Confident Lyon eyes English left-handers
You get the strong impression that Nathan Lyon reckons this is going to be his year. Seven left-handers. Dry pitches. Footmarks. Confidence. A winning team. Jeff, and Square Jeff (more on that later). It all seems to add up.
Lyon has been on an Ashes tour once before. Leading into the Nottingham Test in 2013 he felt similarly at ease with his bowling and his mindset. Though Ashton Agar was subsequently chosen ahead of him for Trent Bridge and Lord's, it was not something that dissuaded him from giving his all.
A return of nine wickets in his three-Test ration, including matches figures of 7 for 97 at Chester-le-Street rather vindicated the belief of Lyon and spin coach John Davison that he was on the right path, and since then he has played important roles in regaining the Ashes at home, ascendancy over South Africa away, and the return of the Border-Gavaskar trophy in Australia after the horrors of early 2013.
Now, Lyon knows that England will be petrified of being caught on a green top against a pace attack featuring Ryan Harris, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchells Starc or Johnson. By extension, this will grant Lyon the opportunity for pitches dry and spinning, against a team loaded with as many as seven left-handers. No wonder the New South Wales country boy is excited by what lies ahead.
"I can't see them being fast and bouncy that's for sure," Lyon said. "I'm expecting something pretty similar to last time, probably good batting wickets and hopefully they'll take a bit of spin and hopefully that may play into my hands. With the pace that we've got in our squad with Johnson, Starc, Siddle, Harris, Watson, Marsh... there is no real weak link there, so I dare say they will be taking the speed out of the pitch, that's for sure. I think that they're going to make pretty good batting pitches and try and take the game as long as they can.
"I'm confident in my skill to get the job done for Australia, especially because they've got several left-handers in the squad which I'm quite excited to be bowling at."
England have lately turned over a new, more aggressive leaf, but even that does not faze Lyon. On the contrary he is looking forward to matching wits with batsmen trying to hit him out of the park. History says he is more comfortable with that than with batsmen intent only on survival, for like most quality offspinners Lyon is at his best when teasing a batsman intent on destruction.
"I've been having that done for 41 Tests now so I'm getting used to that, especially when we've got a quality pace attack," Lyon said of England's batsmen going after him, as per the views of Graeme Swann. "I'm up for the fight and I'm looking forward to it so it's nice for Graeme Swann to come out like that.
"If we have two left-handers or one left-handed [bowler] in our team they're going to do a great job for us and they are going to create rough outside the off-stump for a right-hander and that's often brilliant for me.
"Also, I would daresay the England attack will come round the wicket to a few of our left-handers which will play into my hands as well, so hopefully Davey [Warner] and a few others can get a few runs up the top and they can keep running over the wicket."
One source of confidence for Lyon is the advice of Muttiah Muralitharan, who worked as a spin consultant in 2014. Among his best words of advice to Lyon was that the spinner's stock ball, bowled at stock pace, was good enough to succeed anywhere, thus pushing Lyon away from too much over-analysis of his methods.
"I did lot of work with Murali a year ago and one of his big pieces of advice was that my stock pace would always work, no matter where you are in the world," Lyon said. "It's just being able to have that variation of going up the gears and down the gears so I'm not going to change too much.
"I know what works for me and I'm going to back myself. No matter where you are in the world, trust your stock ball and that's what I've gone back to over the last 12 months, and it seems to have been working quite well for me."
All that said, the best indicator of Lyon's confidence ahead of this Ashes series is how he talks about his seldom-seen variations, now nicknamed "Jeff" and "Square Jeff". Lyon wants to keep them secret but is nonetheless happy to talk about them, much like Shane Warne once did when the propagation of new mystery balls was not just a matter of pride but of brassy corporate sponsorship.
"Yeah, Jeff's still here - I've got a couple of Jeffs now," Lyon let slip. "As a bowling unit we bowled well in the West Indies so I didn't need to bring out Jeff, but he's still in the right-hand pocket that's for sure.
"I've got another one in the left-hand pocket now. It's the Square Jeff. There's a couple of differences, you'll just have to wait and see; I can't let all of my secrets out. I just haven't used it in international cricket. John Davison has seen it a fair bit. I've been working on it for a couple of years, you guys just haven't noticed it."
What can be noticed is the spring in Lyon's step. He has a chance to be a dominant force this series, and he knows it.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig