During the 2013 opening Test of India-Australia series in Chennai, on the third morning, overnight unbeaten duo of Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli were intent on not letting Australia get a sniff of a chance. They had resumed the day 182/3 still nearly two hundred runs behind Australia's first innings total. After nine overs of pace from James Pattinson and Peter Siddle, Michael Clarke reintroduced Nathan Lyon in to the attack. The pitch had been taking turn from earlier in the Test but Lyon wasn't the first choice bowler to begin the day.
I overheard a few 50-something-know-it-all Ambimamas – standard fixtures at any cricket match in Chennai – discussing the merits of Lyon, and they pooh-poohed him off, “We have dozens of better quality spinners in our TNCA nets than him!”
That's been the theme of Lyon's entire career, a member of ground staff that was spotted by South Australia coach in 2010, and would debut for Australia an year later, as the team desperately tried to find a replacement for Shane Warne who had retired in 2007. Lyon has been perennially underestimated and considered expendable, but has persevered to be the most experienced Test cricketer in the Australian squad for the four Tests series against India in 2017.
Tendulkar, alive to the trouble the off spinner would cause, swept premeditatedly his first ball but Lyon troubled Kohli for the rest his very first over of the day with sharp turn and variable bounce. On the first ball of his next over, the Mumbai maestro chose to put further pressure on the spinner and decided to drive him through the cover region. The ball dipped, landed on a rough patch, sharply turned inward and rushed through the gap created between bat and pad, and clean bowled Tendulkar. The Ambimamas changed the tune, only slightly, and said it was an “okay delivery” but blamed Tendulkar for the dismissal.
Kohli would go on to get a century - dismissed by Lyon - but it would be an epic double hundred from the Indian skipper MS Dhoni that staked India a big first innings lead, and eventually, a comfortable win on the fifth day. Dhoni particularly was severe on Lyon, smashing 104 runs in the 85 balls he faced from the offie, including nine fours and five sixes.
Lyon had continuously played in all 20 Australia Tests since his debut – 65 wickets at an average of 33.93, strike rate of 65 and best innings haul of 5/34 - but was dropped after the Chennai Test. Considering he routinely has to play the role of restrictive spinner in conditions and combinations that demand more from the pacers, Lyon had done remarkably well up to that point. But then, he's been on trial right through, bowling with a noose around his neck and the hangman selectors only too ready to pull the lever.
He made a return only a Test later as he was paired with his Hyderabad replacement Xavier Doherty at Mohali, but it was in Delhi that he took his career best innings haul of 7/94 but then was overlooked by the incoming new head coach Darren Lehmann in favor of the younger Ashton Agar for the first two Ashes Tests. Common sense prevailed and Lyon was recalled for the third Test and he hasn't let go of his spot since then, even as captains and coaches have expressed their doubts from time to time.
During the recent home summer, at the end of Day 4 of the Boxing Day Test against Pakistan, captain Steve Smith said that Lyon had not bowled “at his best” and there were doubts swirling about his selection for the following Test at Sydney, as Ashton Agar and Steve O'Keefe were set to be included in the squad. Just as he has done throughout his Test career, Lyon silenced the doubters by ripping the hear of Pakistan's middle order, dismissing Younis Khan and Misbah ul -Haq in the space of three deliveries, and returning later to outsmart Asad Shafiq. He followed it with a five wicket match haul at Sydney.
On his return trip to India, Lyon is the No. 1 spinner of the side, even as Australia are expected to have O'Keefe pairing with him, and Agar and Mitchell Swepson also in the squad. India would be underestimating Lyon at their own peril. He said he's been watching his counterpart Ravichandran Ashwin closely and even trying to a learn a thing or two, and is open to taking the new ball as well. As is the norm with visiting spinners in tour matches, the local side – India A in this case – took to the Aussie spinners in the warm up game at Brabourne Stadium. Even as he went for more than five runs an over his innings work of 28.5 overs, Lyon picked up four wickets on a flat wicket that should give him confidence heading in to the first Test.
Lyon achieved his career-best match totals of 12/286 at the emotionally fraught Adelaide Test of December 2014 including the prize wicket of the rampaging Kohli that directly led to an Australia victory. In the following series in West Indies, Lyon became the most successful off-spinner for Australia surpassing Hugh Trumble's tally of 141 wickets, a record that stood for more than a century. As he stands poised to play in his 64th Test, at Pune, Lyon's 228 wickets is only behind the two most celebrated leg-spinners in Australian history, Richie Benaud (248) and Shane Warne (708). Not bad for someone who used to be a curator, eh?