As Nathan Lyon plays his 100th Test, spare a thought for his fellow former South Australian off-spinner, Dan Cullen.
Just three years older than Lyon, Cullen, 36, could theoretically still be playing Test cricket if this was an easy caper.
Instead, Cullen lasted one Test and last played first-class cricket in 2009.
Bowling off-spin at the elite level for Australia is as hard as it gets.
Nathan Lyon’s guard of honour
“It’s very difficult in Australia,” former Australian captain Ian Chappell told Wide World of Sports.
“A finger spinner in Australia … it’s hard work anywhere but it’s bloody hard work in Australia. I’d say probably as tough as anywhere.
“The important thing with Nathan Lyon, as it is with all players, is that he’s got better over the years.
“That’s what you should do and that’s what you’ve got to do to hold your place. And when you think of the lack of spinners that Australia’s had in his time, it’s just as well that he has got better because Australia would have been in trouble without him.”
Australia has struggled to develop young spinners at first-class level, always torn between match results for the states and the national team’s big-picture interests. Particularly post-Shane Warne, it’s been an awkward, unexpected problem.
Just when Australia thought that leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson – the best Sheffield Shield bowler this season – might be ready for a Test appearance, he got belted by an Indian XI in a tour match (1-148 in the second innings). Lyon’s great importance was once again made clear.
While thinking about Cullen, who took 1-54 in his lone 2006 Test, spare a thought for Nathan Hauritz. He played 17 Tests across 2006-2010, taking 63 wickets at 34.98.
Hauritz’s average is three runs higher than Lyon’s (31.98) and he took 3.7 wickets per Test; 0.3 less than Lyon, who has now played 99 Tests for 396 wickets. Hauritz’s average is just a shade higher than New Zealander Daniel Vettori, who played 113 Tests for 362 wickets at 34.36.
The margins are fine and unforgiving for spin bowlers, finger or wrist.
Then there’s the others who played Test cricket post-Warne, omitting the outstanding Stuart MacGill: Beau Casson (one Test, one wicket at 43.00), Cameron White (four Tests, five wickets at 68.40), Jason Krejza (two Tests, 13 wickets at 43.23), Bryce McGain (one Test, no wickets for 148 runs), Xavier Doherty (four Tests, seven wickets at 78.29) and Michael Beer (two Tests, three wickets at 59.33).
Tried, toiled … tossed aside.
Then came Lyon, the Young, NSW product and former Adelaide Oval groundsman who gradually became a Test mainstay after his 2011 debut. He has held off all challengers in his own era and built a colossal career. Nice, Garry.
Ashton Agar (nine Tests, nine wickets at 45.55), Steve O’Keefe (nine Tests, 35 wickets at 29.40) and Jon Holland (four Tests, nine wickets at 63.77) have been given chances. O’Keefe proved his class in the limited opportunities afforded a second spinner, yet ultimately has played 90 fewer Tests than Lyon.
Fine margins indeed. The difference between getting a game and greatness.
Lyon broke the previous record for Test scalps by an Australian off-spinner (Hugh Trumble’s 141 wickets, between 1890 and 1904) back in 2015 and he’s not nearly finished, with 400 the next major milestone. That may happen in the GOAT’s 100th Test; he needs four wickets at the Gabba, the exact number of scalps he’s averaged per game across a decade, though he has just six wickets from three Tests so far in the series against India.
“I’m far from being done,” Lyon said. “I’m still hungrier than ever. I want to go out there and play as much cricket for Australia as I can … win a lot of Test series for Australia.
“I’ve obviously learnt so much, grown in confidence quite a fair bit.”
The growth has never plateaued. Lyon keeps rising.
“He’s kept improving. I don’t know whether he’s peaked or not but he’s certainly not going backwards, which is a good thing at his age,” Chappell said of Lyon, who has done it all without any of the modern bells and whistles like the doosra or carrom ball.
“I think that’s a bit of a misnomer, all the other stuff that a lot of commentators talk about (modern off-spin variations). If you bowl well … he’s got enough variation that he doesn’t really need the rest, I don’t think,” Chappell continued.
“Flight is the thing. If you don’t deceive the batsman in the air, it’s hard to beat him off the pitch. I think that’s an area where he’s got better, is his ability particularly to get the dip and the bounce.
“That’s something that you need in Australia because a lot of places, you’re not going to get much spin, so you’re really relying heavily on that dip and bounce to fool the batsmen.”
Yet more than that, Lyon has thrived thanks to his willpower. Along with the wicketkeeper, the spin bowler (barring subcontinent tours) is the only player in the Australian team fighting for a single spot. You’re the best, or you’re out. His career paradigm is as cutthroat as it gets, even before Rishabh Pant starts smacking you for consecutive sixes on the final day of a Test.
“There can be a lot of reasons why blokes go wrong but generally, it’s temperament with a spinner. You’ve got to have the heart for the fight and Lyon has shown that he’s got that,” Chappell said.
“That’s usually the main reason why guys don’t make it for any length of time, that’s the big thing. To play 100 Tests, you’ve got to do a lot of things right but you’ve definitely got to have the heart for the fight and Lyon has had that.
“It’s a couple of things [for a spinner]. It’s the courage, sure, but it’s also the intelligence. You’ve got to be able to put things aside, like being hit for six or being hit for a few boundaries or someone taking to you for a couple of overs. That’s where the courage to keep going comes in.
“But you’ve also got to have the intelligence to work out, ‘OK, what’s this guy doing to me that’s causing me a problem and what have I got to do to start causing him problems?’ You need that combination.
“I think that’s an area where he’s really improved, his ability to keep thinking and keep thinking well to outfox the batsman. He’s done very well in that regard.’
Lyon is 33 but boasts a near-spotless injury history. He had a classic response when Warne suggested that he be rested for the 2019 SCG Test, to give Swepson a game.
“Did Warney ever want a rest and give Stuart MacGill a go? I won’t be rested,” he said.
Warne has since predicted that Lyon could play for such a long time that Muttiah Muralitharan’s world record of 800 Test wickets may be in reach. Warne’s 708 wickets is the Australian record.
“Who knows [how long he’ll play] but so far, his injury history has been really good, which is important. Australia hasn’t really had anyone else to take his place. It’s been crucial that he’s remained fit,” Chappell said.
“And he’s part of a very, very good attack. He’s benefitted from having the good pace bowlers around him but he’s been smart enough to do his job and I think there are ways in which he benefits the quickies.
“The fact that he can maintain an end for a long period gives the captain the option of rotating his quickies at the other end. That’s very, very handy for a captain.”
He’s been one of the most unassuming superstars in Australian cricket history but Lyon joins a pantheon of greats by reaching 100 Tests. His fellow Aussie centurions are Ricky Ponting (168), Steve Waugh (168), Allan Border (156), Warne (145), Mark Waugh (128), Glenn McGrath (124), Ian Healy (119), Michael Clarke (115), David Boon (107) Justin Langer (105), Mark Taylor (104) and Matthew Hayden (103).
“I look at the other 12 guys who have played more than 100 Test matches of cricket for Australia and they’re pure legends,” Lyon said.
“Not just for Australia but [other 100-Test players] all around the world, I’m going to pinch myself each and every day to see my name up against those fellows.
“It’s pretty amazing. I’ve tried in the past not to look too far ahead.
“But I’m pretty excited about this … just the thought of playing 100 Test matches for Australia is very humbling.”
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