LLooking back, the start of Nathan Lyon’s Test career seems an incredibly long time ago. Playing the ball in Sri Lanka in 2011 is a baby version, with a ring of duck down, a narrow and fearful face. There are glimpses of his future – starting with a turn from the left-hander to make Kumar Sangakkara slip and ending with a diving return catch for a fifth. But there is the confusion of his presence, a player who doesn’t know how to celebrate when every goal is scored, waving his limbs and jumping up sporadically like a foal caught in a fence.
Lyon came from outside the mainstream, playing club cricket in his 20s rather than in the state age group as a teenager. For years he wasn’t convinced he belonged. His physical presence always reflected his jangled nerves: all nooks and crannies, a stuffed doll with someone overzealously pulling the strings. The look changed, the fluffy head giving way to the sleek chrome dome that – until the fateful torn calf in London last June – matched its mechanical reliability. But even before his comeback in Perth last week, en route to a Test wicket of 500 and a win against Pakistan, his teammates said he was nervous again.
In the early years he had good reasons. For years, voters didn’t fully believe in him and often kept him because there was a lack of alternatives. He was left out for four quicks in Perth in 2012 and for Xavier Doherty in Hyderabad in 2013, returned for nine wickets in Delhi and was then substituted for teenager Ashton Agar for this year’s Ashes. It was only in December 2016 that he would have been swept away with the new broom after South Africa defeated Australia in Hobart; Five changes for Adelaide would have been six had substitute spinner Steve O’Keefe not torn a muscle this week.
However, each of these exclusions only lasted a game or two, and after this latest flirtation with the abyss, he continued to increase his position in the team. He was excellent in India in 2017, building a 2-0 lead but was let down by his batsmen, and in Bangladesh he was even better in a hard-fought 1-1 series. Now that he is fully equipped to bowl in Asia, one could sense the gradually growing confidence that he would not be a single bad day away from being dropped from the side.
Amid all this uncertainty, Lyon has put up a line of defense as a public figure. Aside from the disastrous months spent trying to talk trash leading up to the sandpaper debacle, he remains hidden behind them. Because of his longevity, he has hosted more press conferences than most, and it’s easy to pick up on the repeat lines.
“I can’t bat,” is his preface to any conversation about both teams’ work with the bat, disingenuous for a man who has reached or cleared the boundary 190 times in Tests. “To be completely honest,” he says before every uncontroversial comment, as if to deny responsibility if anyone disagrees. He gives good perspective to the sayings that he doesn’t play for milestones and expresses embarrassment at being statistically associated with the greats of the past. Reflecting on the significance of the 500-mile race this week, he allowed himself to say, “I’m very proud of that.”
Some observers label spinners based on their ability to put teams out in the fourth innings. Lyon had an early albatross hanging around their neck, most notably through Matthew Wade’s wicketkeeping, when South Africa managed 50 of their overs and earned a draw in Adelaide in 2012. Prominent shortfalls include England at Headingley in 2019, India’s double wonders at Sydney and Brisbane in 2019, and the Sydney efforts of England in 2022 and India in 2015.
On the counter-attack, Lyon has dominated other heavy bowling games of late. The 2019 Ashes ended 2-2 thanks to his six wickets giving him their first lead at Edgbaston. He took seven wins in the Adelaide epic against India in 2014 and five in the crucial win in Lahore in 2022 as Australia returned to Pakistan. He has taken wickets in 29 Australian victories, most recently sealed by bowling.
But there is something else about Lyon: the reliability he offers in the first half of the game, especially in Australia where spinners are not expected to contribute. Especially orthodox finger spinners. In the first and second innings of the Tests in Australia, many of the game’s great visiting bowlers paid for their wickets with bowling averages in the 50s, 70s or 90s. Lyon has 119 such wickets at 35, equivalent to 2.8 runs per over, and also contributes to the field. Having him at one end to set and forget is the key to Australia’s fast bowling success, the metronome for the others to play by.
The fact that he is doing this job is consistent with the humility he has shown throughout his career. Perhaps the humility is exaggerated, a legacy of that initial uncertainty. But it could also be suitable for a longer lifespan. You get the feeling that Lyon still can’t believe he’s allowed to play for Australia. This shaped his life. So why call the time earlier than his body demands? He now has 501 wickets. Glenn McGrath’s 563 is close. Shane Warne’s 708 is a long way off but not impossible. He probably would never admit it was a goal, but Nathan Lyon is the kind of character who can just keep calmly moving towards it.