Passing 400 Test wickets yesterday, Nathan Lyon has truly filled the void left by Australian spin royalty.
Muttiah Muralitharan, Ravichandran Ashwin, Harbhajan Singh and Nathan Lyon.
At 9:45am local time yesterday, Nathan Lyon became the fourth right-arm off-spinner, and the third Australian after Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, to reach the milestone.
The 17th man to reach 400 Test wickets.— ICC (@ICC) December 10, 2021
Nathan Lyon joins elite company 🐐 pic.twitter.com/5J2Q19pXJA
“It hasn’t really hit me yet, to be honest,” Lyon confessed after Australia took a 1-0 series lead.
“It’s something that I’m very proud of, there’s no doubt about that.”
Already waiting 325 days between wickets 399 and 400, Lyon, perhaps undeservedly, went one more night short of the magic number, unknowingly dismissed Dawid Malan caught and bowled on day three. Unaware Malan gloved the ball back to him following through, Lyon and Australia chose not to refer decision. Malan at the end of day’s play admitted he may have been let off the hook.
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Despite the missed opportunity, Lyon broke through early on day four in a twist of fate almost poetic in its script, removing Malan in another close-in opportunity, with the left-hander hitting a catch to Marnus Labuschagne for the milestone.
Few could have predicted Lyon’s career trajectory, not only when handed his Test cap in Galle ten years ago, but further back during his days of toil for South Australia. Averaging 45 with the ball in first-class cricket when called up, Lyon was famously on the books as a groundsman at the Adelaide Oval.
Spinners representing Australia at Test level at the time struggled to hold down a spot in the XI. After Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill, a host of bowlers tried their luck to no avail. From Brad Hogg, Beau Casson and Cameron White, to the likes of Jason Krejza, Nathan Hauritz, Bryce McGain, Xavier Doherty and Michael Beer. In 2010, a young Steve Smith debuted as a bowler, listed at No.8 in the batting order.
No spinner truly nailed the audition, and Australia looked to Sri Lanka, fearful of further spin failure. Krejza struggled on an Australia A tour of Zimbabwe, forcing the selectors’ hand to take Beer and Lyon, neither of whom had Cricket Australia contracts at the time.
Lyon, at that stage 23, won the battle in the nets by impressing Ricky Ponting. Transfixed by his release, natural bounce and the revolutions imparted on the ball, the Australian batting legend hailed Lyon’s wrist angle, comparing it to Harbhajan, a man that had the wood over Ponting in their battles over the years.
Ponting’s word carried weight even after giving the captaincy to Michael Clarke, and his endorsement was the deciding factor in his selection.
Fifteen overs into Sri Lanka’s first innings in Galle, Lyon was thrown the ball, though not even Ponting could have seen what would happen next. At the other end stood Kumar Sangakkara, already with close to 8,500 Test runs under his belt by that point, and at an average of 55 to boot.
Landing his first just inside the footmarks outside the off-stump from around the wicket, Lyon’s off-break brought a prodding Sangakkara forward, edging to Clarke, taking a one-handed catch at first slip. Lyon finished with 5/34 in the innings, and hasn’t looked back since.
Of his 403 Test wickets, Lyon has claimed 204 at 32.87 at home, and 199 wickets outside of Australia at 31.26. Lyon’s consistency is only further accentuated when his haul is broken down by match innings. Making the most of the drier state of 4th innings wickets, Lyon averages 30.40 with the ball, though the figures only moves up to 32.81 in the first innings of matches, even on harder, fresh surfaces.
Lyon’s record at home, in comparison to other spinners in Australian conditions, sets him apart. In comparison to that home average of 32.87, other spinners playing in the matches average 63.
Lyon’s success has not been down to variations, but rather a metronomic consistency. Ashwin’s carrom ball and Murali’s doosra have bewildered some of the game’s best, though Lyon, in a similar vein to Harbhajan, has made his mark through subtleties in bounce of his conventional off-spin delivery. Even some of the world’s best have failed to answer Lyon’s questions. Cheteshwar Pujara has fallen to the off-spinner ten times, with Alastair Cook falling to Lyon on eight occasions. Joe Root and Virat Kohli have fallen victim seven times each.
The man from Young in rural New South Wales has not escaped criticism, most notably after a quiet Border-Gavaskar series last summer. Lyon claimed just nine wickets across the series, at an average of 55.11, a far cry from his best.
While hitting back strongly with four key second innings wickets against England, and a glittering career record next to his name, Lyon feels he still has a point to prove, cognizant of the challenges that he’ll continue to face as Australia's frontline spinner.
“The next wicket is always the hardest one to get.”
“That’s my mindset, and that’s not going to change.”
For Pat Cummins though, Lyon’s class remains permanent. First as a foil for his spells of fast-bowling, he is now a dependable option for the recently-appointed captain.
“He’s just about our most important bowler. (He’s a) wicket-taking option, but also for the amount of overs he bowls.”
“I think he bowled without luck (on day three) especially to the left-handers, and came out (on day four) and showed why he’s one of the greatest of all time.”
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