Is this former groundsman the next Warne?

Nathan Lyon has made dream start to Test career but comparisons with spin legend may be a tad early...

One of the suggestions of the Argus review, the outcome of Australian soul-searching in the wake of last winter's Ashes debacle, highlighted a need to keep a careful eye on the preparation of pitches Down Under.

It also effectively ended Andrew Hilditch's time as chairman of selectors, so perhaps it was a wilful misreading of the report that prompted Hilditch to select a groundsman to play for Australia.

One of his last acts, though, may yet prove to be a masterstroke after Nathan Lyon, a 23-year-old off-spinner who has put his job tending the Adelaide Oval on hold, revelled in an unexpected introductory taste of Test cricket. Australia and Sri Lanka compete for the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy, offering a weighty reminder of what any slow bowler from either nation has to live up to, but Lyon has made an impressive fist of his first go at it. The off-spinner, playing in his sixth first-class match, took a wicket with his first ball in Test cricket – a plum one too in Kumar Sangakkara – and ran through Sri Lanka's tail to finish with 5 for 34.

He went wicketless in the first half of Sri Lanka's second innings yesterday, but his efforts had already opened up a route to a victory that would provide a notable fillip to Michael Clarke's side; when play resumed on day four early this morning Australia required five wickets and Sri Lanka 259 more runs on a wearing pitch.

The search for a half-worthy successor to Shane Warne who, while Lyon was trying to prove his worth, was at a father and daughter disco in Melbourne, has occupied Hilditch and his fellow selectors for the four years since Liz Hurley's other half called it a day. The path into the Green and Gold spinning role has become worn enough to create a patch of rough that even the worst of them would have turned the ball square on. Lyon is the 12th different spinner to have been tried but his story stands out even among some left-field selections – Beau Casson anyone?

Lyon grew up in Young, a small country town in New South Wales. Aged 18 he moved to Canberra to begin an apprenticeship at the Manuka Oval, the venue that hosts the Prime Minister's XI match against touring teams. There he played some cricket – under the guidance of Mark Higgs, himself once a young Australian spin hope – and worked the ground as well. When the head curator of the Adelaide Oval retired, Lyon – who had been knocked back by South Australia after a trial – applied for a position on the ground staff. Part of his duties included net bowling and it was there that he was spotted by Darren Berry, once Warne's state wicketkeeper. Berry was managing the Redbacks and hurried Lyon into the Big Bash, Australia's Twenty20 competition where Lyon found himself playing alongside Adil Rashid.

"Rooming with 'the Rash' was quite a good experience, and we get along quite well, so it was good fun," said Lyon. "I learned a lot listening to 'the Rash' talk about all the different ways of bowling. But we're both attacking spin bowlers, which was a good sign for the Redbacks and really paid off."

They won the Big Bash but still if one spinner was tipped to play Test cricket this summer it would have been Rashid. Yesterday as Lyon was duelling with Mahela Jayawardene in Galle, Rashid was embroiled in Yorkshire's struggle to avoid relegation against Warwickshire at Edgbaston.

Lyon's improbable route to the top was to bring him into contact with another England spinner. In November last year he bowled in the nets ahead of the tourists' warm-up match against South Australia alongside Graeme Swann and found time to seek advice from the world's best slow bowler. They are both off-spinners and Lyon has a style that is not dissimilar. Like Swann, he is not afraid – thanks to Higgs' initial encouragement back in Canberra – to give the ball air. But he still seemed a long way from becoming a Test cricketer. In June he was chosen for Australia A's one-day series in Zimbabwe as Michael Beer, himself a surprise choice in the Ashes, and Jason Krejza were preferred for the first-class business. Krejza received a hammering from Zimbabwe's second string and so after the selectors sat down to decide on their squad for Sri Lanka, Lyon's phone rang. "I looked down at the phone and saw Andrew's name pop up and thought: 'Geez, what is going on here?'" said Lyon.

There is no shortage of cautionary tales to accompany Lyon to the second Test, chief among them Krejza himself. The off-spinner took eight wickets in his first Test innings three years ago (although he also conceded a record 215 runs). Peter Taylor, the off-spinner who, legend has it, was chosen by accident, took six wickets on his debut against England in 1987 but played only 13 Tests, and that was seven more than Bob Massie, who took 16 wickets on his debut at Lord's in 1972, managed.

Warne's debut was anything but notable, 1 for 150 in his first innings against India. He went wicketless the first time he bowled in Sri Lanka too amid great expectation. For Lyon the expectation will only grow.

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