Lyon: 'Remarkable to be around for that long and have played a role in Australian cricket'

The offspinner returns to Galle, the scene of his Test debut, as one of the most prolific Australian bowlers

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
"In my head I thought, 'oh no, that's going to be short and wide' but lucky enough that wasn't the case."
Nathan Lyon, 23 years old with just five first-class matches and 14 wickets, who a year before was on the Adelaide Oval groundstaff, marks out his run. "Here he is, an offspinner bowling to left handers, normally offspinners like that," says Tony Greig on commentary.
Lyon comes round the wicket to Kumar Sangakkara, the delivery lands perfectly around off stump, grips and dusts off the dry Galle surface, draws the great left-hander forward, takes the edge and Michael Clarke grabs a brilliant one-handed catch, low to his left at slip.
At that moment, Lyon becomes just the third Australian to take a wicket with his first ball in Test cricket - the other occasions happened in the 1890s. There are still only 20 to have done it in the history of the game (bizarrely, Shaminda Eranga did it later in the same series and Lyon's fellow debutant, Trent Copeland, had struck with his second delivery just an hour earlier).
"All I tried to do was bowl my best ball," Lyon recalled, speaking to ESPNcricinfo, as he prepared to return to Galle for Australia's upcoming two-match series. "I honestly thought it was going to be hit for four in my memory, but lucky enough Kumar nicked one. When you're able to nick the left hander off it's a nice feeling. That's one of our dismissals."
Lyon's rapid elevation to the Test side, with just a handful of matches under his belt, came at a time when Australia were still searching to fill the void left by Shane Warne. They had cycled through a variety of options in the four years since with none really sticking.
"I was pretty nervous just being around the likes of Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey, Michael Clarke and these guys," Lyon said. "Michael Clarke and Greg Chappell were the ones who informed me [I was playing]. I was pretty pumped…to be told I was going to be the only spinner was a bit of a shock but it was pretty goddam exciting to be honest.
"I'd always dreamt of having that moment, always dreamt of being at the top of my mark in a Test match and seeing what I potentially could do."
A few hours after that first scalp, Lyon walked off with a five-wicket haul to his name having run through Sri Lanka's lower-order. The surprising nature of his debut is emphasised by his memory of that experience.
"Before that I'd never really taken many five-fors in my life so didn't really know what to expect," he said. "I probably didn't understand the size of the events that had just happened."
Lyon returns to Galle this week with 108 Tests and 427 Test wickets to his name, long since established as Australia's GOAT offspinner and now only behind Warne and Glenn McGrath in their overall tally.
I was pretty nervous just being around the likes of Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey, Michael Clarke and these guys
"I was only talking to family the other day about where things started," he said.  "So it is pretty remarkable when you look back to 2011 and see where we are at this stage but obviously it was a dream come true to play just one Test, so I've been pretty lucky."
Lyon's career was not entirely smooth sailing after his remarkable start, but he has only ever missed four Tests since his debut and after returning to Test side during the 2013 Ashes in England he has played 86 consecutive matches (although given Australia's current injury challenges that is a statistic given with caution). When pressed, Lyon picked out a period around 2014-15 when he really started to feel things had clicked for him, although even now he takes nothing for granted.
"It's a good question and to be honest I hate answering it," he said. "Because as soon as you feel comfortable that's when things get taken away from you."
After a bit of toil as wickets briefly dried up during the 2020-21 season, then the wait extended by Australia's absence from the Test scene due to Covid-19, Lyon crossed the 400-wicket milestone against England at the Gabba last year and in his most recent outing took 5 for 83 to secure Australia's significant series victory in Pakistan during March.
"They'd been a lot of media talk in the last couple of years when we'd played on some very docile wickets and we weren't able to get the win," Lyon said of clinching the win on the last day in Lahore. "That was on my mind heading into the last Test, but was pretty proud of the way the boys went about it."
Now he's back on the subcontinent with Australia hoping to further their push for a place in the World Test Championship final. This is Lyon's second return to Sri Lanka after his debut series having been part of the 2016 tour where they lost the Tests 3-0. His 16 wickets at 31.93 paled on comparison to Rangana Herath's 28 at 12.75 and he knows the focus will likely be on him.
"There's an excitement level when you head over to a place like Sri Lanka, also with my personal history there," he said. "There's always nerves. If you talk to Mitchell Starc he'll say I've debuted about 95 times out of 108 Tests. That's not nerves from the fear of failing, it's more from of really caring about the team and wanting to perform well for your mates."
While conditions are likely to be more extreme than those Australia overcame in Pakistan, Lyon did not believe it would require an entirely new approach. "Don't think it changes too much. You get in trouble where you change and try to force the game," he said. "When talking about the subcontinent, it's about a good squad mentality and that's what I believe you need to perform over there. You can't do it by yourself."
Lyon regularly cites John Davison as the key mentor of his career - "I think he is the best spin coach in the world" - but on the theme of always looking at the next challenge he is excited by the opportunity to work with Daniel Vettori who will begin his role as an assistant coach.
"It will be brilliant to have Dan on board. I want to sit down and nut out some plans and talk to him about cricket in general, but specifically spin bowling."
He is hopeful, too, that the embryonic partnership with Mitchell Swepson that began in Pakistan will get another chance. "If you look at Swepo, he probably didn't have the dream debut but it's something he should be very proud of," he said. "I'm excited about our partnership and ticking off some big goals as the spin twins."
He is also encouraged by the longer-term prospects of Australian spin bowling. Offspinner Todd Murphy, who has drawn comparisons with Lyon, and Tanveer Sangha have been with the A squad, while Matt Kuhnemann has already been elevated to the ODI side.
"It's really good to finally see them be able to play some A tours away from home. It will only improve them," he said. "They may find a couple of hard days but I promise you one thing, there are a lot more hard days than good days in Test cricket."
From that heady start in Galle, Lyon has experienced plenty of both. But what would his response have been if, 11 years ago, someone had told him this is how his career would play out?
"You're an idiot. Would have found it extremely hard to believe. It is pretty remarkable to be around for that long and have played a role in Australian cricket. It's been very enjoyable and something I'm very proud about, but it's never anyone's given right to have that opportunity. In my eyes the hard work is still to be done. I still want to improve."

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo