There are poisoned chalices and then there’s being asked to replace Shane Keith Warne.
Doomed spinner after doomed spinner placed their lips on this cursed cup in the years after Warne retired. Nathan Hauritz was presentable but disposable. Dan Cullen appeared and disappeared almost simultaneously. Beau Casson tried to outdo Cullen. Jason Krezja ripped the ball so hard he fell – right off the map.
Cameron White played the role of a spinner in a school play. Bryce McGain offered comic relief. Xavier Doherty once turned a delivery, so the myth goes. Michael Beer never turned a delivery, so the evidence shows.
Then, along came a Lyon.
A groundsman with the drawl of a garbo. A finger-spinner with 12 first-class wickets at 43. A random bloke few of us had ever heard of. Yet there he was in the Australian Test XI, exchanging bum pats with the likes of Ricky Ponting, Mike Hussey and Michael Clarke.
“Ah well, he can’t stuff up worse than the last bloke,” was the rough reaction of Australian cricket fans. That changed to: “Shit, what have we got here?” after just one delivery.
With his first ball in Test cricket, Lyon produced a sumptuous off-break which earned the edge and wicket of one of the game’s greatest-ever batsman, Sri Lankan legend Kumar Sangakkara.
That was seven years and 334 Test wickets ago. Now Lyon is arguably the best Test spinner on the planet. These are the five moments that propelled him there.
Being in the right place at the right time has launched many a successful cricketing career. At the darker end of the spectrum, being in the wrong place at the wrong time has soured the fortunes of countless promising players.
For Australian bowlers, February 24, 2013 was the wrong time and Chennai the wrong place.
It was the third day of the first Test between Australia and India. The pitch was flat and the opposition included nightmarish opponents Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and MS Dhoni. Once he’d seen the back of the first three of those brilliant batsmen, Lyon must have started to feel some degree of relief.
India were 4 for 196, still trailing Australia by 184 runs, and the Aussie spinner had just bowled the legendary Tendulkar through the gate with a perfect delivery. Still a very green spinner, with just two years of first-class cricket under his belt, this dream wicket must have swelled Lyon with pride and confidence.
Maybe, just maybe, he could get on a roll, run through India’s middle and lower order, and bowl Australia into a match-winning position. It was a clear day in Chennai, so Lyon could have been forgiven for not spotting the storm that was brewing.
Tendulkar’s wicket had brought to the crease a man who would soon morph into a hurricane.
The first ball he faced, Dhoni tried to slog sweep Lyon for six. Zero respect. The Indian captain was in one of those moods. The kind of belligerent state of mind he typically reserved for white ball cricket. Today Dhoni had decided to switch immediately to assassin mode and Lyon had a crosshair on his forehead.
The first ball he faced, Dhoni tried to slog sweep Lyon for six. Zero respect.
Yet it took a while before he got around to butchering the Aussie spinner. First, he rode roughshod over the pace attack of Mitchell Starc, James Pattinson and Peter Siddle. Inevitably, it was Lyon’s turn.
Dhoni charged Lyon. Dhoni swept Lyon. Dhoni cut Lyon. Dhoni pulled Lyon. Dhoni fairly wailed on Lyon. He passed 50, then 100, then 150, then 200. Belatedly, on 224, Dhoni gloved a Pattinson bouncer through to wicketkeeper Matthew Wade. Lyon had been spared further abuse. But, in reality, it was too late. Dhoni had thumped Lyon for 104 runs from 85 balls faced, including 14 boundaries, five of which landed in the crowd.
This mauling saw Lyon properly dropped for the first time in his Test career, nearly two years after his debut in Sri Lanka.
I say ‘properly’ dropped because he had been left out of one Test in that time when Australia decided to play four quicks at the WACA to blast out India. This time, however, Lyon was axed for poor performance, not for team balance.
He was replaced by specialist spinner Doherty for the second Test at Hyderabad, while all-rounder Glenn Maxwell came into the side as a second slow bowling option batting down at eight.
Maxwell did a good job, taking 4 for 127 and earning the scalps of Dhoni, Kohli, Murali Vijay and Ravi Jadeja. Still, he was replaced by Lyon for the third Test in Chandigargh.
When Lyon sent down his first delivery in that match I did a double-take. His next delivery confirmed what it was I thought I had seen – he had made a major change to his action. Now, as his left arm reached for the sky, so too did his left knee.
I watched this alteration in his technique again and again. It became clear that new high knee thrust was helping to propel Lyon up and over his front leg, creating kinetic energy that allowed him to rip down on his deliveries. Quite simply, he was getting more body into his action, something Warne has always described as key to a hard-spun delivery.
As a result, Lyon appeared to be earning more overspin, which in turn prompted exaggerated dip and sharper bounce. It emerged that, during his absence from the second Test, Lyon had worked closely with spin coach John Davison. Together, they had hatched Lyon’s new style.
Watch highlights of Lyon bowling from any time before that Test and you’ll be struck by how much less dynamic he appears. He looks, by comparison, like an accurate part-time spinner. The type who just rolls the ball out of his fingers. The type who seeks merely to contain runs. The type who rarely ever would challenge an elite Test batsman.
Lyon’s altered action didn’t return immediate dividends. In the third Test, he was punished, going at more than four runs per over en route to match figures of 2-151.
But then, in the first innings of the fourth Test, Lyon experienced the greatest peak of his career to that point. Australia’s bowlers took 13 wickets in that match and nine of them belonged to Lyon. They weren’t cheap poles either. He got Tendulkar and Kohli twice, to go with the dismissals of Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane.
Lyon was a brand new bowler with a brand new action and a brand new future.
While Lyon’s new action made him a more aggressive spinner, by the time summer rolled around in 2014, he remained a flawed bowler. He had 115 Test wickets to his name and was a solid contributor, but had yet to prove he could be consistently effective on days four and five.
It was at the tail end of Tests that spinners were meant to come into their own. Yet Lyon’s bowling average of 35 in the opposition’s second innings was only a hair better than his mark of 36 in their first dig. Many cricket observers felt the expectations of being a second innings weapon did not rest easily on Lyon’s right shoulder.
Then, in the first Test against India at Adelaide, Lyon found himself in a position of extraordinary pressure. Fresh from being smashed to shards by the Pakistani batsmen in the United Arab Emirates, he was tasked with bowling Australia to victory on Day 5 in a match swollen with emotion.
It was Australia’s first Test since the death of Phil Hughes and the home side was hell-bent on triumphing in his honour. But Indian star Virat Kohli was threatening to flip the script.
At 2 for 242, India were cantering towards their target of 364. Murali Vijay was anchoring the innings on 99 from 233 balls while Kohli was cutting loose on 100 from 135 balls.
Lyon was struggling. Badly. He had 1 for 116 and was going at 4.64 runs per over. Kohli was toying with him, slapping him down the ground when he pitched up and getting deep in his crease to punish him the instant he dropped an inch short.
This, right here, was the reason so many Australian pundits and fans remained unconvinced by Lyon.
This, right here, was the reason so many Australian pundits and fans remained unconvinced by Lyon. Yes, he was a sturdy first innings bowler. Yes, he offered good support to Australia’s quicks. But when he had to take over, when he had to become the main man, it was beyond him. The Channel Nine commentators were expressing this sentiment at length. I was already researching a piece on the spin contenders to replace Lyon for the second Test, convinced he would be dropped if Australia lost.
Then, fortune fell upon Lyon. He had been bowling too quick, too flat and too straight all day, a bad habit which tended to emerge whenever he was under the pump. He speared in just such a delivery, nothing to worry a set batsman. But Vijay played it horribly, getting his feet in a tangle as he tried to whip it far too square on the leg-side. He was plumb LBW.
Five balls later Lyon trusted himself to toss one up outside off, just as the commentators had been urging him to do all day. This beautifully-flighted delivery hit the edge of the footmarks, exploded off the pitch, caught the glove of new batsman Ajinkya Rahane and lobbed to short leg. Just like that, the biggest of all cats was among the pigeons.
From that moment on, things happened in fast motion. The offie took pole after pole, including the crucial, matchwinning one of Kohli, until the last wicket fell and Lyon and his teammates gathered in rapturous celebration atop the number 408 painted on the outfield in memory of Hughes.
Lyon had seven wickets for the day and 12 for the match. Finally, he was a second innings match-winner.
Two years after that man-of-the-match performance, Lyon was right back where he started. In fact, he was in an even darker position.
Lyon was about to be dropped. He had taken 2 for 241 across the first two Tests of the home summer as South Africa humiliated the hosts en route to grabbing an unassailable 2-0 series lead. The Test selectors decided to sweep a broom through the XI that had just been embarrassed by an innings and 80 runs at Hobart.
They axed Joe Burns, Peter Nevill, Callum Ferguson and Joe Mennie for the third Test at Adelaide.
Lyon, by all accounts, was set to join that group. Then, his expected replacement, Steve O’Keefe, suffered a calf injury and Lyon was spared. Two years on and he has not missed a single Test since.
This was the sliding doors moment of Lyon’s career. O’Keefe, at this stage, was a highly attractive Test option. The left armer had dominated the Sheffield Shield for years, was a much better batsman than Lyon and, at 31 years old, was at his peak.
Crucially, O’Keefe had also outbowled him in the three Tests they’d played together, taking ten wickets at 35 compared to Lyon’s ten wickets at 46.
Had O’Keefe taken Lyon’s place for that Adelaide Test, it would have been the first time in his career he had played as Australia’s number one spinner. That honour may have inspired O’Keefe. It also may, or may not, have convinced him to pull in his head off the field.
Such was the quality of O’Keefe as a first-class cricketer there is a chance he may have made the Test spin spot his own.
Instead, he got injured and Lyon survived.
Lyon laboured to exploit this piece of good luck. From the Adelaide Test until the end of the 2016-17 summer, he took 15 wickets at 41 and was expensive, going at 3.5 runs per over, well above his career economy rate. Lyon was back to bowling too quick, too flat and too straight.
In the final Test of the summer, O’Keefe had returned from injury to partner him at the SCG and had, yet again, outshone Lyon. Operating with the loop and drift absent from Lyon’s bowling, O’Keefe took match figures of 4 for 103 on a very flat pitch.
Australia’s next assignment was their toughest of all: a tour of India. If Lyon couldn’t trouble the South African and Pakistani batsmen in his favoured home conditions, how would he fare against Kohli and co. in their backyard? A tour of India is no time for a visiting spinner to be out of form. Even Warne in his pomp had been flayed there. There was a risk Lyon would be bullied just like he had been by Dhoni four years earlier.
The same could be said of the Australian team. Having been demolished 3-0 in Sri Lanka just six months earlier, Australia appeared set for an almighty hiding.
Then, something crazy happened. Something inexplicable. India collapsed for totals of 105 and 107 as Australia won the first Test in Pune by a mammoth 333 runs. O’Keefe ran amok, returning the best-ever figures by an Australia spinner in Asia, with 12 for 70. Lyon quietly chipped in with 5 for 74.
Suddenly, Lyon was a different bowler. No longer panicked and hurried, darting balls in and rushing through overs, he was composed and confident. His deliveries were following a tantalising arc. They rose temptingly before dropping deceptively. Lyon’s offerings leapt off the pitch. So much so that the Indian TV commentators started talking about what their star off-spinner Ravi Ashwin could learn from the Aussie.
By series end, Lyon had 19 wickets at 25. He had completed his first good series in Asia since his debut nearly six years before.
In the process, Australia had competed strongly with India, to the shock of the cricket world. Surging with confidence, Lyon went to Bangladesh five months later and tore the Tigers to shreds. He finished that run of six Tests in Asia with a phenomenal 41 wickets at 18.
Lyon was now an all-conditions gun.
Despite Lyon’s heroics in Asia, all the talk ahead of the 2017 Ashes was about pace. Of particular public interest was the possibility of finally unleashing the so-called ‘Big Four’ – Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and James Pattinson – in the same Test XI. It was suggested in many corners that Australia could use that fearsome pace quartet to blast England in the first Test on a bouncy Brisbane pitch.
Lyon could take a back seat. A seat in the stands, to be exact.
Lyon’s performances in India and Bangladesh may have finally gained him worldwide recognition as an elite Test spinner, but he still lacked star power in Australia. While the Ashes crowds were filled with people wearing Lyon masks that, for the most part, was not out of adulation. Instead, it was recognition of the way in which Nathan ‘Nice Garry!’ Lyon had become a meme.
But Pattinson, as has so often been the case in his on-and-off-again career, was hit by the injury bug before the Ashes. Having been left out of the tour of Bangladesh with a stress fracture in his lower back, the Victorian re-aggravated the same injury less than two months before the first Test against England, and so the four-pronged pace attack idea was discarded. Lyon remained.
Over the past two Australian summers, it has been the off-spinner who has the most Test wickets – and comfortably so at that. In that time Lyon has hoarded 37 wickets, ahead of Starc (32), Hazlewood (29) and Cummins (28).
Still, it was no surprise when the focus this 2018-19 summer was again on the quicks, with both India and Australia possessing intimidating fast bowlers. Lyon just got on with his work, taking eight wickets in the series opener at Adelaide.
When hype began to build about the pace and bounce of the Perth pitch, attentions were so narrowed upon the quicks that India neglected to even pick a spinner.
Helmets were broken, bodies were bruised and headlines were spawned as the respective pace attacks unleashed in that Test. Yet once more it was the unfashionable offie who made the biggest impact.
Lyon exploited the surface perfectly, extracting sharp lift to pick up another eight wickets. On a pitch so remarkably fast and bouncy, in a Test featuring some of the world’s elite quicks, it seems bizarre a finger spinner would finish as man of the match. It was one of the landmark moments of Lyon’s career.
The groundsman who fell into Test cricket, and kept falling over for years, now can’t stop felling opponents.
Written by Ronan O’Connell
Ronan has been a reporter for 15 years and now travels the world as a photojournalist, contributing words and images to more than 70 magazines and newspapers across the US, Europe, Asia, Middle East, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. He’s on Twitter @ronanoco.
Design and editing by Daniel Jeffrey
Image Credit: All images are Copyright Getty Images unless otherwise stated.
Wide image of Nathan Lyon celebrating his first Test wicket is credit: AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe.