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A Lyon-hearted performer who continues to raise the bar

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Last updated on 17 Dec 2023 | 08:26 AM
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A Lyon-hearted performer who continues to raise the bar

The Australia spinner becomes only the third from his country to pick up 500 wickets

It was always going to be difficult to have another Australian spinner on par with Shane Warne. After all, there was not a single venue, single condition where he did not put his hands up and deliver. Over the last 12 years, no bowler from the country has come even close to going toe-to-toe with the King other than Nathan Lyon.

Picking Kumar Sangakkara's wicket off the first ball in Test cricket could have been the highlight of anybody's career, but Lyon ensured that it was not the only one.

From then on, very few spinners have come close to matching his skill set, tirelessness, and consistency in Tests, not just among Australian bowlers. He has earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as some all-time greats.

For a fast bowler from the subcontinent, he is judged based on how he makes the best use of the conditions in pace-friendly conditions in South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia (SENA). However, for a spinner outside the subcontinent, he is measured by how well he does in Asia.

The conditions could be in your favour, and yet you could struggle to have an impact. That has surely not been the case with Lyon, who has the most wickets in Asian conditions for a non-Asian bowler, even ahead of the great Warne.

Then there is, of course, the “rivalry" with Ravichandran Ashwin, two of the greatest spinners in the modern era. Like Lyon, Ashwin’s guile and ability to adapt to conditions has earned him plaudits from around the globe. Lyon has no hesitation in admitting that Ashwin has played a role in shaping him as a premier spinner.

"You look at Ashwin, he's a world-class bowler and somebody I've watched closely from the start of his career," Lyon said ahead of the Perth Test against Pakistan.

"We've gone head-to-head many times in different conditions around the world. I've definitely learned from him.

"There's an opportunity to learn from the people you play against, and without knowing it, he's probably been one of my biggest coaches in a way," he added.

The two bowlers have always gone toe-to-toe over the years and, more often than not, upped the bar on most occasions. However, Lyon has been a tad more consistent in Asian conditions, while Ashwin, who is 11 away from 500 wickets, has often found wanting outside Asia, having managed just 102 at 33.06 in 30 Tests.

In terms of skills across formats, Ashwin has always found a way to remain in contention for India in white-ball cricket due to his good shows in the Indian Premier League (IPL), Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL) and other domestic competitions, Lyon has been earmarked only for the longest format.

Lyon’s last white-ball game for Australia came over four years ago, in the 2019 ODI World Cup. Given Australia have not been hard-pressed for options in the format, one could understand why Lyon was not given a longer run.

But when it comes to Tests, who after Lyon?

Australia have often been criticised for not grooming a spinner who could give Lyon stiff competition or even partner him when the conditions are ideal. More often than not, they dig out another spinner or two to support him in the subcontinent while Lyon has established himself as the premier spinner in home conditions.

Lyon has been so dominant that Australia have very rarely needed elsewhere to find quality spinners. In fact, among out-and-out spinners, Australia have used only two options other than Lyon at home – Steve O’Keefe and Ashton Agar – who, between them, have played three Tests since Lyon’s debut, all coming in Sydney, where there is more assistance for spinners than any other venue in Australia.

Barring WACA, the difference between Lyon’s average and the overall spinner’s average is massive, further proving why he is one of the best spinners Australia has ever produced.

The 36-year-old has not been dropped many times in his career. In fact, he is among a handful of players who played 100 Tests in a row. Unfortunately, an injury forced him to pull out in the middle of an Ashes earlier this year, but nearly six months on, he is back in red-ball cricket, and if his performance on his return are anything to go by, he surely has not missed a beat.

Australia have recently tried out Todd Murphy, Mitchell Swepson and Matthew Kunnehman in Tests since 2022, and by the looks of it, they will be the torchbearers of the team’s spin bowling department once Lyon bows out. While we do not know when that will be, let’s enjoy whatever is left of his legendary career. He may have breached the 500 mark with Glenn McGrath’s record well in sight.

Not too shabby for someone who, a little over a decade ago, juggled between domestic cricket and his job as a groundstaff at the Adelaide Oval.

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