June 3, 2011

Lyon's green thumbs become green sprigs

Nathan Lyon's emergence from the Adelaide Oval groundstaff to join the ranks of young Australian spin bowlers is a tale drawn from another age

Les Burdett's retirement as the Adelaide Oval ground manager had a most unexpected benefit. The man who filled his place on the groundstaff was Nathan Lyon.

Plucked from the ranks of those who tend the turf by South Australia's Twenty20 and now state coach Darren Berry, Lyon made an immediate impression as a classical offspin bowler, in a Redbacks team that hoisted aloft the state's first domestic trophy since 1996. By the end of the summer he was in the Sheffield Shield team, and he is soon to travel to Zimbabwe with Australia A.

Lyon's is a tale drawn from an earlier age, when first-class cricketers held jobs and were chosen from far more varied stock than the conveyor belt of under-age and "high performance" cricket that typifies the experience of most aspiring players in 2011.

As Lyon sees it, his twin careers in bowling and curating gave him the best chance to make something of himself in either discipline. A rapid elevation to the Cricket Australia stable has left him excited but also somewhat breathless. And he has quickly discovered that bowling spin on Australian pitches can be a more thankless task than preparing them.

Told in Lyon's simple words, his journey from Canberra to Adelaide and now the Centre of Excellence in Brisbane is extraordinary. This sort of thing does not happen too often anymore, though the man himself makes sure to preface his story with plenty of self-deprecation.

"Oh, it's nothing exciting," he told ESPNcricinfo. "I moved to Canberra [from country New South Wales] when I was 18 and took up an apprenticeship at Manuka Oval. I did four years there and just went over there to give cricket a crack with the under-age competition, the Under-17s and -19s for the ACT. I did that and then played a couple of years in the Comets.

"Then about 10 months ago a job came up. With Les retiring, they were looking for someone to curate [working under the new oval manager Damian Hough]. I applied for it and had the opportunity with the cricket to train with the Redbacks. I was pretty stoked to be working down there, getting the opportunity to train now and again, just basically be a net bowler and still play for ACT Comets.

"But Darren Berry looked at me in the Baby Bash when I was playing it, the Under-23 competition in Melbourne, and he said 'You've been picked in the Redbacks Big Bash squad. Turn up expecting to play, and train hard and see where you get to.'"

Where Lyon got to was a key place in the team that won the Big Bash, teaming up with the English legspinner Adil Rashid and the left-arm spinner Aaron O'Brien to spin South Australia to success. The spin trio was Berry's brainchild, and it reaped handsome results to prove Shane Warne's theory about the role of slow bowlers in Twenty20 - provided the conditions suit.

"Having three spinners, we all got along quite well - that was quite enjoyable, going away with those lads, rooming with 'the Rash' was quite a good experience, and we get along quite well, so it was good fun," Lyon said.

"I learned a lot listening to the Rash talk about all the different ways of bowling. But we're both attacking spin bowlers in our own right, which was a good sign for the Redbacks and really paid off. Darren Berry's quite intelligent too, the way he kept to a lot of the best spinners in the world, especially Warne, so Darren's got a lot to offer and I'm really looking forward to working with him for the next few years down in Adelaide."

Lyon's influences include Warne, whom he "idolised" in his youth, but also the enigmatic figure of Mark Higgs. Flirted with briefly by the Australian selectors a decade ago as a hard-spinning left-arm orthodox and free-wheeling batsman, Higgs had moved from the ACT to New South Wales to South Australia. He eventually found his way back to Canberra, where a young Lyon hung on his advice.

"Back in Canberra, working with Mark Higgs was a big thing for myself, working on spin bowling," Lyon said. "Higgsy's really tried to help me become an offspinner who hopefully bowls similarly to himself and learns that way. He took me under his wing and really showed me the ropes, especially in the Futures League with the ACT Comets, the whole mental side of spin bowling, but also at training with the technical side and all the different types of balls that a spinner usually has in their equipment bag."

Thus equipped, Lyon caught the eye of most who saw him bowling once he arrived in Adelaide, where he also had the chance to meet and bowl alongside the England offspinner Graeme Swann when the tourists played a pre-Ashes tour match in Adelaide. There are elements of Swann in Lyon, his loop and spin, plus the subtle variation in pace that can cause a batsman to err.

"I'm definitely trying to entice the batsman to drive and toss the ball up and give the ball a chance to spin," Lyon said.

Promoted to the SA first-class side, Lyon returned a very promising 4-81 and 2-119 against Western Australia at the WACA in his first match, but he found the going harder in a final trio of three Sheffield Shield fixtures. Having become used to the constraints of the Futures League (the Australian under-age/second XI competition, in which the first innings is capped at 96 overs and the second at 48), Lyon's arms, legs and fingers were not used to the strain, and his form dipped towards the end.

When Lyon returns to Adelaide Oval after Zimbabwe, it will not be merely as a groundsman but as an SA contract-holder, an Australia A representative and an international traveller. But he retains his place on the groundstaff, and the sense that spin bowling is fickle enough to mean that later in the summer he could just as easily be rolling a fourth day Sheffield Shield pitch as bowling on it.

"First-class cricket's a lot harder than the Futures League - just the intensity and the sheer talent of all the players you play against," Lyon said. "It was a big ask and I really enjoyed every moment of it, but it was quite tiring in the end there, playing so much cricket. Not having played and trained at that intensity or that level of standard before is quite interesting and a massive learning curve for myself.

"I've never done a full pre-season in my life, so I'm working pretty hard in the gym at the moment and getting a few more kilometres in the legs to help me out throughout next season. My main goal is to hopefully play all the Shield games for South Australia, do well and hopefully learn about this first-class cricket environment."

When Lyon returns to Adelaide Oval after Zimbabwe, it will not be merely as a groundsman but as an SA contract-holder, an Australia A representative and an international traveller - he has never ventured further afield than New Zealand, and is inquisitive about Africa. But he retains his place on the groundstaff, and the sense that spin bowling is fickle enough to mean that later in the summer he could just as easily be rolling a fourth-day Sheffield Shield pitch as bowling on it.

"That's the beauty of my job," Lyon said. "The cricket comes along with the work, so in that respect I'm pretty lucky. ACT cricket were really good to me, gave me enough time off work to concentrate on my cricket, and so have the SACA. My whole goal's been to play first-class cricket."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo