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Lyon learns from his mentor's mistakes

Mark Higgs made it to the fringes of the Australian team a decade ago, before fading away. Now he's understanding more about what went wrong as he guides Nathan Lyon to the big league

Daniel Brettig

August 27, 2011

Comments: 14 | Text size: A | A

Mark Higgs bowls, New South Wales v Western Australia, Perth, 15 January 2002
Higgs in 2002: "I learned more when I got away from the game" © Getty Images

Nathan Lyon stands a far greater chance of making his name as an international cricketer because his mentor Mark Higgs was unable to do so.

Among those who have guided Lyon on his road less travelled, from Young in country New South Wales to the Australian team, Higgs' influence has been the most seminal. Yet in the process of moulding Lyon's looping offbreaks, Higgs has learned almost as much about himself as his pupil has about bowling. He has resolved the muddle of thoughts, doubts and pressures that beset him as his own playing career faded into obscurity from a starting point remarkably similar to Lyon's.

Eleven years before Lyon became a somewhat left-field choice to bowl spin for Australia on their current tour of Sri Lanka, Higgs was an even more lateral selection to replace the injured Shane Warne at the ICC Trophy in Nairobi. At that point Higgs was far from a fixture in the New South Wales side, but the Australian captain Steve Waugh saw something in his hard-spun left-arm orthodox and impudent batting, and he was thrust into the national squad.

"I was [picked out of the blue], same age or a bit younger than Lyonsy, but it was a great experience for me, and it was tough for me as well because at that stage we had a strong side and there were good players around everywhere," Higgs told ESPNcricinfo. "You don't realise how close you are when you're actually playing first-class cricket.

"I had good performances that year in the one-day competition, and it still came out of the blue. I learned a lot playing in NSW with a lot of the idols, but then to be among the full Australian team was a great experience."

The Australians were eliminated in the first round by India, courtesy a teenager called Yuvraj Singh, and Higgs was never chosen again. Often cited as a wasted talent who could be more prolific at the bar than in the middle, Higgs carved out a moderate career with the Blues and later South Australia, but gradually lost interest in the game and all its attendant pressures.

"One thing I struggled with was the runs side of things," Higgs said. "I couldn't score the runs I wanted to. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do that, and cricket is a statistics game. If you average 35, you're not holding your spot in the team.

"I knew that and was working hard to try to change my game enough to get to a place where I could score runs consistently, but to be honest I wasn't able to do it as well as I would've liked. I learned more when I got away from the game, but the pressure I put on myself to do well was undoing my talent I guess.

"All the guys train pretty hard; it's whether they train enough on the mental side of the game. The great players all talk about it being 90% mental, and to be able to learn that sort of stuff is more important than having a great cover drive or a great stock ball."

Cut more or less adrift from cricket in Australia, Higgs moved to England and was only called back in 2006 at the behest of a former Canberra Comets team-mate, who reckoned Higgs' talents, and misadventures, would be useful in aiding the development of a younger generation.

It was in the middle of this return that Higgs had his first glimpse of Lyon, then a quietly spoken teenager from country NSW with plenty of ability and the desire to learn more, who soon graduated from the ACT Under-19s team into the senior side, which takes part in the Futures League second XI competition. Together with Higgs, Lyon developed his philosophy on spin, moving beyond the natural tendency to bowl darts at the first hint of attack.

"He came in pretty raw, but had natural loop with the ball and had good fingers and was able to turn the ball. That was the thing that was really noticeable - he was able to turn the ball, and he was happy to bowl and ask plenty of questions," Higgs said. "We had a couple of spinners before that who moved on, and Lyonsy got thrown into the deep end a bit with us.

"His ideas about bowling to good players were okay, but I thought they could use improvement and we tried to get his fields right and also get him a game-plan that went to those fields, so he was able to hold good players first of all and then get them out as well.

"The ideas of lines of attack, and where we want to get players out and where we want to stop them from scoring, was really important.

"I'd like to see him get an opportunity at some stage. Hopefully he will do well. I think he will - he's got a great personality for it" Higgs looks forward to seeing his protégé Lyon get a game during the Sri Lanka series

"I think when Lyonsy first came to us his idea when guys were attacking was to get it into the wicket and try to stop them on the crease, which we know on Australian wickets is like facing a medium-pacer. Once they get used to that, it's even harder to stop them because it opens up more of the field. So the idea was to get them to hit where we want them to hit, and to get them to play on our terms. That was the early work we did, and also to get his action right."

Believing they had a talent on their books in need of wider exposure, ACT Cricket took Lyon down to Adelaide Oval last winter in the hope of securing him a start with South Australia. Surprisingly, SA's high performance director, Jamie Cox, and the then coach, Mark Sorell, were not overly impressed by Lyon, and baulked at the suggestion of a state contract. Instead, a compromise was reached whereby Lyon would be transferred onto the SACA ground staff but would still play for the ACT.

"We said, 'We'll take him on again', and luckily enough he was able to come back and play for us last year and then he came away with us during the Baby Bash [Under 23 Twenty20 competition]," Higgs said.

"That was when Chuck [Darren] Berry saw him bowl and he was lucky enough in the match we played against SA to get the chance to bowl to some left-handers. He held them really nicely and used some flight in that match,and Darren took him on from there."

From this point Lyon's tale is more widely known. He and Higgs still converse regularly, and most recently have dealt with the question of how to handle the mass of additional media interest Lyon's national selection has stirred. Higgs is optimistic about Lyon's prospects in Sri Lanka, provided his coaches and the captain, Michael Clarke, handle him correctly.

"It's hard to say if you're ready until you get in there and have a go," Higgs said. "Every hurdle that's been set in front of him he's been able to get over and get over it well, so I can't see why he wouldn't do it again. He's still got a lot to learn, I'd say that.

"I'd like to see him get an opportunity at some stage. If he's ready now, he's ready now. If they need him on a turning wicket I think he can be effective. We've seen a lot of guys get picked for Australia on a few opportunities and Nathan's now another one of those, and hopefully he will do well. I think he will - he's got a great personality for it."

For Higgs, the sight of Lyon bowling for Australia would make his own journey seem worthwhile. He has learned as much about cricket being captain and coach of the ACT as he ever did as a precocious young allrounder, and is now at peace.

Nathan Lyon bowls for the Australians against Sri Lanka Board XI, Colombo, 1st day, August 25 2011
Lyon's success would make Higgs' own unfulfilled journey seem worthwhile © Associated Press

"I think the big thing I teach the lads growing up is that I didn't succeed as much as I would like to and here's some of the reasons why," Higgs said. "I wasn't able to control my emotions, I took a lot of baggage home when I went home from games, and it put me down a bit.

"Also from not playing so well as a player and showing glimpses that I could do it but to not succeed the way I wanted to... looking back now, it was the pressure I put on myself to succeed, and the statistics show I wasn't good enough. I had a great time in the game, I'm still having a great time coaching, but I think I learned a lot more from not being successful as well, and that's helped me for my future life."

Higgs' knowledge of spin bowling, too, has only grown with experience. He now thinks himself a better bowler than he was when playing, as instructive a detail about the slow-burning art of spin bowling as any technical advice can possibly be.

"I've learned more about spin bowling in the last three or four years than when I was playing, just by talking to people and being around spin bowlers more often," Higgs said. "My own bowling is better now than it was when I was playing, purely because I've learned more from talking to a lot of people about it, and spending time [with] people about different ways of getting people out.

"When you're a captain and a coach, you're analysing how they go about the game, but you're also looking at ideas for how they can do things better, and the learning curve of that has been great for me. If you spoke to most spinners, I think you learn more post 27-28. You very rarely have players who come onto the scene young and are very successful straight away.

"I think they need time to learn how people will play them - different players around the world play spin so differently from the way we play. It's great Lyonsy is in the system so young, but I think he needs the time to learn the craft and learn what it takes to be successful at all levels."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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Posted by landl47 on (August 31, 2011, 4:46 GMT)

Lyon might turn out to be a very good spin bowler, but it's fair to say that so far there's no evidence to that effect. Higgs' comment that he's got over every hurdle put in front of him is blatantly not true, unless you think that 14 first-class wickets in 5 games @45 each is a success. OK, so a bowler like Warne is as rare as a chicken with teeth; there are still many who could be decent bowlers if they are given the time to learn their trade. Graeme Swann didn't make his test debut until he was 29, but he now has over 150 wickets @28 in test cricket. Before Warne/MacGill, want to take a guess at the last Australian spin bowler to take 150 wickets in tests? It was (drum roll) Richie Benaud. 12 spinners in the 4 years since Warne hung 'em up suggests it will be a very long time before another comes along. Rushing inexperienced bowlers into the side and discarding them when, inevitably, they fail isn't going to help.

Posted by hyclass on (August 29, 2011, 5:24 GMT)

@RandyOz...What is in the public forum,is the falling out between Ponting and Hauritz over field placings in India.Hauritz ultimately had an average tour of India and the cause and effect are debatable.After returning to Australia,Hauritz showed career best form with the ball and bat,without being re-selected,before a shoulder injury curtailed its possibility.There was a vogue to Tasmanian selections,unsupported by form,at a time when the Australian captain and two selectors had all been Tasmanian captains.It began back with Krezja in 08.It led to Doherty.That led to Beer and in turn, to Lyon.There were also the inclusions of Paine and Hilfenhaus,against their runs of form.Obviously,Beer and Lyon arent Tasmanian,but as with retaining underperforming players in the batting line-up,a template was created.Note Boons sudden departure.Until 2006/7 and the arrival of the current CA administration,Ponting was a great player.If the findings of Argus are implemented,i expect he will be again.

Posted by   on (August 29, 2011, 2:49 GMT)

Mark Higgs what a talent he was. Powerfull left hand bat and could bowl left arm finger an wristspin. Can't believe he never played for Australia.

Posted by   on (August 29, 2011, 1:49 GMT)

Krejza, Doherty, Beer, Lyon. Not one of them has a first class average below 45, Beer and Doherty have a test average over 100. Lyon and Beer have hardly even played professional cricket. This has to be the worst selection of spinners ever to be considered by a national side, which one of them would you want to bowl to Dilshan or Jayawardene? I wish Lyon luck as but no-one in their right mind could think he's ready for test cricket of the back of 5 FC games.

Posted by RandyOZ on (August 29, 2011, 0:28 GMT)

@hyclass, I get the feeling Warne didn't like O'Keefe or had a fall out with him.

Posted by hyclass on (August 28, 2011, 2:57 GMT)

@srivatsan...with due respect,Hogg retired by choice,to spend more time with his family.In 2007,he was already 36.His Test and 1st class records as a spin bowler were very poor.Doherty was given 2 tests that his record says he didnt warrant.He replaced Hauritz on the flimsiest of pretexts at a time when there was tension between Ponting and Hauritz being reported in the media.Hauritz is currently injured.The tasmanian Doherty was requested by Ponting at a time when Cox,a former tasmanian captain and Boon,another tasmanian,were selectors.He was as bad as his figures said he would be.He replaced Krezja,another tasmanian,whose record and results are equally poor,other than an inexplicable 12 wicket test on a raging turner.Those wickets came for a record number of runs as well.That led to Beer,who had 3 Shield games and 6 wickets,when ex melbourne club teammate,Warne,suggested his name to the media.With no supporting evidence,Hilditch picked him.Lyon is the same deal.No record to speak of.

Posted by srivatsan on (August 27, 2011, 17:41 GMT)

The curse for Australian spin department is either they play along side Warne and wanish (like Mcgill) or suddenly disappear (Brad Hogg, Doherty, Hauritz and list goes on). They had a superb left arm china man in the later only to vanish after 2007 world cup (they won it and he played a significant part). Brad Hogg is the only spinner that I regard very high because I've seen Indians struggle to score off him in ODI series in 2007. He has a well disguised wrong un.

Posted by hyclass on (August 27, 2011, 11:42 GMT)

@Francis Fabian.outstanding point.Far too much credit has been given to fancy theories and predictions over the last 4-5 years,without responsibility for results.They make great bedtime stories but are useless to anyone pursuing a professional outcome.If Higgs can play,hes young enough to.Where are his results?Other than a finger spinning connection,what proof does he hold that he is a better bowler now,or qualified to advance anyones cause,when he couldnt advance his own.The fish always get bigger,the further away from the river you travel.His only interesting point,tallies with Pontings views on averaging mid 30s in 1st class batting.Jenner got results and played at a higher level.Warne was something else again.The entire failing with stories like these,is that they are deviod of evidence,supporting the probability that any view expressed in them will come to pass.The smart gamblers are sharply attuned to all evidence that supports their conclusions.The foolish ones clutch at straws.

Posted by popcorn on (August 27, 2011, 11:28 GMT)

So now Xavier Doherty gets dumped? He proved himself oin the one day games against Sri Lanka, he already has a Baggy Green. Michael Beer has dione nothing of value, couldn't the selectors have persisted with Xavier Doherty for the Test series? It xcould have been a rise between Xavier Doherty and Nathan Lyon.

Posted by dsig3 on (August 27, 2011, 10:49 GMT)

Higgs was a batting allrounder, Lyon is not. They both bowl a form of finger spin thats were their similarities end.

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Daniel BrettigClose
Daniel Brettig Assistant editor Daniel Brettig had been a journalist for eight years when he joined ESPNcricinfo, but his fascination with cricket dates back to the early 1990s, when his dad helped him sneak into the family lounge room to watch the end of day-night World Series matches well past bedtime. Unapologetically passionate about indie music and the South Australian Redbacks, Daniel's chief cricketing achievement was to dismiss Wisden Almanack editor Lawrence Booth in the 2010 Ashes press match in Perth - a rare Australian victory that summer.

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