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Nathan Lyon: From near zero to hero

Glenn Mitchell Columnist

By Glenn Mitchell, Glenn Mitchell is a Roar Expert

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    Ten months ago Nathan Lyon’s Test career was hanging by a thread.

    Today, once again, he is firmly ensconced as his nation’s number one spinner.

    In the past two weeks he has leapt over Richie Benaud (248 wickets) and Jason Gillespie (259) to sit seventh on the all-time Test wicket-taking list for Australia.

    The man who heads that exultant list is Shane Warne, the only spinner above Lyon.

    2017 has been his year.

    Presently playing his seventh Test of the year, he has 38 wickets at 24.7.

    Since 1 January he has claimed four five-wicket hauls, including a career-best 8-50 against India at Bengaluru.

    Nathan Lyon of Australia looks on

    (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

    Yet, in November last year, Lyon was on the cusp of being dropped from the side.

    He was struggling to make an impact with the ball and, in the process, had seemingly lost the confidence of his skipper, Steve Smith.

    In the opening Test of last summer, against South Africa at Perth, he went the journey.

    After capturing 2-38 in the first innings, he was bizarrely handled by Smith when South Africa batted a second time.

    He was not used at all in the opening session on the third day despite the fact that the rest of the attack could not conjure a breakthrough.

    At stumps, on a 37-degree day, he had sent down only a dozen overs.

    The likes of Warne were scathing in their attitude towards Smith’s use of him.

    On day four, he sent down a further 22 overs, ending the innings with 0-146.

    South Africa won the Test by 177 runs.

    They sewed up the series at Hobart, winning the second Test by an innings and 80 runs after Australia was shot out for 85 on the opening day.

    Lyon finished with 0-57 from 17 overs in South Africa’s innings.

    The selectors were under intense pressure to make changes for the final Test of the series at Adelaide.

    Many felt Lyon should be one of those jettisoned.

    He likely would have been dropped had the man touted to replace him, Steve O’Keefe, not gone down with injury just prior to the selectors naming their squad.

    Lyon captured 4-105 in the third Test.

    He survived the summer, albeit without setting the world on fire, capturing 11 wickets at 45.6 in the three Tests against Pakistan.

    In February, he headed to India where he and O’Keefe went head-to-head.

    On spin friendly decks the pair each claimed 19 wickets – Lyon at 25.3 and O’Keefe 23.3.

    When the selectors sat down to choose the squad for the current tour of Bangladesh they faced a conundrum.

    O’Keefe had been suspended by New South Wales for next month’s Matador Cup and fined $20,000 for offensive comments while intoxicated at the Steve Waugh Medal presentation.

    They opted to leave him at home and chose a spin trio of Lyon, Ashton Agar and Mitchell Swepson.

    In the first Test loss, Lyon held up his end of the bargain with hauls of 3-79 and 6-82.

    Australia went into the current Test at Chittagong with three specialist spinners for the first time since 2006.

    O’Keefe was on the plane and straight back into the side for an injured Josh Hazlewood.

    Lyon , however, was clearly the standout.


    (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

    Opening the bowling with Pat Cummins, he claimed the first four wickets.

    He chimed in late in the day with the second new ball to add a fifth scalp, finishing the day with 5-77 from 28 overs – O’Keefe returned figures of 20-0-70-0 and Agar 17-6-46-1.

    Where the first Test at Dhaka was played on a surface that provided abundant spin and variable bounce, the deck at Chittagong was a tough one for the bowlers on the opening day.

    There was minimal turn, even bounce and all-in-all, it was a pitch favourable to the batsmen.

    Lyon bowled an impeccable length with his first four wickets all coming as a result of beating the batsman on the inside and removing them leg before – a mode of dismissal that has beset so many Australian batsmen in that part of the world.

    It marked the first time in history that the same bowler trapped the top-four leg before wicket.

    It was a highly intelligent display of off-spin bowling as he quickened his pace and bowled a consistently questioning length.

    Had it not been for Lyon, Australia would likely be in a particularly parlous position.

    As a finger spinner, Lyon is 120 wickets clear of his Australian counterpart – Hugh Trumble – hence his sobriquet, GOAT.

    Traditionally, finger spinners have never been as potent a force on the hard, bouncy Australian pitches as their wrist-spinning colleagues.

    In terms of aggregate wickets for spinners, Lyon is the only non-wrist spinner in Australia’s top-six.

    Some of the game’s finest off-spinners have struggled on Australian pitches – Muttiah Muralitharan averaged 75.4; Harbhajan Singh 73.2; and Graeme Swann 52.6.

    Given those performances, Lyon’s home bowling average of 34.6 is highly commendable.

    He is the most experienced member of this current Australian team with 69 Tests under his belt.

    Yet, in spinner’s terms, he is still a young man at 29.

    With 261 wickets already to his name he is every chance to finish ahead of Dennis Lillee’s career total of 355, which would leave him third overall behind two other legends of the game in Glenn McGrath (563) and Warne (708).

    Speaking of Warne, it is interesting to compare his record on the sub-continent with Lyon.

    To date, Lyon has taken his 72 wickets at 28.9 compared to Warne’s 111 wickets at 29.3.

    Presently, he is doing the job for his country and doing it very well.

    And, he is destined to continue for quite some time yet.

    Glenn Mitchell
    Glenn Mitchell

    After 21 years as a sports broadcaster with the ABC, since mid-2011 Glenn Mitchell has been freelancing in the electronic and written media. He is an ambassador for mental health in Australia, and tweets from @mitchellglenn.

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    The Crowd Says (37)

    • September 5th 2017 @ 12:04am
      Don Freo said | September 5th 2017 @ 12:04am | ! Report

      Love your articles, Glenn, but I would never think of Garry ever as a “zero”.

      I know there are many of the instant cricket brigade that would drop anyone that doesn’t get a 5 for or hundred every innings, but they were the only ones that would ever call The GOAT a “zero”.

    • Columnist

      September 5th 2017 @ 2:35am
      Ronan O'Connell said | September 5th 2017 @ 2:35am | ! Report

      Hi Glenn,

      It’s been great to see the way Lyon has bounced back in India and Bangladesh after having such a tough time over the Aussie summer.

      He was genuinely at risk of losing his number 1 spinner status near the end of last summer but now he’s cemented that position for a long while to come, especially after the way SOK struggled today.

      • September 5th 2017 @ 6:39am
        qwetzen said | September 5th 2017 @ 6:39am | ! Report

        O’Keefe: Since the Pune Test v India his stats are; 171 overs, 7 @ 63.1.

        And incidentally, as Smith put O’Keefe on to bowl well before Agar I’m guessing that it was Smith who wanted O’Keefe as the Hazlewood replacement.

        • September 5th 2017 @ 9:44am
          jameswm said | September 5th 2017 @ 9:44am | ! Report

          Seems that way. Probably hoped he could conjure up some of the magic he did in the 1st test in India.

          However – SOK did well in that test because he was accurate and the pitch was doing a bit – hence his straight ones got the wickets (the batsmen played for turn). This pitch is dead, so you have to work harder for your wickets.

          One interesting thing – even though SOK hasn’t prepared as well – if Agar outbowls him this test, it could spell the end of SOK’s test career. Agar would move to our no.2 spinner.

          • September 5th 2017 @ 11:16am
            George said | September 5th 2017 @ 11:16am | ! Report

            In SOK’s defence, he hasn’t played for yonks so very, very harsh to be judged on this match.

            Although we’ve seen with Khawaja that non-favourites are judged harshly.

            Perhaps they’ve set up SOK to fail…. Regardless, Agar isn’t especially good.

            • September 5th 2017 @ 12:02pm
              qwetzen said | September 5th 2017 @ 12:02pm | ! Report

              “In SOK’s defence, he hasn’t played for yonks so very, very harsh to be judged on this match.”

              Hmmm. So if he succeeds it’s a selection masterstroke and undeniable proof that he’s The Real Deal, but if he fails it’s because “…he hasn’t played for yonks.” Win-win for SUK there. Anyways… The fact that “he hasn’t played for yonks” makes his selection even more bizarre. And even bizarrier (todays’ new word) is another fact. In a game that Oz *must* win, why pick a bowler whose main claim to fame is his defensiveness? Isn’t taking wickets what leggies are supposed to do? And what *is* Swepson thinking now? Once again the NSP has over-thought the squad instead of just picking the players Most Likely.

              • September 5th 2017 @ 5:13pm
                matth said | September 5th 2017 @ 5:13pm | ! Report

                And if they were going to fly in a spinner, why not Jon Holland who actually played in the Darwin warm up, and from all reports was very good?

    • Columnist

      September 5th 2017 @ 3:22am
      Kris Swales said | September 5th 2017 @ 3:22am | ! Report

      The GOAT looked borderline unplayable at times on day one. Yet if he doesn’t bowl us to victory in either of the first two Ashes Tests there’ll be articles calling for his head, on sites remarkably like this one.

      Huss clearly knew what he was doing when he bequeathed the team song. Love the GOAT.

      • Roar Pro

        September 5th 2017 @ 7:18am
        Jason Rebelo said | September 5th 2017 @ 7:18am | ! Report

        You’d hope not, given the first two are at the Gabba and Adelaide. He has an excellent record at those grounds, it’s only really sydney and Perth where he struggles. But I know what you mean, we were talking about dropping him in India after one bad test. Good to see the selectors have by and large stuck with him.

        • September 5th 2017 @ 8:18am
          rock86 said | September 5th 2017 @ 8:18am | ! Report

          You just know it will happen though – “we need a wrist spinner” it’ll be said, “wrist spinner’s are better in Australian conditions”.

          And yet, Lyon has one of the best international averages for a spinner in Australian conditions.

          Some people just have blinkered views.

          • September 6th 2017 @ 1:37am
            Chris Love said | September 6th 2017 @ 1:37am | ! Report

            Not blinkered just open to the fact that SOK is head and Shoulders above Lyon in Australian conditions and has been for a very long time.

            And Jason it wasn’t just one bad test. It was a very long string of sub-standard tests. Prior to India, if memory serves me correctly it was 2013 Adelaide when he last had bowled us to victory? Look at the record going back to that test he’d been serviceable but when you’ve got SOK averaging in the low 20’s for years then he comes out and blows them away in his first real crack in a long time it was understandable..

    • September 5th 2017 @ 5:30am
      twodogs said | September 5th 2017 @ 5:30am | ! Report

      Well maybe he’s gotten a little wiser. Lucky also for without his efforts of late Australia would be in real trouble this tour.
      I would good too see SOK get a reprieve. He paid the penalty (or penalties) but surely he looks underdone.

    • September 5th 2017 @ 5:39am
      Mike Dugg said | September 5th 2017 @ 5:39am | ! Report

      It’s good to see some consistently finally from him. He has to back it up this summer though. Hopefully the English batsmen don’t get a hold of him like the the division 2 county sides did in Lyon’s recent stint there

      • September 5th 2017 @ 10:10am
        Don Freo said | September 5th 2017 @ 10:10am | ! Report

        270 wickets in 67 Tests is pretty consistent.

    • September 5th 2017 @ 6:51am
      Matth said | September 5th 2017 @ 6:51am | ! Report

      Yes, well done Lyon. He has answered his critics in the best way possible this year. Bowled very well on a dull pitch. And because he is Lyon, there will be calls to drop him during the Ashes to play four paceman.

      Bangladesh have prepared a batting friendly pitch (for their batsmen) and stacked their side with batsmen, as they only need a draw here to make history. It’s the right strategy for sure. Looks like Australia will need 500 to put pressure on Bangladesh to bat last for survival. Of course, given the pitch is slow and low, it might not be so batsmen friendly for our guys who like it coming on, and they will probably struggle anyway.

      • September 5th 2017 @ 9:46am
        jameswm said | September 5th 2017 @ 9:46am | ! Report

        Our batsmen have to beware the straight ones.

        • September 5th 2017 @ 5:14pm
          matth said | September 5th 2017 @ 5:14pm | ! Report

          Our batsmen lately must beware of all the ones.

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