When Nathan Lyon was 18, he nearly lost his eyes. During an under-19 match against Tasmania, a batsman drove the ball straight back at him; so powerful the stroke was that the leather ball crashed onto his face, leaving a red bruise under the left eye. Lyon plunged to the turf holding his face, blood dripping through his palms. He was rushed to the hospital, where it was diagnosed that he had fractured his cheekbone.
The injury had his family worried, for Lyon was stick-thin and considered fragile. All curly, long locks and puffy clothes. They counselled him to quit the game, rang up some of his coaches to persuade him in that direction. One of them was Andrew Dawson, his first mentor, who was pleasantly shocked by Lyon’s response. “Straightaway, he apologised for dropping the catch. He was counting the days before he could return to the field, sounded restless, and said he would be coming to watch a couple of matches. It took him a while to get back and then fielding high balls, but that willingness was there,” Dawson recollects.
That evening, the coach realised the strength of Lyon’s mind. “Strong boy, I thought, you need such character and toughness to become a Test cricketer. Some of the other players, who are not mentally strong as him, would have quit the game after such an incident. I know how nasty the injury was because I was right there when the ball hit him and we all were scared,” recollects Dawson.
At the end of the conversation, Lyon promised the coach that he would never drop a return catch in his life. Dawson was reminded of the old incident when Lyon snaffled a similar catch off Pakistan batsman Fakhar Zaman, carved straight into his face, but Lyon’s palms preventing the ball from disarranging his face. The most spectacular return catch though was Moeen Ali’s during the 2017-18 Ashes, wherein he flung sideways to pocket the leading edge.
The next morning, a few newspapers photoshopped a cape to his collar and called him: “GOAT among Supermen.” But Dawson was least shocked, he has seen a few Lyon stunners himself, and it was his athleticism that had impressed Dawson first. He was heading a coaching programme for Comets U-17 when one day his friend Brendan, Lyon’s elder brother, introduced his sibling to him. “He’s mad about cricket and wants to have a crack here. Just check him out. He claims he is better than me,” he told the coach.
By then, Brendan had begun playing grade cricket and hardly found time to engage his brother in their backyard. “At the trials, I was startled by his athleticism. He was quite skinny, but elastic, quick and had a really good arm. His batting was quite okay, I thought. There was a fair degree of talent and we were keen to get him in the programme,” Dawson says.
Lyon, though, didn’t set the batting charts afire, but his off-breaks were quite canny. “I thought ‘wow, he gets decent loop and spins the ball’. I asked him whether he was coached by someone. He said no, and I was more surprised. Then he must be a natural, I thought, and began to encourage his bowling rather than batting,” he recollects.
So did former Australia spinner Mark Higgs, who happened to be Australian Capital Territory’s coach. After completing his12th grade, Lyon joined the horticulturists at the Manuka Oval. And during an inter-club game on weekend, Higgs bumped into him. They were playing for opposite clubs, and the elderly Higgs began to wind up the rookie part-time off-spinner. But then he found a kindred spirit. “I thought he was shy and I could probably unsettle him. But I was wrong. He didn’t shake and started giving it back to me. I instantly liked his attitude and recognised that he could be a much better bowler than what he then was,” he remembers.
In Lyon’s uncluttered, breezy high-arm action, he saw glimpses of a bright future. Besides, for an untrained spinner, he was getting the ball to drop and bounce. “I was like ‘wow, why are they not opening the bowling with him!’ I was sure that he could be developed into a good spinner. I told him ‘mate, you are a better bowler than a batsman’. He took my advice seriously,” Higgs says.
Thereon, as soon as his Manuka Oval shift ended, Lyon would run to the nets, where he and Higgs would spend hours bowling. In two years, he emerged as the finest spinner in Canberra. “His mind was like a blotting paper. It absorbed everything. He asked a lot of questions. He also had the determination and courage,” says Higgs.
Dawson knew it already. He had sensed that in the rasping voice of a curly-haired teenager with a fractured jaw.
In the preface to Ashes 2010-11, Mike Hussey wanted to master Graeme Swann. He was not happy with those on the Sheffield Shield circuit. None of them were Swann clones. That’s when he heard about a groundsman at the Adelaide Oval who could flight the ball. So during the preparatory camp in Adelaide, he asked head curator Damian Hough about the spinner in their crew. Hough gestured Lyon, who was attending to a roller, to come over.
When Lyon dragged the roller back to the boundary, Hough told him: “They want you to bowl like Swann. Show them you’re better than him, mate. It’s an order.” Lyon just smiled and rushed to the nets.
Little did Hussey know that he was padding up against a future Test bowler, his inheritor to the team anthem Under the Southern Cross and a great friend. “I had little idea, but I remember a shy, reluctant Lyon. He had to be dragged into the nets. But you watch him bowl in the nets and I faced him a lot in the nets, you already knew you had someone pretty special there. But you never know if he was going to go on and play Test cricket,” recollects Hussey.
A few months later, the nation still reeling under a shellacking in the Ashes, Lyon was on the flight to Sri Lanka. Soon upon reaching Galle, the venue for the first Test, then batting coach Justin Langer allotted a “buddy” for Lyon. Coincidentally, it was Hussey. The latter heard a feeble thud on the door and saw a familiar half-smiling face. “He was a little shy. He told me it was a dream come true and all that stuff. I eased his tension saying, ‘Mate, we’ll be great friends from here’,” he recalls.
Hussey had barely interacted with him or watched him, but had a hunch that he was rooming with a special player. And soon enough, he had taken a wicket off his first ball in Test cricket. That too of Kumar Sangakkara — a classic Lyon dismissal. Everything about the delivery was well-weighted, from the amount of flight to the degree of downward curve and the exactness of turn that brushed the left-hander’s exploratory forward defensive.
But it wasn’t his talent alone that left Hussey smitten, but the toughness of his character, that most valued of Australian traits. Nearly 18 months later, Hussey chose him as the anthem successor.
The decision was not unanimous, more so as Lyon was not yet a fixture in the XI. But Hussey was convinced. “My decision was based on character. I knew he had a really good character and I knew he had a good work ethic and great respect for the game, and he played the game for the right reasons as well. I thought those attributes he possessed would hold him in good stead for keeping his place in the team and performing well, but also the character traits that I wanted to pass on to the team when I left,” he says.
In the next home Ashes, the curator-turned-chorister was belting out the song, Under The Southern Cross, loudly in the dressing room. And six years later, he became Australia’s most prolific off-spinner.
Hough is a laid-back, chatty man. So Lyon’s initial reticence unnerved him. “So initially I felt a little bored talking to him. I was doing all the talking. I could clearly see his heart was elsewhere. He was good at what he was doing, but something seemed to disturb him,” he says.
Later, he realised that once Lyon got going, he would never stop. “He was a keen learner and would eat your brains until he was satisfied with the explanations. Since he had already done his shifts at the Manuka Oval, he knew how it worked. But he wanted to know more. I thought ‘well, does he want to become the chief all too soon’,” he says, laughing.
Hough’s fears were allayed when he took him along for a club match. That’s when he realised that his genuine future remained elsewhere. “I have seen a fair bit of international spinners here and I thought he had the potential to be one. So I asked him why he couldn’t devote more time to cricket. He said his boss doesn’t give him offs. We had a laugh. But on a serious note, he thought that the game wouldn’t take him anywhere.”
The next day when Lyon came to the Oval, Hough told him he could leave early if he was tired. But Lyon insisted on completing his shift. “He wouldn’t take any favours. He would be with us till the day was finished. He took his offs only on the weekends,” he says.
So when the first-class opportunity knocked on Lyon, Hough was as much happy as worried. Happy that Lyon got a deserved break, but worried about finding a suitable replacement. “Nathan was doing a terrific job and to find someone new in his place was difficult. But then I can claim that the GOAT was my assistant,” he says, chuckling.
The head-intern equation hasn’t changed, he says. “Whenever he comes here, I’m talking in our parlance, like ‘take the G3 roller out’ or ‘stiff it firmly’ or things like that. Nathan would go searching for it in earnest. He has helped me with the covers a few times and given an opportunity, he would try his hand at curating too.”
Hough can imagine how that pitch could be: A spinner’s paradise from the first ball. But he insists: “It would perhaps be a better pitch than I would make.”