Lyon feels the love at last
Dropped for Doherty, moved on for Maxwell, axed for Agar - Nathan Lyon has been Australia's most underappreciated cricketer this year. What might have been had the selectors stuck firm with him? He could have been second or third on the world Test wickets list in 2013; instead he joins Peter Siddle as Australia's leading wicket-taker for the year. Siddle's 42 victims took 14 Tests to accumulate, Lyon claimed his in only 11.
It was fitting that Lyon finally gained recognition in Australia's last Test match of the year. When he flighted and turned a ball that caught Stuart Broad's edge to slip, Lyon was mobbed by his team-mates, his thinning hair tousled so vigorously that what remains of it was lucky to survive. The MCG's monstrously large new scoreboard flashed the message that Lyon had just taken his 100th Test wicket. It did not highlight how great an achievement that was.
No Australia offspinner has reached that milestone in the past 30 years. Only Hugh Trumble, George Giffen, Ashley Mallett, Bruce Yardley and Ian Johnson had ever done it. The spin cycle that began when Shane Warne retired seven years ago looked like it would run ad infinitum, slow bowlers used and abused, discarded after one or two Tests, some sent into retirement, others back to Sheffield Shield cricket.
Australia have tried 13 specialist spinners since Warne. Lyon has taken 101 wickets at 32.23 in 29 Tests; the other 12 collectively managed 119 victims at 48.75 from 46 appearances. But for all of his Test success, Lyon has been an under-the-radar type. He has never been Man of the Match in a Test. He had never, until his 5 for 50 here at the MCG, taken five wickets in a Test match in Australia. He says little, is as economical with his words as with his bowling.
But there was love for Lyon on the third day in Melbourne. Much love, and not just from his team-mates. As he ran back to field at fine leg during the afternoon, a beach ball lobbed on to the ground from the Olympic Stand. The security guard on duty collected it, sat on it, looked ready to burst it. Lyon signalled him to throw it back into the crowd. In the end, Lyon ran over, grabbed the ball from the guard and tossed it back to the raucous fans himself, winning a few thousand new friends.
The Nathan Lyon of two years ago, perhaps even one year ago, would not have done that. When first picked for the Test side, Lyon was painfully shy in public. He is slowly coming out of his shell. When Australia were one wicket from victory at the WACA, Lyon was one of three or four players urging the crowd to get involved, signalling for them to cheer their team home. Hours later, he led an emotional rendition of "Under the Southern Cross".
Lyon was named by Michael Hussey as the song's new custodian in January, but so miserable was Australia's year that he did not have a chance to lead the chorus until November. He has now done so three times in three Tests, and his bowling on the third afternoon in Melbourne gave Australia a strong chance of making it four from four. His work cannot be underestimated. A 300-plus target would have been a challenge; the 231 they were set is very gettable.
His drop did for Ian Bell, who didn't get to the pitch of the ball and lofted a drive to mid-off. His dip also accounted for Ben Stokes, who also lifted a catch to mid-off. He got rid of Tim Bresnan and Broad, and most importantly Kevin Pietersen, who prides himself on going after the spinners. Lyon's list of batsmen he has dismissed most in Test cricket now has Pietersen and Sachin Tendulkar at the top. Not a bad pair to have claimed four times each.
It is hard to believe that only a year ago Lyon was struggling for wickets, though his figures in the last Australian summer were distorted by an unfair share of dropped catches and missed stumpings. In February he was attacked by MS Dhoni in Chennai and dumped from the next Test, replaced by Xavier Doherty and Glenn Maxwell. They failed, Lyon returned and took nine in the Delhi Test.
That made him the incumbent spinner when the Ashes came around, but Australia's desire to surprise England led to Ashton Agar making his debut at Trent Bridge. Two Tests later, the selectors realised their error and returned to Lyon. He duly took seven in Chester-le-Street, a performance that might have led to victory were it not for a collective panic attack from Australia's batsmen.
This summer Lyon has been in the side to stay. The spin coach John Davison has travelled with the squad, tutoring Lyon one-on-one in the nets in the lead-up to matches. Lyon has taken 16 wickets for the series, third behind Mitchell Johnson and Broad for this Ashes campaign. He outbowled his England counterpart Graeme Swann, a man Lyon had looked up to as a developing offspinner without doosras and other tricks.
Swann retired with 255 wickets before this Test. Lyon emerged from it with 101 and a long future ahead of him. He doesn't shatter stumps and bruise batsmen like Johnson and co. He rarely makes the headlines. He's happy to be under the radar, just not to be underappreciated.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here