Nathan Lyon heads into his fourth Ashes campaign full of confidence after a career defining 2017 has seen him reach the top of his game.
It’s Boxing Day 2016 and 63,478 people are packed inside the Melbourne Cricket Ground eagerly anticipating the spell of a certain Australian bowler. No, it’s not the fearsome pace of Mitchell Starc or the unerring accuracy of Josh Hazlewood they’re after, it’s the offspin of Nathan Lyon.
They were there to witness a phenomenon. The “Nice, Garry!” phenomenon. It had begun weeks earlier during a day/night Test match at the Adelaide Oval when wicketkeeper Matthew Wade, recently recalled to the side for his chirpiness behind the stumps, devised the rallying cry in a throwback similar to Ian Healy’s famous “Bowling Shane!” tagline witnessed throughout the 1990’s.
Wade’s catchphrase quickly went viral and soon escalated into a nationwide Nathan Lyon-love fest, so much so that it now had its own Facebook page. Heading into the Melbourne Test over 22,000 Facebook users signed a petition campaigning for the MCG crowd to collectively yell the, now famous, slogan whenever Lyon delivered the third ball of his opening spell.
Lo and behold, Lyon’s cult following grew to further heights when, right on cue, he sent the festive crowd into a frenzy by having Pakistani opener Sami Aslam caught at slip halfway through his opening over.
The once unheralded Lyon had now become a fully-fledged Australian cult hero. However, things could easily have turned out much different…
Just weeks earlier, Lyon’s 2016 was heading towards an uncertain end. He was on the verge of being dropped from the Test side after a disastrous defeat to South Africa in Hobart coincided with his own slump in form and confidence. At one point he’d failed to take a single wicket in 660 first-class deliveries split between the Sheffield Shield and Test cricket.
If not for an untimely calf niggle suffered by New South Wales teammate Steve O’Keefe then Lyon would certainly have swapped places with his fellow spinner, thus finishing the year in domestic cricket.
Despite the memorable dismissal of Sami Aslam, his place in the side was once again in jeopardy heading into the final day of the Boxing Day fixture. The fanfare of that first-innings dismissal masked over his poor returns of 1-115 in the first dig. Then came the turning point. Faced with a straight forward looking final day survival act on a flat wicket, Pakistan collapsed in a heap to lose the match by an innings and 18 runs. Lyon’s contributions were massive. It was his scalps of Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq and Asad Shafiq that broke the back of a strong Pakistani middle order.
For Lyon, things had started to fall back into place – his roar was back!
Despite an up-and-down year with the ball – in which the nadir came when he was largely held accountable for a 3-0 series reverse in Sri Lanka – he still managed to conclude 2016 with a respectable 41 Test wickets at 36.34.
After a difficult 2016, Lyon entered this year with plenty to prove, not least to himself. His biggest challenge was always likely to be how he performed on the spin friendly subcontinental wickets of India and Bangladesh. He has since dispelled all the doubts surrounding his place in the side and propelled himself into the elite bracket of spin bowlers across world cricket.
Heading into Australia’s four-Test tour of India in February, Lyon held an unflattering bowling record in Asia. Spread across 11 Tests his 42 wickets had cost him 42.57 apiece. Since then his six matches have yielded a further 41 wickets at just 19.39.
After playing second fiddle to O’Keefe during Australia’s opening Test victory in Pune, he burst into life in Bengaluru taking first innings returns of 8-50 before following up with 5-92 in the final Test in Dharamsala. Despite finishing the series on the losing side, Lyon (with 19 wickets at 25.26) had finally conquered his final frontier with success on Asian soil.
Further success was enjoyed throughout Lyon’s first tour of Bangladesh where he claimed 9-161 during a losing cause in Dhaka before bowling Australia to a series-levelling victory in Chittagong with excellent match figures of 13-154.
His superb form across 2017 has seen him rewarded with a place in the ICC’s top ten bowling rankings for the first time in his Test career.
And so, ten years after his retirement, Australia finally appear to have a worthy spin successor to Shane Warne. He might not carry the same – on and off field – swagger as Warne, but six years after his Test debut, Nathan Michael Lyon is now enjoying a purple patch that is rapidly elevating him into Australian cricketing folklore.
For years his Test career often slipped under the radar. It easy to forget he was handed his Baggy Green as far back as 2011 and equally surprising that he’ll play his 70th Test match at the Gabba against England in two weeks’ time. And yet his numbers stack up against the very best in the modern era – (to date his 69 Tests have yielded 269 Test wickets at a highly respectable average of 31.83).
An unassuming character and very much a ‘team first’ man, he hasn’t got the X-factor of a David Warner, Mitchell Starc or Pat Cummins. Instead he’s his own man. Nathan Lyon is just… Well…Nathan Lyon – or perhaps Lyono, Garry, Gaz or the Goat if you’d prefer.
He earned his latest nickname The Goat after passing Hugh Trumble’s tally of 141 Test wickets in 2015 to become Australia’s greatest offspinner of all time. Before that he was more commonly known as Garry after the legendary AFL player Garry Lyon. Either way, he now stands behind only the great man Warne as Australian’s leading Test spin bowler.
A former Adelaide Oval groundskeeper turned Aussie team song leader, he’s been through more ups and downs in his 69-Test career than most. In 2013, he was dropped from the side twice in the space of three matches. For the Australian selectors it seemed there was always a sexier spin bowling option around the corner, except it turned out there wasn’t.
Until recently, Lyon’s relationship with the Australian public hasn’t always been all that smooth. There were times they forgot he was playing. There were times they wished he wasn’t playing. There were times they wished he was playing. There were times they wished he was Warnie, then the times they were just pleased he wasn’t just another Beau Casson or Jason Krejza. There were times they hated on him, times they loved him, and then the bizarre times they simply worshiped him.
Yet Lyon doesn’t get too high or low, he simply gets on with the task in hand. Bowling offspin in Australia is hard enough art without worrying about the uncontrollable. In fact, for a bowler with no particular mystery to talk of, his numbers on home soil (118 wickets at 34.55) compare admirably against his away record (151 wickets at 29.71).
Earlier in his career, his inability to dismiss Faf du Plessis and his South African colleagues on a fifth day wicket at the Adelaide Oval in 2012 carried a heavy weight on his slender shoulders. It took two years before he was remotely forgiven for this misdemeanour. His breakout performance came at an incredibly sad juncture in Australian cricket, when in the wake of the tragic death of Phillip Hughes’, Lyon took 12 wickets to bowl the Aussies to a last-gasp victory against India in Adelaide.
Since then he’s been a fixture in the side without ever feeling truly safe over his place until earlier this year.
So, what does the future hold for Lyon?
Only due to turn 30 three days before the Ashes begin, there appears plenty of bowling left in Lyon yet. It could be said that Warne enjoyed the best years of his Test career after turning 30. In fact, he took 386 of his 708 Test wickets after hitting the big 3-0 as he continued to add nous and guile to his already impressive repertoire of skills.
While Lyon has established himself as an excellent Test bowler, he’ll be eager to revive his stop-start limited overs career with a view to being involved in Australia’s World Cup defence in 2019. Despite making his ODI debut in March 2012, he’s earned just 13 caps and a solitary T20I appearance as others such as legspinner Adam Zampa have been preferred.
However, right now the ODI renaissance can wait for another day, there’s an Ashes series to be won.