ahmed, with leg spin naturally seen in Australia as a more dynamic, charismatic and potent weapon.

Ahmed’s ascension would have been a fairy tale, and embarrassing for the new Prime Minister’s bitterly anti-refugee policy, but for the first time in this story, steadiness won out. Come Brisbane, the choice was Lyon.

It’s amazing what a winning side can do. With colleagues taking wickets, Lyon has been able to contribute in his own understated fashion.

He has stifled scoring while presenting temptations to bring batsmen undone.

His worst economy rate is 3.2, but six of his eight innings have been 3 or less. He has taken at least one wicket in every innings, with today’s haul taking him to third on the series list: 16 wickets at 26.93. Graeme Swann managed 7 at 80; Monty Panesar has 2 at 110.

Not just that, but Lyon has taken key wickets at key times. His two in one over helped kick off that first tremendous slide in Brisbane, setting the tone for the series. In Brisbane’s second innings and Perth’s first he removed Alistair Cook when England’s captain was well set.

On the last day at Perth he knocked off centurion Ben Stokes and English hopes of a draw. On this third afternoon in Melbourne, he stifled England’s target.

It’s not that today’s 5/50 showed us Lyon could bowl. He took 5/34 on debut in Sri Lanka, 5/68 in the West Indies, and 7/94 in India. His most dismissed batsman is Sachin Tendulkar. It’s no breakthrough in terms of his ability.

But this series does mark the first time he has been securely part of the team; its unquestioned number one spinner.

Today, Nathan Lyon reached 100 Test wickets, a position in history occupied by five other Australian finger spinners.

Hugh Trumble might have got his at greater velocity, but his total is nonetheless only 41 wickets away. It is exalted company for a bowler of Lyon’s type, and personal achievement aside, lends him a gravitas that should now convince far more people to let him do his job.

While a lack of selectorial enthusiasm has cost him a few Tests, it may have inadvertently advanced his career, by letting others underestimate him. As long as Lyon is seen as a choice driven by necessity, a worker his own employers are itching to replace, opponents are unlikely to pay much regard.

This is one upside to the fact that Lyon is never going to be a superstar. Another, for those of us looking on, is that it’s good for us.

This lack of starshine, this reward of the solid and ordinary, is emotional roughage that will help keep our minds regular.

Post-Warne, Australians have become the Chosen People of spin, waiting in blind faith for a new Saviour to arrive.

Lyon has let us know that he won’t be coming.

While Lyon is around, that stuff isn’t needed.

There’ll be no sparkles, no fireworks, no grand glorious ascent to a better place on a higher plane.

Instead, there’ll be an appreciation of what we can on this one, with a no-nonsense, nondescript practitioner of a simple art trying to help leave the place in better shape than when he found it.

Geoff Lemon is a writer and radio broadcaster. He joined The Roar as an expert columnist in 2010, writes the satirical blog Heathen Scripture, and tweets from @GeoffLemonSport. This article was first published by Wisden India, in a new-founded Ashes partnership.