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.