The last time England were in Adelaide for an Ashes Test, Graeme Swann, during pre-match nets, passed on a few words of advice to a young off-spinner, who was combining trying to make his way in the game with earning a living tending to the turf at the Adelaide Oval. It is a very different surface Swann will bowl on this week when the second Test gets under way and it is also a very different Nathan Lyon who will be pulling on a baggy green cap rather than the overalls of a groundsman.
The teams are still to assemble in South Australia but already there is a swirl of speculation over the surface that lies in store. Lyon knows the ground all too well but will have no more knowledge of the pitch on which he and Swann will bowl than his fellow off-spinner as the contest will be played on a drop-in wicket. For one and all here is a known unknown. Sheffield Shield games played in Adelaide this season have been on slow, steady surfaces, fuelling talk that England might field two spinners. Australia certainly won’t. They will field one front-line spinner and at last Lyon can be certain the job will be his.
Amid all the fire and brimstone in Brisbane, Lyon’s quietly effective performance offered as much encouragement to Michael Clarke and Australia’s brains trust as any. Clarke and the selectors have seemed slow to be convinced by Lyon, all too ready to look elsewhere, wanting a wild card rather than the steadiness of an unprepossessing off-spinner. Xavier Doherty, Ashton Agar and Fawad Ahmed have all caught their eye. In the last year, Lyon has been unceremoniously dumped out of the Test side for Doherty and Agar.
Prior to that, when he has played, particularly at home, his role was that of a stock bowler. He has been encouraged to shut up one end, and then accused of not being a wicket-taker. It came to a head against South Africa a year ago in Adelaide – he may have cut the grass there but could he cut it as a match-winner?
South Africa began the final day on 77 for 4 and Australia seeking a series-clinching victory. The spinning stage was set. The innings ended with the tourists eight down and Lyon having sent down 50 overs and taken 3 for 49. “He had been asked to do the wrong thing and he was doing it very well,” was how former Aussie spinner Stuart MacGill put it of Lyon’s perceived defensive role.
“I’ve learnt a fair amount playing a few Tests [in Adelaide],” said Lyon this week. “I’ve learnt a fair amount about my game and what I need to do and what I need to do to get better. Fingers crossed there’s a little bit more spin down there and we’ll see how we go.”
He has come and gone this year. He was dropped for Doherty mid-series in India. He was dropped for Agar for the first Ashes Test in England. Last week Agar was in Perth playing for Western Australia and picking up a fine for his response to having an appeal turned down (perhaps he thought a bit of abuse might hurry his return to the Test side). Lyon kept his cool in Brisbane, and, more significantly, out-bowled Swann.
It was the bounce he extracted at The Gabba that proved Lyon’s most effective weapon, but his ability to turn the ball should not be overlooked – his first ball in Test cricket saw him spin one on to Kumar Sangakkara’s edge, while in India this year he bowled Sachin Tendulkar through the gate.
After victory in Brisbane, it was Lyon who led the traditional singing of “Under the Southern Cross”. Mike Hussey passed the honour on to Lyon when he retired earlier this year.
Hussey had been appointed Lyon’s mentor by the then Australia coach Tim Nielsen for the spinner’s first tour in 2011. Hussey, a man who, in terminology to suit a groundsman, calls a spade a spade, liked what he saw. He has long been convinced Lyon has what it takes.
“He’s not going to be intimidated,” explained Hussey recently, “and he’s willing to stick to what he does, which when he gets it right is just beautiful.”