August 27, 2011

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

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.

"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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