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Feature

Lyon looks beyond Ashes antagonism to spread spin gospel at Lancashire

Australia spinner ready and willing to help Tom Hartley's development as he plots course towards 2027

Nathan Lyon poses with his Lancashire shirt, Emirates Old Trafford, April 4, 2024

Nathan Lyon poses with his Lancashire shirt  •  Lancashire Cricket

On the eve of the 2024 county season, Nathan Lyon has two clear objectives. To assist in the development of Lancashire team-mate Tom Hartley and continue charting his own path to the 2027 Ashes. The former is a far more encouraging thought to England fans than the latter.
Australia's great offspinner, currently sitting seventh on the all-time Test wicket-takers' list with 530 dismissals, is in Manchester primed to embark on a county stint that has been a touchy subject since the turn of the year. Specifically, since Hartley emerged from England's difficult tour of India as a beacon of positivity with his left-arm spin taking 22 dismissals across five Tests - more than he managed in the entirety of the 2023 season.
Signed last November with a view to playing all formats for the whole season, Lyon arrives with Cricket Australia having significantly reduced his workload. He will be available for seven of the first nine Division One fixtures up to July 3, with white-ball cricket now completely off the table.
Lyon was "pretty disappointed" by the development but appreciated CA, as his "number one employer", having the right to protect one of its prized assets. "At the end of the day, Test cricket is my number one priority and I'm looking forward to hopefully being here in 2027 to compete in the Ashes again."
Though sold as a positive for Hartley's game time, head coach Dale Benkenstein has given a strong indication that both spinners will play Friday's opener against defending champions Surrey. Ironically, Lyon, who only arrived in the country on Tuesday, wondered if Benkenstein and captain Keaton Jennings might consider leaving him out.
"If I was Lancashire, I'd be looking at the weather," he said, referencing a gloomy forecast for the next four days. "There's no point really playing me if it's going to be a day-and-a-half game, that's my honest opinion. No doubt Keats and Benks will have that conversation and we'll see. But I'm pretty thrilled to be here."
It is highly unlikely Lyon's second term in county cricket, following a brief spell with Worcestershire in 2017, will commence with drinks-carrying duties. Especially considering half of Lancashire's 10 draws last season came at Emirates Old Trafford. Having finished runners-up in 2021 and 2022, they were fifth last summer despite losing just once. The reasons for recruiting Lyon are crystal clear.
Even though Hartley emerged reimagined as a red-ball bowler following his first two months of Test cricket, he was excited by the acquisition of Lyon, regardless of what it might mean for him. Test coach Brendon McCullum posited it would be "slightly mad" if Lancashire did not build on Hartley's progress - and Lyon agrees. The pair bowled together for the first time on Thursday morning, and Lyon has no intention of stifling the 24-year-old's development.
"Watching the NRL and AFL Grand Final back home and seeing the guys go about it lit a fire. I said to my wife, 'There's no way I'm giving this up, this is what I'm here to do, and this is what I love'. The day I wake up when I don't want to get better is the day I'll hang my boots up"
"The thing is, I know what Baz has come out and said in the media, and that's all well and good - but I'm not here to take Tom's spot," Lyon said.
"I know I look at cricket through a totally different lens, of 'spin to win'. And if you can play two spinners in the side, in my opinion, you'll win a lot of games in cricket. So, I'm here to bowl in tandem with Tom, and to be honest, I'm happy to help Tom out along the way, and no doubt he'll help me as well with different skill sets and different mindsets, tactically as well. There's no secrets in what I do, so I'm more than happy to help out.
"If Tom calls me every day, sits down with me for a coffee every day, to talk spin bowling, I'm more than happy to do that."
Lyon was glued to the India series, par for the course as a "cricket tragic" rather than an Aussie relishing watching their rivals succumb to a 4-1 defeat. Hartley's performances, particularly the second innings 7 for 62 which bagged England the opening Test in Hyderabad, impressed a fellow spinner 129 caps and almost 13 years deep into his own journey. Given Lyon's experiences in India - an impressive 56 wickets at 27.35 across 11 Tests - he appreciated just how well Hartley performed as a newbie.
"To see Tom go over there, make his debut and play the five Test matches, I actually watched it quite closely. He's a talent, he's only 24 and to see what he does, what I believe he can get better at, he's got a big future ahead of him. Which is exciting for England cricket and world cricket as well."
Of course, Lyon's own ambitions are worth laying out - beyond setting up Lancashire to push for their first title since 2011, of course, which could guarantee him a friendlier reception from one group of supporters when he comes back around with Australia, even though Manchester was left off the 2027 venues list.
"I've got some fond memories," he said of Old Trafford, "2019 is probably the fondest, retaining the Ashes here. I just think it's a great venue. I'm quite used to getting quite a bit of, how do I put it, abuse or support or friendly advice from the crowd. Fingers crossed, the Lancs members and fans will be a bit nicer this time around. I don't expect them to be nice in 2027, but that's totally OK."
He also wants to brush up on what blind spots he has around how English batters approach spin ahead of his next tour. Given he has 59 dismissals at 29.61 over here, there can't be much more he needs to learn. Ultimately, Lyon's presence in England comes through a relentless desire to make the most of what remains.
A calf tear during the second Ashes Test at Lord's last summer - his 100th consecutive appearance, no less - as a jolt he has since turned into a positive. At the time, particularly in the weeks that followed, as he watched from home while Australia relinquished a 2-0 lead, it felt like the biggest low of his career. Luckily, watching other sports when confined to his couch - namely his favourite NRL - reignited his enthusiasm to keep going.
"Looking back at when my injury happened last year when I was here, it probably happened at the right time. Looking at the positive side now, able to go home - [but I] was really frustrated and down, probably close to depression watching the guys go about it for the last three Ashes Test
"But then I was able to watch the NRL and AFL Grand Final back home and see the guys go about it and win and relight a fire. And I said to my wife, 'There's no way I'm giving this up; this is what I'm here to do, and this is what I love'. The day I wake up when I don't want to get better is the day I'll hang my boots up."
So just how long can Lyon go on for? He's unwilling even to consider the end now, much like 41-year-old James Anderson, who he will play alongside at some point in the next few weeks. The pair have already caught up to share sober notes on longevity.
"I had lunch with Jimmy yesterday, which was pretty amazing," Lyon said. "Normally, when I'm sitting down with Jimmy, it's having a couple of beers after a hard-fought Ashes series. But to sit down and have lunch with one of the greats was pretty special."
Regardless of how long Lyon has had and how long is left to come, he remains at the top of his game, having become only the third Australian to pass 500 Test dismissals in the winter. And it is the spirit of one of those that he wishes to channel for betterment of young spinners across the world, not just Hartley.
"I hate saying it because it sounds like I'm really arrogant but I looked at Shane Warne as the master, the greatest to ever play the game and he used to fly the flag for spin bowlers.
"Since he's passed I said internally that I wanted to keep spin a big focus, especially in Australia, but all around the world. Make spin cool again and follow in Shane's footsteps. I've lived my whole cricket career in his shadow, and I am more than happy to live in his shadow because he's the greatest to ever play the game in my opinion.
"If I can keep flying the flag for spinners whether that's in England, India, Pakistan or Australia, wherever it is… at the end of the day, whether we like it or not, as international cricketers, we're role models to so many people around the world and all I want to do is to inspire young boys and girls to play the game.
"I love the game because it's such a problem-solving game. If I can inspire young boys and girls to do that, hopefully, I'll leave the game in a better position than when I took over."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo