'I've learned I have to think faster'
No-one in the Australian dressing room better epitomises the pure joy of playing for their country than Nathan Lyon. In a landscape increasingly riven by loyalties more commercial than communal, Lyon's childlike glee about pulling on the baggy green is endlessly refreshing. It so impressed Michael Hussey that on the day of his retirement he handed Lyon the honour of leading the team victory song.
So it is no surprise to hear of Lyon speak about the Investec Ashes series with enthusiasm so unbridled that it is possible to wonder how he has managed to wait seven weeks in England before the Trent Bridge Test rolled around. Lyon would never speak of the game in the careworn manner of the career professional, but it is clear that the game will never feel less like a job than it does right now.
"Cricket is something I love and I've been fortunate enough to make a career out of it," Lyon told ESPNcricinfo. "It's only the start of my career and hopefully I've got a few years left. But I just really love playing cricket for Australia, and I'll do everything I possibly can to help each team-mate out there. It's going to be a tough series, no doubt about that. We have to play some really good cricket to put England to the sword. But we're here to win the Ashes, and we plan on taking them back home with us."
Lyon's career had been sculpted with this year, and these two series, very much in mind. Chosen for the Sri Lanka tour that followed the team's humbling defeat at home against England in 2010-11, Lyon's first Test arrived immediately after the release of the Argus report that charted Australian cricket's troubles and suggested ways around them before the urn was next contested. Since then, Lyon has played 22 of a possible 24 Test matches, claiming 76 wickets along the way.
He has also learned to cope with the swings and roundabouts of the international game. There have been plenty of peaks, including 5 for 34 on debut in Galle, key spells against South Africa in the white-knuckle Johannesburg victory later in 2011, the 4-0 hiding of India at home, and Michael Hussey's retirement decision that it should be Lyon to claim the honour of leading the team victory song Under the Southern Cross. Chief among the troughs were the 47 in Cape Town, a narrow defeat to New Zealand in Hobart for which Lyon was the last man out, and the hellish tour of India.
Lyon was dropped after the first Test of that series, cast aside due to match figures of 4 for 244 and a habit of offering up one loose ball an over. But an admirable resilience and capacity to learn was to be written all over his display in the final match of the series in Delhi. Nine Indian wickets were harvested on a dusty surface, helped by a line around the wicket that capitalised on the turn available.
The India tour could quite easily have ruined Lyon, as the 2010 tour did for Nathan Hauritz in 2010. But he emerged from it stronger, smarter, and quicker in the mind, if not through the air. In a dry English summer, Lyon's role may prove to be almost as expansive as the deviation he extracted at the Feroz Shah Kotla.
"There's no doubt I feel I've grown in myself from the experiences in India from the first Test to the last Test," Lyon said. "It's hard to say you're proud when you lose 4-0 and you're not able to contribute to a team victory over there. It was a disappointing tour, there's no doubt about that, but on a personal level I definitely learned a lot about my bowling and the pressures of international cricket."
Hype surrounding the legspinner Fawad Ahmed's qualification to play for Australia, via Federal Government legislation to expedite his eligibility for a passport, has worked somewhat in Lyon's favour. As much attention has been placed on Fawad, who may or may not take part in the Ashes, Lyon has worked quietly and with increasing confidence in the company of the Centre of Excellence spin coach John Davison. The energy he showed at the bowling crease during the tour match against Somerset at Taunton was palpable.
"That is a good thing about being over here, I haven't looked into any of the hype surrounding Fawad," Lyon said. "I've been over here for seven weeks now and was fortunate enough to have John Davison come over for the first two weeks and I was able to do a lot of work with him and just worry about myself, what I can do and what I need to do to contribute to the team.
"I'm feeling really good with my bowling at the moment. I feel really confident in my skills to get the job done and I feel really energetic and really loving bowling. I've always loved bowling, but it's gone to a new level from working with Davo in Brissy and then over here for a couple of weeks. I'm really excited about this Ashes series, it's a dream come true to be a part of an Australian squad for an England tour."
Davison's advice has been a constant during Lyon's time in the Australian team, a period in which he has also had to come to terms with the amount of advice hurled his way from all directions. The South Australia coach Darren Berry, the former Test spinners Ashley Mallett and Stuart MacGill, the national selector John Inverarity and the assistant coach Steve Rixon have been just a few of the voices in Lyon's ear, but the most resonant and lasting has been that of Davison.
"In international cricket there are a lot of people with a lot of different opinions and that's something I've learned," Lyon said. "You have to figure out things for yourself, take on advice, and you might pick up something from someone who may not have played the game at the highest level. John Davison's been fantastic for me, I've worked with him really well and I've got a lot of trust in Davo."
Something else Lyon can trust is the fact the lessons of India will help him against England. Armed with experience of twirling the ball down towards batsmen far more adept at spin than anyone in Alastair Cook's team, Lyon will be a more nuanced bowler than the trier who wheeled through 99 increasingly rushed overs against South Africa at Adelaide Oval last year as Faf Du Plessis ground out a draw. He will also be more confident in his ability to capitalise on pitches prepared to offer assistance to his opposite number, Graeme Swann.
"Indian players obviously play spin quite well and it was a great challenge for me personally over there," Lyon said. "That's something I have learned, that I have to think faster. Really compete against the opposition and put into place some different tactical movements to compete against the batter and plan to get him out.
"I'm learning as quick as possible about the English conditions and what role I have and what I have to do to get the best out of my bowling over here. I've been doing my personal research on every batsman in the English squad. Hopefully I've picked up a couple of points I can try to use out there in the middle."
Success in the middle will lead to celebrations in the rooms. And if there is anything Lyon is itching to do more than play in an Ashes series, it is for the next chance to bellow Under the Southern Cross at the top of his lungs.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here