Different from R Ashwin, Nathan Lyon constantly evolving to be a step ahead of batsmen

The easiest wicket, yet skilfully snared and something that captures Nathan Lyon’s evolution, was that of Srikar Bharat at Indore when he knocked the off-stump from round the stumps.

Until that point in the series, Bharat had been trapped LBW by off-breaks, as he would thrust his front foot way down the pitch and then find himself unable to bring the bat round the front pad. In that innings, Bharat had made the adjustment that many batsmen make; take a leg-stump guard and try to press the front leg straight down the pitch, trying to stay beside the line to ensure the front leg didn’t stray too far across to invite the LBW.

It could have worked, but not with Lyon around. The straighter one, the drifter with the angle, is something he didn’t have early in his career and had to be consciously worked upon.

Very early in the piece, as soon as he saw Bharat’s set-up at the crease, Lyon had chosen his weapon. Out came the drifter, out came Bharat’s front foot straighter and not across, and as it landed, there didn’t seem much room for the ball to manoeuvre. But it somehow squeezed past the foot, the bat, and pinged the off-stump. A dismissal designed on an arm-chair, so to say – simple, effective, but not easy to execute on the pitch from round the stumps against a right-handed batsmen. It would force Bharat to come up with a better method, and in the last Test, albeit on a flat track, he would take an off-stump guard as a response.

That dismissal stayed in the mind for its uncomplicated and workable solutions that Lyon routinely comes up with. Even the two Rohit Sharma LBW dismissals were fascinating to watch. Rohit has had similar problems against Ravichandran Ashwin in the past in the Indian Premier League games; Ashwin would go round the stumps and get one to turn in from middle-stump to trap him LBW. For some reason, Rohit has had a problem reading the length of high-quality off-spinners. Ashwin’s load-ups can be deceiving, the trajectory indicating that the length might be shorter than it actually is. Time and again, Usman Khawaja would press back to balls that he could have leaned forward on the flat track at Ahmedabad but the slowness of the track meant he could handle it without damage.

Rohit, too, couldn’t pick the length of Lyon, almost frozen at first, and pressing back in panic at the last instant to try to play it off the pitch, but the turners didn’t allow him that leeway. It would fizz on the middle-stump line, and Rohit would lose control of his top hand that determines the direction of the downward bat-swing, and flail it across the line in vain. It’s not that he was trying to play it so square as the end result made it look, but once panic sets in, the head falls over, the bottom hand takes over, it can all get away rather quickly from a batsman. Lyon induced that panic in Rohit.

Australia’s Nathan Lyon bowls a delivery during the third day of the fourth cricket test match between India and Australia in Ahmedabad, India, Saturday, March 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

Beauty in simplicity

Lyon’s art is so repeatable, so easy on the eye that sometimes – not these days but in the past – it wasn’t oohed and aahed over as much. He has a long run-up, starting energetically but suddenly, after a couple of steps, he is aborting from his run-up. Swiftly, smoothly, it would turn into a walk, and in days gone by, especially when over the stumps, his right leg would kick up so high, and swivel to its right as if he were opening a door ajar with his thighs. That movement would get him beautifully side-on and then he would pivot with great energy, hurling his body into the action.

These days, the leg doesn’t kick up as high and in general, there seems to be more conservation of energy. Whether that’s due to age or a change in technique, we don’t know yet, but the other components more or less have remained the same.

On the last tour of India, he had talked about how he has watched Ashwin operate in India, and has started to mix his natural strength – over-spin – with side-spin. For an off-spinner who plies his trade mostly in Australia, his 482-wicket haul at 31.23 is astonishing.And for a man who had the unenviable task of filling Shane Warne’s shoes, it’s even more incredible for the pressure was huge.

The soul of his art is different to Ashwin’s. The art of Ashwin lies in entangling the batsmen into meanderings from which they are unable to disengage themselves in time. Ashwin’s deliveries are constructed for what a batsman might do, tailored to probe the anticipated response, targeting their hands, so to speak, as opposed to a pre-fabricated line of thought.

Lyon is on the opposite spectrum. His stock ball, and the one he tirelessly bowls, is the loopy drifter outside off, on a length, drawing the batsman forward, before suddenly dropping, turning, and bouncing. Lyon looks to upset the batsmen’s balance at the crease with the weighted drop, turn and bounce. In India, he targets a middle-stump line from round the stumps, and gets it to turn into middle and leg, or drift it away with the angle. In India, Lyon is always on the stumps, forcing batsmen to play every ball. In Australia, with less turn but more bounce, he would get them stretching outside off.

The story of Lyon’s rise has been well documented: from a curator’s apprentice to the spike in confidence, but it’s the doubts that fascinate.

There was no high in him when he grabbed his 200th Test wicket in Sri Lanka in 2016. The series would end in a 0-3 loss and he would cop it in media briefings from both captain Steve Smith and coach Darren Lehmann.

“If I’m being honest, I probably felt like I got hung out to dry a little bit,” he had said about the series. “Or thrown under a bus, by a couple of comments in the media by certain people.” A few months down the line, after a string of defeats, his spot was under fire but an injury to Steve O’Keefe got him into the pink-ball Test against South Africa, where his spell in the second innings turned the game Australia’s way. Soon, the 250th wicket came in Bangladesh.

The year 2017, though, would see him splashed across tabloid pages for the wrong reasons. In the midst of an Ashes series, a picture of him kissing a lady, now his partner, in a car was carried by Daily Mail, and it would lead to the dissolution of his marriage. “I think seeing his car sitting in the driveway and his washing sitting here, that probably gives you enough of an idea. We have two small children who I have to put first and unfortunately, at the end of the day, I’m the one who’s being f**ked around here,” his then wife would be quoted as saying.

In his telling, Lyon’s best years on the field began once the dust settled and his life with Emma began. “Life away from cricket improved. I think my family, my partner Em, all have been incredible with the support. Because one thing I do know when you’re in a hotel room and you get dropped when you’re in India or England, you feel like the world’s closing and you wonder, ‘what can I do? How do I feel? And what’s normal?’ It’s pretty hard to sit here and say, ‘I understand; …. I think from three years ago, or three to four years ago, to now is a different place.”

The heavy chain of self-doubt was finally cast aside when Lyon realised he didn’t have to prove anything to the world. “I don’t need to prove to everyone out in the world that I deserved to be here. I think the penny really dropped within myself in understanding that my stock ball is the best in the world. And I believe that I can get anyone out no matter what situation we’re in.”

His world stopped momentarily during the 2019 Ashes when he failed to collect a throw under pressure and missed a run- out to remove Jack Leach, who hung on to enable Ben Stokes pull off a minor miracle at Headingley.

That evening, Lyon was hunched down under the shower, absolutely numb. Even the tears wouldn’t come for half an hour. For the man whose biggest fear is “letting people down” and who gets high-strung on match days, especially when he feels the match hangs on his performance, he felt he had let the team down. England needed just two runs when the run- out opportunity arrived. Half an hour, head under a towel, in the dressing room ensued before Lyon slumped under the shower in his hotel. Eventually, his partner Emma would drag him out, and force him to go down to have some beers with his teammates. “She was brilliant. She said ‘it’s just a game. Don’t put yourself down and don’t make yourself think that you let down a whole Australia,’” Lyon would tell Neroli Meadows in her podcast Ordineroli Speaking. “It’s one of those things where I probably care about the game too much but I feel like that’s one of my strengths.”

Lyon cares. He couldn’t sleep the night before the final day of the Edgbaston Test in the same Ashes. He knew Australia’s triumph lay in his fingers. He tossed around but couldn’t catch a wink. He hit up YouTube and Rain on the Roof and memories of his childhood at Young, a small town near Canberra renowned for cherry orchards and the national cherry festival, soothed him to sleep. Next day, he spun Australia to victory.

In Indore, last week, with the series on the line, he grabbed an 8-for to bowl them to a famous win.

Not sure what his father told him after that feat. When Lyon had called from Sri Lanka with the news that he would be making his Test debut, his father would blurt out, “Oh, that’s good. You will play one game!” And then hung up the phone. “I have since figured out that Dad didn’t know what to say ’cos you get too emotional,” Lyon would laugh in that podcast. “I was gonna play one game and get a tracksuit.”

He has done better than that. Lyon has seen more dirty tracksuits than he could have imagined and more memories than he could have hoped for. Clearly, Warne’s shadow has receded, and it’s the batsmen who are grappling with self-doubts.

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