Why Nathan Lyon is not Spin Jesus

Geoff Lemon Columnist

By Geoff Lemon, Geoff Lemon is a Roar Expert

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    Nathan Lyon is the greatest Australian off-spinner of all time. (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.

    Geoff Lemon
    Geoff Lemon

    Geoff Lemon is a writer, editor and broadcaster covering sport for The Roar, The Guardian and ABC, as well as writing on politics, literature and history for a range of outlets.

    He tweets from @GeoffLemonSport.

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    The Crowd Says (76)

    • Roar Guru

      December 29th 2013 @ 3:58am
      ak said | December 29th 2013 @ 3:58am | ! Report

      The best Australian spinner ever after Shane Warne is this balding, smiling offie called Nathan Lyon.

      • December 29th 2013 @ 6:45am
        Steve said | December 29th 2013 @ 6:45am | ! Report

        Not unless you invented a time machine and got rid of Bill O’Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett.

        • Roar Guru

          December 29th 2013 @ 9:08am
          Tony Loedi said | December 29th 2013 @ 9:08am | ! Report

        • Roar Guru

          December 29th 2013 @ 9:10am
          Sam Brown said | December 29th 2013 @ 9:10am | ! Report

          Don’t forget the unluckiest spinner in cricket history Stuart McGill.

          • Roar Guru

            December 29th 2013 @ 10:27am
            SandBox said | December 29th 2013 @ 10:27am | ! Report

            Comparing McGill to Warne reminds me of the Bing Cosby quote about Frank Sinatra

            “Frank is a singer who comes along once in a lifetime, but why did he have to come along in mine?” I think SCG may have even paraphrased this once

            • Columnist

              December 29th 2013 @ 4:40pm
              Geoff Lemon said | December 29th 2013 @ 4:40pm | ! Report

              I think AK meant after Warne chronologically.

              • Roar Guru

                December 30th 2013 @ 2:18am
                SandBox said | December 30th 2013 @ 2:18am | ! Report

                McGill did retire after Warne

      • December 29th 2013 @ 9:43am
        Jake said | December 29th 2013 @ 9:43am | ! Report

        I hope that’s a joke, AK.

      • December 29th 2013 @ 11:35am
        Adam said | December 29th 2013 @ 11:35am | ! Report

        The next thing you know Lyon will be appearing on the “advanced hair studio” ads and taking tins of baked beans with him on the next trip to India.

        • December 29th 2013 @ 8:22pm
          Professor Rosseforp said | December 29th 2013 @ 8:22pm | ! Report

          Ever since Greg Matthews, I think there has been some sort of financial arrangement between the ACB and Advanced Hair — spinners will only be chosen if they have receding hairlines.

    • Roar Guru

      December 29th 2013 @ 6:46am
      no show said | December 29th 2013 @ 6:46am | ! Report

      Nathan might even have done enough to now be considered for the Sydney test 🙂

      His attitude impresses me. You don’t see him mopping around with his head down when things aren’t going right.

    • December 29th 2013 @ 6:53am
      Dudfarmer said | December 29th 2013 @ 6:53am | ! Report

      The Melbourne Bitter of the Australian Cricket team, that’s a bit rough on him Geoff…..more like woohoo!!! found the last cold stubbie in the Esky!

    • December 29th 2013 @ 6:56am
      James P said | December 29th 2013 @ 6:56am | ! Report

      Key Australian Off Spinners
      ——–
      Trumble may have had a better record in the end but by the age of 28 had 11 wickets from 6 tests at 33
      Tim May at 30 had played 7 tests for 25 wickets at 36
      Yardley didn’t play his first test until he was 30

      Recent Non Australian Off Spinners
      ——–
      Graeme Swann didn’t debut until 29
      Murali at 26 had 177 wickets from 58 tests at 28.97
      Harbhajan at 26 had 238 wickets from 106 tests at 29.86

      Most off spinners develop late and have significantly better records later in their career (Harby being a rare counter example). It is more likely that Lyon will continue to develop as a player over the next 10 years and could take perhaps another 300-400 wickets.

      Or he could be dropped for the next random leg spinner that comes into Shield cricket

      • Roar Guru

        December 29th 2013 @ 9:38am
        The Bush said | December 29th 2013 @ 9:38am | ! Report

        Yeah this is the thing to remember – his average may never be record breaking but if he stays fit and keen he could take 400 wickets – that’d put him in a pretty special class…

      • December 29th 2013 @ 7:09pm
        Clavers said | December 29th 2013 @ 7:09pm | ! Report

        Don’t forget Funky.

    • December 29th 2013 @ 6:56am
      PatGJ said | December 29th 2013 @ 6:56am | ! Report

      Great stuff, he seems like the ultimate team man and hopefully we can all get on with life post-Warne.
      Melbourne bitter doesn’t taste so bad after you’ve had a half dozen or so 😉

      • Roar Guru

        December 29th 2013 @ 9:09am
        Tony Loedi said | December 29th 2013 @ 9:09am | ! Report

        Best beer in the world IMO

      • December 29th 2013 @ 10:02am
        Chui said | December 29th 2013 @ 10:02am | ! Report

        I can’t believe they can find so many cats to squat over the bottles. I thought XXXX would have used all of them.

        • Roar Guru

          December 29th 2013 @ 10:20am
          Tony Loedi said | December 29th 2013 @ 10:20am | ! Report

          Not very nice Chui your talking about my earliest beer drinking memories, MB’s will always have a soft spot in my heart

        • December 29th 2013 @ 11:34am
          Wozza said | December 29th 2013 @ 11:34am | ! Report

          I was absolutely sure xxxx used goats to fill their bottles , perhaps times have changed in QLD ….
          On another subject NL can also bat a bit .

    • December 29th 2013 @ 8:08am
      Christo the Daddyo said | December 29th 2013 @ 8:08am | ! Report

      “The PM’s bitterly anti-refugee policy”?

      Why bring politics onto a sports forum?

      And if you’re going to do so, perhaps you can take the time to get the facts right – the current refugee intake has been increased from 13,000 to 20,000.

      • December 29th 2013 @ 9:06am
        fleagle said | December 29th 2013 @ 9:06am | ! Report

        Fawad Ahmed emigrated to Australia on a short-stay visa sponsored by the Yoogali Cricket Association. He then applied for refugee status. Where is the conflict with the refugee policies of either major party – certainly there isn’t one with that of the current government.

      • Roar Guru

        December 29th 2013 @ 9:09am
        Sam Brown said | December 29th 2013 @ 9:09am | ! Report

        I think it got a mention because it is part of Ahmed’s story which made him a compelling selection possibility. Also in spite of what the numbers say there is no doubt the discussion and rhetoric around refugees/asylum seekers/illegal immigrants is aggressively negative.

        • Roar Guru

          December 29th 2013 @ 9:11am
          Tony Loedi said | December 29th 2013 @ 9:11am | ! Report

          Let’s stick to cricket boys

      • Roar Guru

        December 29th 2013 @ 10:32am
        SandBox said | December 29th 2013 @ 10:32am | ! Report

        In fact, he brought up both politics and religion. Brave or naive?

      • Columnist

        December 29th 2013 @ 4:57pm
        Geoff Lemon said | December 29th 2013 @ 4:57pm | ! Report

        Does sport exist in a vacuum, so that everything around it should be ignored?

        As far as getting the facts right, the 20,000 number was a provisional intake suggested by the previous government. The current government took it straight back down to 13,000.

        • December 29th 2013 @ 5:36pm
          Milz said | December 29th 2013 @ 5:36pm | ! Report

          When you are going to spew your lefty agenda Geoff. YES.

          • Roar Guru

            December 29th 2013 @ 5:49pm
            JGK said | December 29th 2013 @ 5:49pm | ! Report

            Did you read the article Milz – I think it’s already started although I don’t see any of Geoff’s writing as being “spew”.

        • December 29th 2013 @ 10:12pm
          Clavers said | December 29th 2013 @ 10:12pm | ! Report

          The number of offshore refugee places has been *increased* from 6,718 in 2011/12 to a minimum of 11,000. A Prime Minister who is “bitterly anti-refugee” (your words) would have reduced the intake to zero in all categories.

      • December 29th 2013 @ 7:12pm
        Clavers said | December 29th 2013 @ 7:12pm | ! Report

        +1

      • December 29th 2013 @ 9:00pm
        Jake said | December 29th 2013 @ 9:00pm | ! Report

        Christo how about you getting the facts right first?

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