Amid the worst form trough of his Ashes career and in the wake of botching the run out that would have won Australia the urn, Nathan Lyon faces major mental and technical hurdles over the next two Tests.
The veteran off-spinner has been pilloried in recent days for missing the easy run-out chance of Jack Leach. Many people have questioned whether that mistake will muddle his mind over the remainder of this series, while former foes like Matt Prior have come out of the woodwork to rub salt into the wounds.
Rebounding from such a critical error will undoubtedly test Lyon’s mental fortitude. His fumble has been replayed countless times already and will be shown on the big screens at Old Trafford again and again next week.
The Manchester crowd, meanwhile, will be constantly reminding Lyon of his blunder throughout the fourth Test.
I think Lyon, though, is better equipped to cope with this hardship than most international cricketers. With 357 wickets to his name, he is one of the world’s most experienced Test cricketers. Lyon is also intimately familiar with adversity.
Few Australian cricketers in the modern era have experienced a greater range of highs and lows than the off-spinner, who spent the first six years of his Test career trying to convince the Australian selectors and public that he belonged.
I wrote a long read for The Roar earlier this year on Lyon’s rollercoaster ride.
Having been through all of that, I do not think the events at the end of the third Test will greatly hinder Lyon over the next two matches.
He has a far more serious issue to deal with.
England have found a way to neutralise Lyon.
After making a barnstorming start to this Ashes, with 12 wickets at 19 in the first three innings of the series, he has since been dominated by the hosts, taking 2-218 across the past three innings.
That is by far the worst return across a three-innings sequence in Lyon’s Ashes career. It could be argued that he’s been unlucky over that period, with several dropped catches and a couple of LBW decisions that should have been given out.
But that poor run is also due to a different approach from England. Prior to this recent slump, Lyon had been consistently excellent against England, averaging 26 with the ball across his previous 20 innings.
That success had been built upon his ability to get the English batsmen caught on the crease, neither committing fully forward or back. This brought his sharp bounce into play and created a lot of catches for the close-in fielders.
Sky TV coverage showed that, in the first three innings of this series, England’s batsmen had been getting well forward to Lyon. The off-spinner adapted to that quite easily by pulling his length back ever so slightly and challenging these front foot strokes with his lift off the pitch.
Since then, though, the Sky graphic displayed the England batsmen had made a concerted effort to play him much more off the back foot, with their average intercept points far deeper than in the first three innings of the series.
Lyon, so far, has not adjusted well to this new England strategy. England captain Joe Root used the tactic nicely, playing the Aussie from deep in the crease over and again until, when Lyon corrected his length and pitched up, he came forward to drive or sweep.
Lyon’s response to England’s fresh approach was, quite often, to bowl flatter and quicker. Perhaps he was searching for LBWs, figuring that he had the batsmen pinned back in front of their stumps. In doing so, however, he robbed himself of the sharp loop, dip and bounce that sets him apart from most other finger spinners.
When Lyon has found himself searching for form across his career commonly he has resorted to darting the ball in. Rarely has it worked. It has been when he’s rediscovered the confidence to toss the ball up once more that he’s found his groove.
England will be delighted if Lyon continues to maintain a flatter trajectory. Many of their batsmen are used to facing such spin bowling in white-ball cricket and tend to feast on it. Whereas England consistently have been undone by classical, well-flighted slow bowling.
More than the mental demons of bungling the Leach run out, I think it will be this technical battle which will most challenge Lyon as the Ashes winds to a conclusion.