Nathan Lyon finds his voice
As sledging rows dominated the Ashes narrative in the days after the first Test, the cricketer least likely to figure in the debate was Nathan Lyon.
Wry but shy, crafty but quiet, Lyon's art is not that of the fast bowling bruiser or verbal enforcer. It is instead a game of subtlety, sleight of hand and hidden danger: batsmen lured to their doom rather than lashed to it. By his own smiling admission, Lyon is the quiet one. "I can't really bounce anyone out," he said this week. "Can I?"
Yet beneath the mild exterior, Lyon has been toughened appreciably by the experiences of the past year. Over that period he has learned the value of assertiveness and even outspokenness, of standing up for himself and his bowling, and making his own case for the best way he can flourish as a spinner in an Australian system largely besotted with pace.
The path by which he has reached self-determination has been difficult, and has at times seemed unfair. How close Australia came to abandoning their long-term investment in Lyon can only be guessed at, but the fact he was twice dropped on flimsy grounds suggested it was a possibility the selectors had weighed up. Flirtations with Ashton Agar and Fawad Ahmed have only strengthened the notion.
For a time Lyon was committed to doing whatever was asked of him, earning the admiration of his team-mates for selflessness and commitment to the collective cause. Michael Hussey so admired these qualities, he bequeathed Lyon the job as team songmaster, "Under the Southern Cross" his anthem. But before he could belt out that four-line chorus in Brisbane, he had to find another voice - one that allowed him to bowl on his terms.
Those terms were very evident on Lyon's storied debut in September 2011, when he twirled his way through Sri Lanka with Galle's venerable Dutch fort in the background. Kumar Sangakkara had seemed an equally permanent presence when Lyon sauntered in for ball No. 1, but he would be memorably confounded by all the qualities that had seen Lyon shoot up from his dual roles as Canberra Comets spinner and Adelaide Oval groundsman in a matter of months.
Blessed with an easy, classical action forged in his youth, Lyon imparts considerable revolutions, comparable to those of Graeme Swann. But he can also alter the axis on which the ball rotates, to create greater overspin or side spin depending on what the pitch and batsman demand. Spinning the ball up before letting it loop, drift and drop, he coerced Sangakkara into an exploratory forward defensive, then found the left-hander's edge with sharp turn on a tinder-dry surface. In the space of a ball, Lyon had the blueprint for a career that may eventually become the most prolific by an Australian offspinner.
But the wondrous clarity of that first dismissal proved increasingly difficult to recreate over the ensuing two years. Lyon bowled neatly for the remainder of the series, and in South Africa, before showing an instant liking for the Gabba against New Zealand. He took a less prominent role against India, and wrestled with his action, while his form oscillated in the West Indies.
Confusion had been created by the increasing number of voices trying to influence Lyon's thinking, from coaches and former players to friends and even non-spin bowling team-mates. Either directly or through third parties, Michael Clarke, Ricky Ponting, Mitchell Johnson, Mickey Arthur, Ashley Mallett, John Inverarity, Darren Berry, John Davison, Mark Higgs, Lance Gibbs and Stuart MacGill all had a say at various times.
As he confessed at the start of last summer: "It's been pretty difficult, to be honest with you, to come into the thing and no one say anything at the start, then come seven Tests you have people ringing you up and stuff. Everyone has their own opinion, but I've really tried to block that out and just worry about working with the people I really trust and know where my game is at and where I need to get to."
Complicating matters further for Lyon was the fact that Australia's strategy for winning Test matches revolved so much around fast bowlers that he increasingly found himself cast less in the role of a wicket-taker than as a maiden-bowling, pressure-building run miser. Notably quick through his overs against South Africa and Sri Lanka, Lyon was acceding to the team plan but finding himself under pressure as a result. Knowingly or not, he was being manipulated.
This was never more evident than at Adelaide Oval, where Faf du Plessis' defiance and Matthew Wade's flawed wicketkeeping turned Lyon's 94 overs for the match into a saga of fruitless toil. Though applauded by captain and coach, Lyon faced plenty of public criticism for rushing. For the moment, he contented himself with the fact he was following orders. "I'm worried about doing the right thing for the team and working well with Pup and all the other bowlers," he said.
The final Test of the summer, in Sydney, marked a critical point. Hussey retired, leaving the middle order vulnerable ahead of tours to India and England, and depriving Lyon of a significant mentor. On the field Lyon was again cast as a minor player in a pace-driven strategy, so much so that MacGill made a rare visit to the SCG dressing room to intervene.
"I was quite critical of him last summer because I was confused and regretful about the fact he wasn't doing what I'd seen him do on debut. Watching him at Sydney, watching him run back to his mark, the penny dropped," MacGill said. "The reason it became obvious to me was because Michael Clarke, captain and selector, was at first slip, clapping. So that meant Nathan Lyon was doing the right thing, what had been asked of him.
"He'd been asked to do the wrong thing, he was doing it very well, he was meeting his targets. It might have been serving a purpose there, but the problem is the public and ultimately the selectors - even though two at the time were the coach and the captain - want a spin bowler to bowl teams out on the last day… It was insanity to me that they chose to go down that path."
So it was that Lyon went to India with thoughts of bowling more aggressively, pursuing the wickets that Australia would need of him if they were to find a way to succeed. In Chennai, it was immediately apparent that the hosts had identified Lyon as the threat, attacking him relentlessly while he probed for breakthroughs.
It is true Lyon's line and length varied at times, but his best was beautiful. One ball to befuddle Sachin Tendulkar, all flight and dip and spin, recalled Sangakkara's demise. But instead of appreciating this, or viewing India's assault as their recognition of the danger Lyon posed, the selectors dropped Lyon for Hyderabad, replacing him with the tamer slow left-arm of Xavier Doherty. Arthur said Lyon was struggling technically, and needed to "come to terms with a few things".
It was at this juncture that Lyon chose to take greater control of his own path. While consulting over the phone with MacGill and Davison, he bravely and publicly disputed the views of his coach. "I thought they came out all right in Chennai," Lyon said. "To bowl Sachin Tendulkar through the gate you must be doing something right. I went for a few runs here and there, but bowling against the best bats in the world in their conditions, they were obviously going to come hard at me, playing one spinner in the side. The technical stuff… it's all the same, I haven't changed anything since I was 16. My confidence has gone up, if anything, bowling the best batsman in the world through the gate. As an offspinner growing up, that's what you dream of."
For a figure as softly spoken as Lyon, these were decidedly punchy words. They were to be backed up with action when Doherty had no real impact on the series in two matches. Employing a line from around the wicket he had discussed with Davison, Lyon scooped nine wickets in the final Test, in Delhi, losing little by comparison with the local slow bowlers who had confounded Australia throughout a dysfunctional trip. With 4-0 ringing in their ears, few Australian cricketers had reason to be happy on the flight home, but Lyon could afford a gentle smile.
After India, Lyon made further steps in his self-determination. He raised the ire of South Australia by returning home to New South Wales, looming fatherhood and the proximity of family playing a large part in his decision. Also significant was the counsel of Hussey, Davison and MacGill, who all encouraged a move to the spinningest state in the country. The transfer complete, Lyon ventured up to Brisbane for more work with Davison, who would accompany the spinners to the British Isles with Australia A, for matches preceding the Ashes tour.
Davison's constructive influence on Lyon cannot be overstated. Many have wondered what possible use Test spin bowlers could have for a man best known as a World Cup pinch-hitter for Canada, but Davison offered considerable experience as a spinner kicked around state cricket by strategies that left him bowling maidens to support the fast men. He switched from Victoria to South Australia in 2002 to seek an escape from defensive commissions, and enjoyed a handful of rosier days under the captaincy of Darren Lehmann before retirement.
"The statistics showed that if you bowled a certain amount of dot balls the wickets would come," Davison said in 2003. "So that's what I was trying to adapt to but, when it comes down to it, people judge you on how many wickets you take. So I was comfortable enough with my role within the side… but the public doesn't really look at that." Sound familiar?
Agar was also present on the A tour, leaving Lyon to compete for overs and attention. His action showed more vigour than it had for some time, and those present at matches and in the nets felt sure his shape, spin and pace off the pitch were superior to that of Agar. By the time the Ashes trip commenced, Arthur had been replaced by Darren Lehmann, and at Taunton Lyon bowled neatly in a win over Somerset. Four wickets for the match included that of Nick Compton in each innings, a key dismissal smoothing the way for Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson.
Nevertheless Lyon again fell victim to experimentation. Agar's left-arm spin was deemed more suitable for Nottingham, his magical 98 nothing more than a happy accident for the selectors who chose him and the captain who batted him at No. 11. This decision flummoxed many, not least Lyon, who had stated the week before Trent Bridge that he had seldom felt better equipped for the task at hand. Others wondered at the wisdom of discarding the best spinner simply because he did not turn the ball away from the bat.
If he was discontented, Lyon did not show it. He was among the more enthusiastic observers of Agar's innings, while in the nets he did not hesitate to offer advice and support. Resilience is one of Lyon's greatest attributes, and his ability to keep thinking of the team in such circumstances was a source of pride to many who had worked with him.
When Agar's time in the sun expired, Lyon was again called upon, this time to have an influence on a series already tilted decisively towards England. His bowling over the final three Tests was a source of considerable succour for Australian supporters, showing the right combination of guile and aggression, and lacking only the vindication of a fourth-innings triumph. How many wickets Lyon might have taken at Old Trafford had rain not intervened can never be known. For the second consecutive tour, Lyon returned home stronger and better than when he had left.
Even so, the selectors still seemed unconvinced. Fawad was granted an ODI audition in England, and was mentioned frequently in dispatches at the start of the summer. Clumps of wickets against Tasmania in the domestic limited-overs tournament and Western Australia in the Sheffield Shield pushed Fawad remarkably close to usurping Lyon for Brisbane. He was only to be foiled by Lyon's NSW teammates at the MCG, where Clarke, David Warner and Steve Smith climbed into Fawad's legspin. Lyon bowled neatly for the Blues and was named for Brisbane.
By this time Lyon had learned to assert himself, knowing what would help him to bowl his best against England. He pushed strongly for Davison to accompany the Test team on the road around the country this summer, preferring a specialist spin coach to the less precise advice offered previously. Important here too was Davison's education during his playing days that it is far better for spin bowlers to be encouraged in what they do well rather than reproached for what they do not.
Lyon's preparation for the Gabba was positive, constructive and specific, three words that can also be applied to his impact on the match. Four key wickets, all achieved through intelligent use of the pitch, the fielders and tentative footwork encouraged by the work of the fast men. Rarely has an Australian spin bowler used the leg trap so effectively. At 26, Lyon now has the trust of his captain, coach and team-mates that he is the best spin bowler in Australia, and one rendition of "Under the Southern Cross" to show for it. He has found his voice.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here