Sri Lanka v Australia, 1st Test, Galle, 2nd day September 1, 2011

Nathan Lyon's debut in the sun

Offspinner Nathan Lyon, a groundsman by trade, took 5 for 34 on debut to skittle Sri Lanka for 105 in Galle

Nathan the Lionheart. Such a phrase might have seemed hackneyed a day ago, but not now. Combining flight, spin, guile and the knack for theatre many of the best spin bowlers possess, Nathan Lyon scooped 5 for 34 on debut against Sri Lanka. He was helped by the most united and committed Australian performance in the field for some years, a sterling ensemble display by his fellow bowlers, and a spiteful pitch.

Lyon's day began at fine leg, where he was seen taking advice, if not medication, from Alex Kountouris, Australia's physio. Several players had been coping with stomach troubles, and Lyon looked thinner and paler than usual. This did not stop him from rushing to congratulate Trent Copeland on a first Test wicket from his second ball, via the unseemly haste of Tillakaratne Dilshan and the stellar reflexes of Ricky Ponting.

Copeland's wicket boded well for Lyon, and he knew the surface would offer plenty of help. Replacing his fellow debutant at the pavilion end, Lyon placed the field with the help of his captain Michael Clarke, spun the ball from hand to hand one more time and set off to bowl to Kumar Sangakkara and his 8438 Test runs. Seconds later he was engulfed by his team-mates, having delivered a venomous off break that touched Sangakkara's edge and was held low at slip by Clarke. Few spin bowlers can operate successfully without a strong relationship with their captain, and the Lyon-Clarke union could scarcely have made a better start. Lyon will never forget it.

The rest of the morning passed wicketless for Lyon but the portents were all there. He turned the ball quickly and with bounce, varied the degree of spin and pace, and maintained a balance between looping his deliveries to invite a drive and preventing the batsmen from taking too many liberties. The lack of scoring chances produced a pivotal run-out, when Tharanga Paranavitana punched to point and Mahela Jayawardene was left short by Copeland's crafty back-hand throw to Brad Haddin.

Such run-outs have been rare for the Australian teams of recent summers, and they went the entire Ashes without one. The support Lyon enjoyed in the field was unconditional, keeping the Sri Lankan batsmen on their heels and seeking out opportunities with a hunger at least partly inspired by the recruitment of Steve Rixon as fielding coach. Lyon also contributed, demonstrating a decent arm from the outfield and throwing himself about whenever necessary. The Argus review had said that fielding "has extra significance, as in the panel's view fielding standards reflect the attitude and professionalism of the team". Lyon benefited from a group that caught everything, curtailed Sri Lanka's scoring and manufactured a run-out. It was as significant to his fortunes as the pitch.

The problems inherent in the surface cannot pass without comment, particularly given that Lyon is a groundsman by trade. Michael Hussey and Ponting have both been heard to say they have never seen a drier pitch, while local opinion is that it may have been underprepared after the strip was relaid mid-year. Galle is known to turn from the first day, but has never offered such extremes of bounce. As a spinner, Lyon would love to wrap up the pitch and take it everywhere. As a groundsman he would be less enthusiastic.

Beginning after lunch with figures of 1 for 16, Lyon returned as Shane Watson squeezed the Sri Lankans with a spell that would break their batting. The combination of reverse swing and treacherous spin was familiar from previous subcontinent visits, and the wiles of India in particular, but this time Australia were gleeful to be employing rather than receiving. Watson's incisions offered Lyon the chance to attack the tail, and he claimed the last four wickets for as many runs in two overs. Lyon's fifth wicket arrived via a return catch so athletic as to be reminiscent of a leaping goalkeeper, and in his riotous celebration could be seen the attitude his mentor Mark Higgs has spoken so warmly about.

"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," Higgs said of 23-year-old Lyon before the Test. "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."

That personality meant there were plenty of cricketers, friends and observers happy to celebrate Lyon's hand in razing Sri Lanka for 105. His was the best analysis by an Australian on debut since another offspinner took a remarkable 8 for 215 against India on a Nagpur turner in 2008. Lyon can only hope for a future more successful than the subsequent path taken by Jason Krejza, and other spin bowlers since Shane Warne. At least in terms of epithets, "Lionheart" sounds more promising than "Krazy" ever did.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • j on September 2, 2011, 8:14 GMT

    Swann's clearly the best in the world. The Aussies, still fresh from their hammering in the Ashes, the series which brings nightmares to every one of their players on that pitch right now, finally have something to cheer about though. It's about time isn't it? The gulf between sides like Australia and England has for the last two years been massive. England have led the way not just by being better batsmen, better bowlers and better fielders (does anyone have an opening bowler who is a specialist 1st slip!) but they've also been physically fitter than any of the teams out there.

  • Ajay on September 2, 2011, 7:12 GMT

    I just cant understand why people compare one cricketer to another. Each are different, some are average, some would be good, some would be great players and still a few of em would be legends. Now the point over here is Lyon, and i watched how he bowled yesterday, and it seems that he is far more potent than krezja or hauritz, but one innings on a dry pitch mentioned by hussey would not be suffice to acclaim or criticize his calibre. Only time will tell. But as for now, I would love him to become a good spinner, just like Swann, then only the batsman could think twice before heaving each and every slow bowlers....

  • django on September 2, 2011, 5:50 GMT

    @inefekt can you name me a better traditional right arm off spinner in recent times than Swann? I am stretching to get Saqlain/Sing but they were not very orthodox or traditional and have had very rough patches in their careers. We are talking about a traditional off spinner, not many have very good records anymore. I dont think Swann is better than Warne/Murali/Kumble but they are all wrist spinners. Who would you suggest as a good role model then?

  • Hrishikesh on September 2, 2011, 4:47 GMT

    @jonesy2 thats a bit premature mate. its he first test. its unfair on him and swann as well. Swann has taken more than 150 wickets that includes lots of match winning 5ers.

    @landl47 but then again, u poms end u comparing swann to the likes of harbhajan or murli who have taken 3- 6 times more wickets than swann. so in the end for all that swann is, he aint no murali or warne, or for that matter he is older than harbhajan and has 250 fewer wickets than him. so let him take maybe 400 wickets atleast then u should start comparing him to these others players. just cause he is in form doesnt make him better than any of the greats. just like an Alistair Cook is nowhere near the level of Ponting or a Tendulkar just cause he is in better form right this moment

  • Trevor on September 2, 2011, 3:54 GMT

    I have to laugh when I hear these comments about Swann, you'd think he was the greatest spin bowler in history. His record against Australia, South Africa and India is pretty ordinary, averaging over 40 vs both Aust and India and over 30 vs SAF, with strike rates between 60 and 80. To talk about him as a player possessing almost mythical spin bowling powers is a joke. Back to reality guys, he's decent but certainly not great.

  • Benjamin on September 2, 2011, 3:39 GMT

    LOL popcorn you are by far my favorite poster here. I'm assuming that is said tongue in cheek?? That said I'd like nothing more than to see it come true. I just hope they stick with him after he has a bad test and gives him time to develop. He'll have bad days on flat tracks but given time hopefully he can add a few mystery balls to his arsenal and become a long term member of the aussie team.

    Chillarparty agree with you on Johnson. I still love him but just wait till he gets back to ZA in a few months. He's one man who has single handedly destroyed the Saffas over the last few years. Smith will have a few spare pairs on undies at the ready as will Kallis. Amla and De Villiers might be a different kettle of fish though. If it seems and he gets it right down there look out.

  • Philip on September 2, 2011, 2:57 GMT

    What probably should be commented on regarding Lyon's debut bowling is not his figures but the way he bowled. No spot-dropping for the first few overs or outlandish attacking. He got a wicket with his first ball because his line and length were right first time and he spun it sharply off a helpful surface. Dare I say it, but these are old-fashioned values. And I think, strangely enough, the ultra-modern-looking Clarke may be one to help bring more of these things back.

  • Dummy4 on September 2, 2011, 1:48 GMT

    As well as Krezja, we also got really excited when Hauritz took wickets on a sub-continental dustbowl on his debut. Picking up wickets on debut on dustbowls does not mark out a champion automatically.

    What matters is how he develops from here. It's good that he's met with some success, because that means the Australians will finally (hopefully) stick with a spinner, and really try and develop him, and give him the skills to play a role in the team in all conditions.

    The revolving door of spinners needs to end, and now that we've had one take some wickets, hopefully we'll begin to see the benefits of having some stability.

  • David on September 2, 2011, 0:17 GMT

    well done to all the debutants but one thing of note is that it looks as though all the younger players are much more confident under clarke as opposed to ponting. clarke gives the younger guys a lot of confidence because he backs them all the way. even looking at phil hughes for example - when he batting alongside ponting in the first innings he didnt look anything special but in the second innings when he batted with clarke, it seemed as though he had all the confidence in the world... using his feet to the spinners and hitting 6s etc etc. he was very unlucky to get out with the flawed technology but thats a discussion for another day. i reckon the young players in this team will do really well under clarke.

  • Harvey on September 1, 2011, 23:18 GMT

    SRL made the same mistake a lot of teams do. They stuff around with getting runs at some pathetic run rate and get out cheaply. Of course there are others who treat the game like a T20 and get themselves out early (Watson).

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