Nathan 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 left the team down.
England needed two runs to win at Headingley to level the 2019 Ashes after a hair-raising last-wicket partnership between Ben Stokes and Jack Leach when they had a mix-up over a single. Josh Hazlewood lobbed the ball towards Lyon, the bowler. The ball would kiss the grass and skid up and under pressure, with Leach in his peripheral vision scrambling towards him, Lyon would fumble and drop the ball. His empty hands would move towards the stumps when it hit him that all he had cupped was air. A dazed look settled in his eyes, as he hunched on his knees and stared at a distance. Dead eyes. Drained face.
But Lyon, the best spinner of the stock off-break of our times, would stir himself up to try landing another sucker-punch next ball but the umpire and absence of any more referrals would deny him and Australia.
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.”
Rising to the occasion
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, the small town near Canberra renowned for cherry orchards and the national cherry festival, soothed him to sleep. Next day, he spun Australia to victory.
He didn’t let them down. Just as he wouldn’t on Day Four of the first Test in the current Ashes. Lyon had sat on 399 wickets for nearly a year, the longest incubation period for a wicket he has had due to the pandemic, and was thwarted by England’s batsmen throughout the third day. His captain Pat Cummins would banter with him, “You’re never going to get your 400!’” The next morning, he snared Dawid Malan with a loopy off-break from around the stumps. “It’s yet to sink in… been a hard toil … No doubt I’ll get my phone and call my family,” he would say later.
Not sure what his father would say this time. When Lyon had called from Sri Lanka with the news that he would be making his Test debut, the 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 the 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 bargained for. Some bad, most great.
The YouTube video of Adelaide 2014, the last day in particular when he spun Australia to a famous triumph against India, is something that Lyon often watches. “Whenever as required.” At home, on his phone, before a big game, in the midst of self-doubt, he would dial up that and other spells of his and watch. So much so that his daughter would yell out, “Not again, Dad. We don’t watch your stuff”.
That was the most emotional game Lyon and Co. would have played as it had come on the back of the death of Phil Hughes. The Adelaide Oval would be emblazoned with ‘Remembering 408’ on the outfield, the Test cap number of Hughes and it was where the Aussies would congregate after the thrilling win.
It wouldn’t have occurred without Lyon. M Vijay and Virat Kohli were hellbent on dragging India to an improbable win, adding 185 runs in the chase of 364, and Lyon had seemingly spent much of the time on his knees, baring his soul to the umpires who refused to oblige most of his dramatic appeals. Then as the clock struck 4:08 pm – Lyon would realise the Hughes connection later – he got one to rip in to nail Vijay LBW. Then Rohit Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha, and finally Kohli departed to terminate India’s resistance.
The 4:08 Vijay wicket and Hughes’ supernatural connection was much talked about later.
“Bit of luck. Something happened though. I’m not sure what. It was pretty strange. Pretty, pretty weird. All the New South Wales guys achieved something in that game, which was a bit strange, but just being part of that Australian group that week was incredible.”
For a man who has taken 400 wickets, Lyon says, for a long time, he never felt he belonged in the team. And felt buried in Shane Warne’s shadow. He also didn’t have the support from the men in power, he says.
“Especially early on, I felt like everyone was looking for a new spinner and (I) never really had the support of some people who mattered. I think it felt like the selectors were always looking for a strong leg spinner … It probably took me a little while coming out of the strong shadow of Warne. And to be honest, I am probably still in the shadow. 96 Test matches 390 Test wickets in total, probably stealing his shadow a little bit,” he said last year. “But that’s just your mind. Yeah, in my mind, and probably the part of the Australian public as well. And that’s probably just down to who Shane is and what he achieved in the game.”
Frequent fall guy
The story of Lyon’s rise has been well documented: from a curator’s apprentice to the spike in confidence after bowling to his heroes like Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey in the 2010 Ashes preparation and breaking into the team later. 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.” 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 up 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.”
That stock ball indeed is a thing of beauty. The whole package really. The short steps, the little jog, the hop to get that right thigh high and down as he settles into a classic side-on posture, the shoulder and arm revving up and over before the release. Lyon cocks his bowling wrist in, towards himself, two fingers wrapped wide apart on the ball, and he lets it rip up and over with a lot of overspin that makes the ball drop and bounce. On his good days, which are often, the drift away from the right-hander is noticeable.
The soul of his art is different to Ravichandran Ashwin’s. Lyon is more visually appealing, more camera-friendly, so to say. 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.
He has had Sachin Tendulkar bowled through the gate in Chennai, taken out Kohli a few times, but the best ball he has bowled to take a wicket, he reckons, is the one that took out New Zealand tailender Chris Martin. Loopy, drifty, it would drop suddenly and turn in a mile. It could have taken out proper batsmen and Lyon wishes he had bowled that to an “AB de Villiers or Kevin Pietersen”.
Web of deception
The balls he bowled to take out Rohit Sharma twice in that 2014 Adelaide Test too were quite something. In the first innings, he had lured Rohit down the track looking for the typical on drive with the turn. So far, so good. But a couple of skips down, Rohit realised he was in trouble. The ball wasn’t where he thought it would be. It had started to drift away. His arms began to search for it, away from the body, and his ‘shape’, the one thing that batsmen obsess about, began to be yanked away. He threw in one last desperate attempt with his wrists but the ball had dropped, turned, and he couldn’t control his drive, and was pouched by Lyon himself.
In the second innings, Rohit would not leave the crease but tried to stretch forward in defence. The game was in the balance then. With Kohli, India could have pulled off the win had Rohit hung on for a while. Lyon did what he does. A loopy ripping off-break on a length outside off drew Rohit forward in defence. But the ball gripped, kicked up off the rough, crash-landed on the gloves and ricocheted to backward short leg. Kohli was left alone and though he tried his best, Lyon would take him out too to sew up the match.
Those deliveries to Rohit are the sort Lyon has come to be known for over the years. The loop, the rip, drift, overspin, and the unerring accuracy ball after ball, over after over, have fetched him over 400 wickets. Clearly, Warne’s shadow has receded, and it’s the batsmen who are grappling with self-doubt. Cricket is lucky to have two artists at the top of their game, Lyon and Ashwin, one a traditionalist and the other an innovator, and together they have made kids fall in love with the art of off-spin.