To fully understand what Nathan Lyon has experienced throughout his career, let’s go back to the very start.
Galle, Sri Lanka. September 2011.
In the blue corner stands Kumar Sangakkara. Quiet. Radically skilled. Battle scarred. Brutal. Cricket’s Clark Kent.
In the red corner stands a 23-year-old kid. A country lad on debut. A groundsman. An off-spinner yet to bowl in a Test match.
It’s not a fair fight. Some in the commentary box have the white towel ready to throw in.
The bell rings. The off-spinner comes around the wicket. The ball flights, grips, turns, bounces, hits the edge and is caught by the skipper at slip.
The debutant’s inaugural Test match delivery – 1, Clark Kent – 0.
Nathan Lyon went on to take five wickets in that innings, dismissing Angelo Mathews before sweeping through the tail.
Australians wouldn’t see him take a five-wicket haul on home soil until his 29th match. By then, they had made up their minds: he wasn’t very good, he couldn’t spin his side to victory.
Mike Hussey saw something in him. When Mr Cricket backs a man, it comes with gravitas. He handed over his team song duties to Lyon; a strong message given the spinner’s role in the side was far from concrete. It would be a long time before the man from country New South Wales got to lead the team in joyous vocal pomposity.
Spinners and wicketkeepers share an undeniable bond, and a former wicketkeeper gave Lyon his first big opportunity. South Australian coach Darren Berry saw Lyon play and offered him a role in the 2010-11 Redbacks Big Bash squad. Lyon was the team’s leading wicket taker in his debut season.
Now Lyon sits only four wickets behind Hugh Trumble’s record as Australia’s most successful off-spinner. That the record has stood for 110 years demonstrates how difficult it is to be a world-class off-spinner. That Lyon is only 27 years old speaks volumes of his talent.
The path for spinners in Australia since the retirement of Shane Warne has been irritating at best. Before Lyon, there was a progression of upstarts all looking to fulfil the public’s demand for a new ‘Sheik of Tweak’.
Since his debut in Galle, Lyon has seen off Ashton Agar, Xavier Doherty, Glenn Maxwell and Stephen O’Keefe. His latest challenger is a Pakistani refugee named Fawad Ahmed.
Criticism of Lyon usually labours on the fact that he brought a white-ball technique into a red-ball realm. He bowls too quickly. He is more dart than flight. He choses a defensive, round-the-wicket line.
Lyon was second on the list of wicket takers for Australia in their 2014 ODI tri-series against Zimbabwe and South Africa. Yet he was dropped for the World Cup lead-up games against India and England, and ultimately the World Cup itself.
Xavier Doherty, his replacement, played only one game and gave away 60 runs in seven overs.
There is always someone threatening to take Lyon’s spot. Like all underdogs, the public like him, however they don’t yet adore him. Even after his first Ashes five-wicket haul, during the Boxing Day Test in 2013, they were unsure.
Off-spinners aren’t sexy, especially ones with thinning tops and lacking a bent arm. Yet one senses that Lyon has moved into phase two of his Test journey.
This is the part of the show where he consistently bowls Australia to victory on Day 5. Where his place is not under threat. Where his teammates trust him.
He showed it last summer against the Indians. When he went over the wicket, he created chances. The ball would spin. Most importantly, the ball would bounce.
Lyon may turn it the wrong way for typical Australian tastes, but tastes change.
The selectors seem to allow the newer, shinier model the chance to displace him. Yet the newer, shiner model never does.
It is a common thread in Lyon’s career. Survivor. Fighter. Off-spinner.
Match winner? Time will tell.