Nathan Lyon’s 2017 comeback reaches a peak in Brisbane
Off-spinner has turned career around culminating in fine first Test display at Gabba
Nathan Lyon took three wickets as England were bowled out for 195 in their second innings. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty
A year ago at the Gabba, Nathan Lyon morphed into the least likely cult hero with wicketkeeper Matthew Wade’s ‘Nice Garry’ catch cry suddenly the soundtrack of the Australian summer. But the naff meme masked that the off-spinner’s international career was in near-terminal decline over a disastrous two-month period. His confidence was shot.
After taking just three wickets at 60 apiece against a rampaging South African outfit early, a back page headline screamed of the 540 wicketless balls he had delivered in professional cricket. If not for an injury to Steve O’Keefe, he was set for the scrapheap then and there.
By the time Brisbane rolled around for a day-night affair, Australia were set to play four quicks at Lyon’s expense until he was given a late reprieve. The attention was on the standing ovations he was receiving from the boozed after-dark Gabba crowd, but a return of 2 for 139 across the Test did little to quiet internal noise that mattered much more.
To Melbourne at Boxing Day, he woke to another back page on the final day of that Test citing senior sources stating that he was about to be discarded for real this time. On cue, he bowled his best spell of the series that afternoon to save his skin, but it was cold comfort.
Fast forward to now, Lyon is the talk of Brisbane town for all the right reasons, playing a defining role in three of the four days in this Ashes opener. On Sunday, he reached a new milestone in this his annus mirabilis, claiming his 50th then 51st wicket across a spell that made Australia’s position infallible.
A lot was made of how England’s brains trust worked over the local batsmen in their first innings, but Lyon’s set-up of Mark Stoneman was equally savvy. The over before the lethal delivery, the off-spinner slipped in an arm-ball; an invariably underrated weapon in any spinners kit. Sure enough, minutes later the opener was probing tentatively outside the off-stump in case of the straight one coming again. It didn’t, Steve Smith doing the rest at slip.
Of note was how high on Stoneman’s bat the ball collected the edge. On average through the match, according to CricViz, Lyon pitched his deliveries 50cm shorter than his opposing number Moeen Ali, allowing him to earn prodigious bounce alongside, at times, some massive turn. The latter did Dawid Malan, who could do little to deny a sumptuous off-break that turned from outside the leg-stump across the left-hander, also landing in Smith’s hands.
The third southpaw to fall to Lyon was Moeen, the only visiting batsmen to really take him on at any stage this week. Extra spin brought his downfall too, missing when sweeping and dragging his back foot far enough for Tim Paine to complete a tidy stumping. However controversial the third umpire’s decision, the quality of the offering wasn’t in question.
Australia’s pace attack did what they do best to finish off the England lower order with their own venom. By Mitchell Starc’s assessment, the speed they are able to bowl at is set by Lyon’s dependability. “As a bowling unit it is great for us because he’s been bowling so well from one end it allows us to come from the other end in short and sharp spells and have a little bit of a break and come back and bowl at a decent pace,” he said after play. “He had a bit to say old Nathan over the last couple of weeks but he has backed it up.”
The jewel in the crown of Lyon’s 2017 has been his ability to consistently work over left-handers, winning their dismissals at a paltry 13 a pop. Overall, his 51 wickets puts him third on the list of all comers, but in fewer Tests than those currently ahead of him. It’s almost certain that he will lead the list by the time the Boxing Day Test has been run and won – a mighty achievement considering where his career was at when last singing Auld Lang Syne.
Lyon turned 30 last week – the age where modern finger spinners such as Graeme Swann and Rangana Herath really got motoring. As Phil Tufnell explains, for many of their craft this is when there is an understanding of how to make it work in response to things not going their way, as was the case so painfully for Lyon in 2016. “You can work out quickly where you need to make an adjustment,” he said. “Just like goalkeepers in football.”
At some stage in this series, Lyon will overtake Craig McDermott and move into sixth position for all Australian wicket-takers. But that won’t interest him – these things seldom do. He’ll be happy enough, as he says time and again, being part of a successful team. In Brisbane, Lyon successfully showed why his skill is just important to that objective as any of his fast-bowling colleagues. What a difference a year makes.