Humility and heart: how Nathan Lyon became the quietly turning key to Australia’s success
Reflecting on it now, the beginning of Nathan Lyon’s Test career may seem like a distant memory. When he first took the ball in Sri Lanka in 2011, he appeared young and inexperienced, with a baby face framed by a ring of down feathers and a thin, anxious expression. While there were flashes of his potential, such as his spin bowling that led to a catch at slip for Kumar Sangakkara and a diving return catch for his fifth wicket, there was also a sense of confusion. Lyon was unsure how to react to each wicket, often flailing his limbs and jumping erratically, resembling a young foal caught in a fence.
Despite not following the traditional path and starting his cricket career in a club during his 20s instead of at a state age-group level in his teens, Lyon was doubtful of his abilities for many years. His physical appearance always seemed to reflect his nerves, with his sharp angles and elbows resembling an awkward puppet being pulled too tightly by its strings. However, after shaving his head and becoming more mechanically reliable, Lyon suffered a calf injury last June. Despite making a comeback in Perth last week and achieving his 500th Test wicket and a win against Pakistan, his teammates noted that he was still feeling nervous.
In the early years, he had a valid justification. The selectors did not fully trust him and only kept him on the team because there were no other options. He was left out of the team in 2012 for four fast bowlers in Perth, and again in 2013 for Xavier Doherty in Hyderabad. He was brought back for the Delhi match where he took nine wickets, but was then dropped for the young Ashton Agar in that year’s Ashes series. Just a few years ago in December 2016, he would have been removed from the team after a heavy defeat by South Africa in Hobart. There were plans to make five changes for the next match in Adelaide, but it would have been six if the replacement spinner, Steve O’Keefe, had not injured himself that week.
However, each of those exceptions were only temporary and lasted for one or two games. After his last close call, he consistently proved his worth in the team. He performed exceptionally well in India in 2017, where he helped secure what should have been a 2-0 lead, but was let down by his teammates. He was even better in Bangladesh, contributing to a hard-fought 1-1 series. With his improved ability to bowl in Asia, it was apparent that he was gaining more confidence and was no longer at risk of being removed from the team after one bad performance.
Despite feeling insecure, Lyon has developed a defense mechanism as a prominent public figure. Apart from a few unsuccessful attempts at trash talking before the sandpaper controversy, he has consistently hidden behind this defense. Due to his long career, he has held more press conferences than most, and it becomes evident that he often repeats the same phrases.
“I am not skilled at batting,” is how he starts any discussion about the performance of both teams with the bat, despite having hit or cleared the boundary 190 times in Test matches. “To be completely truthful,” he states before making any uncontroversial statement, perhaps in an attempt to distance himself from any opposing views. He often emphasizes that he does not play for personal achievements and feels uncomfortable being compared to legendary players based on statistics. However, this week, when discussing the significance of reaching 500 runs, he couldn’t help but admit: “It’s a feat that I am extremely proud of.”
Certain spectators measure spinners based on their capability to dismiss entire teams in the final innings. Lyon faced significant criticism in the beginning, primarily due to poor wicketkeeping by Matthew Wade, when South Africa managed to survive 50 overs in Adelaide in 2012. Some notable failures include England at Headingley in 2019, India’s impressive victories at Sydney and Brisbane in 2021, and England and India’s performances at Sydney in 2022 and 2015, respectively.
Lyon has been a dominant force in challenging matches, particularly when bowling last. In the 2019 Ashes, he played a crucial role in securing a 2-2 tie by taking six wickets and setting up an early lead at Edgbaston. In 2014, he took seven wickets in the intense Adelaide match against India, and in 2022, he contributed five wickets in the series-deciding game in Lahore when Australia made their return to Pakistan. Overall, Lyon has taken wickets in 29 Australian victories where he bowled last.
However, Lyon brings something else to the table: a dependable performance in the first half of matches, particularly in Australia where spinners are not typically expected to excel. This is especially true for orthodox finger spinners. In Tests played in Australia, many renowned visiting bowlers have struggled and maintained high bowling averages of 50, 70, or even 90. In contrast, Lyon has taken 119 wickets at an average of 35, with an economy rate of 2.8 runs per over, and has also made valuable contributions in the field. His ability to be a consistent presence at one end is crucial to Australia’s success in fast bowling, acting as a metronome for the other bowlers to build upon.
The position aligns with the modesty he has displayed throughout his professional journey. This modesty may be excessive, stemming from his initial insecurity. However, it could also contribute to his longevity. Lyon appears to still be in disbelief that he has the opportunity to represent Australia. This accomplishment has shaped his life. So why retire before his body requires? He currently has 501 wickets, nearing Glenn McGrath’s 563 and Shane Warne’s 708. While he may never openly admit it, Nathan Lyon is the type of individual who could persistently work towards achieving this goal.