Nathan Lyon: From near zero to hero
Date: September 5, 2017 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell
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.
Twenty-seventeen 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.
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.
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.
First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 5 September 2017, soliciting 37 comments