From backyard twirler to Lyon King


And he won’t be getting it repaired either.

‘‘If you ask my mum, she thinks it smells. She wants to give it a wash, but that won’t be happening. I take good care of it. It takes pride of place. I know where it is at all times. It’s always with me when I’m travelling around. Cricket kits can go missing when you’re away. That’s one thing I learned from Mike Hussey.’’ Lyon’s learned a lot from Hussey. The words to the Australian cricket team’s song, for a start. Lyon’s the custodian of the baggy green’s score, Under the Southern Cross I Stand. The song (more chant than song, really) was first led by Rod Marsh, who passed it to Allan Border. Thence it came to Lyon via David Boon, Ian Healy, Ricky Ponting, Justin Langer and Hussey.

Hussey chose well. Because there’s none more ardent about cricket than Lyon. Whoever dubbed Hussey ‘‘Mr Cricket’’ got the wrong bloke. Lyon has no memory of life before cricket. He doesn’t remember how and when he was drawn to the game. It was just there. As natural as breathing.

‘‘I got the bug early. I fell in love with the game and it’s easy to see why – it’s the greatest game in the world.’’ Lyon owes much to his brother, Brendan, and also to a sloping backyard at his home in the NSW town of Young.

For Cap and Country, interviews with leading cricketers.

‘‘I was right into it from the start,’’ he says. ‘‘Having an older brother throwing balls at me from the age of three, and then him teaching me to bat and bowl and throw, it just grew from there.’’ There was no messing around with seam-up stuff; Lyon was a spinner from the start. The backyard’s left-to-right slope lent itself to off-spin, so he bowled off-spin. Turning the ball up the hill wasn’t an option for the skinny little kid. ‘‘I wanted to be bigger and better than my brother, but wasn’t strong enough.’’

The brothers would toss the bat before play – flats were Australia and hills were England. The garden bed was three runs, the fence was four, the fence on the full was six, and over the fence was out. Hitting the house on the full was also out. ‘‘Obviously,’’ Lyon says. They taped the ball. Wetted the ball. And had a ball in a footy sock suspended from the clothesline to practise playing straight. There was a sock at grandma’s too.

Most disciplines were in play when Lyon played junior cricket.

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After opening the bowling, he donned the keeping gauntlets. He batted up the order. His father, Stephen, has always been a tempering force in his cricket career, and so it was then: as coach of the side, Stephen reined in Nathan to ensure the other kids got a go. Father and son played one game together: for the Young Hotel Dragons against Sawpit Gully. ‘‘I was playing senior cricket against grown men at the age of 12,’’ Lyon says.

He did, however, play junior representative cricket, too – but not until the under-17s and not for NSW. Instead, he played for Western Districts Cricket Club in the ACT and for the territory’s under-age sides. After half a dozen years in Canberra, he was encouraged to aim higher. Experience as a greenkeeper in Canberra helped him get a job at Adelaide Oval.

The grand old oval was the setting for cricket’s quintessential boy’s own scene. As he rolled the wicket, Lyon would gaze at the ethereal cathedral spires peeking over the scoreboard and dare to daydream of playing there for Australia.

‘‘Looking around, it’s pretty spectacular. I always had the dream of wearing the baggy green cap, even when I was rolling the wickets at Adelaide Oval. I knew it would be the best thing ever and I was right.’’

His big break came not at Adelaide Oval, but at the parkland grounds next to the railway tracks on Adelaide’s west side. He was rolling the wickets when the Redbacks’ T20 coach, Darren Berry, invited him to have a trundle in the nets. Berry was impressed, and before long Lyon was in the T20 side.

Another good judge was more than impressed when Lyon took four wickets on his Shield debut for SA in 2011. Kim Hughes told The Australian that Lyon was a ‘‘star’’ – the long search for a Test spinner in the post-Warne era was over.

If you ask my mum, she thinks it smells. She wants to give it a wash, but that won’t be happening. I take good care of it. It takes pride of place. I know where it is at all times.

Nathan Lyon

This was 2010-11 – the summer of Australia’s Ashes discontent. Nathan Hauritz had been jettisoned for Xavier Doherty, who was in turn dumped for Michael Beer. Australia needed a new spinner for a new era, which started with a three-Test tour of Sri Lanka.

‘‘Darren Berry called me at 10 o’clock one night and said, ‘Can I meet you for a coffee in the morning?’,’’ Lyon says. ‘‘The Test side was being announced on Monday and this was Saturday morning. He said he’d just got word that I was going to head over to Sri Lanka. I said, ‘I don’t know about that’. That made Sunday an extremely long day and night. I wasn’t getting my hopes up in case it was a bad prank.’’

Lyon pauses at this point to pay tribute to Berry’s part in his career: ‘‘He’s the one who gave me the opportunity. He threw a lot of support behind me and is one of my greatest backers and friends in cricket. He’s been a father figure to me as well as a coach.’’ Lyon’s actual father was the first one he called once his selection for the Sri Lankan tour was confirmed. As usual, Stephen issued a note of caution.

‘‘Don’t get your hopes up,’’ he told his son. ‘‘It’s a big step; don’t get your hopes up. It may not ever happen.’’

Both Berry and Stephen knew how much playing for Australia meant to Lyon. When he was picked for South Australia Lyon had said he was just happy to get a state tracksuit. He said the same thing when he unpacked his Australian one. The kid was living his dream.

‘‘It was incredible. Michael Hussey, Michael Clarke, Ricky Ponting. I had posters of them on my wall and collector cards … to get over there and be part of the squad with everyone and be taken under Michael Hussey’s wing, it was amazing.

‘‘I was excited just putting the tracksuit on. Then to train with those guys … it just got better. I was over the moon. I wasn’t expecting to play. I was a young guy who’d only played four Shield games. I don’t like to get ahead of myself.

‘‘Two days before the first Test, Pup [Michael Clarke] called me in and asked me if I could run up to the change rooms at Galle.’’ When they arrived, Greg Chappell was waiting. Chappell and Clarke said they were playing only one spinner and Lyon was it.

‘‘I was blown away. And then became increasingly nervous over the next 48 hours.’’

Taking a wicket with your first ball … that’s a perfect start. Watching that first ball all these years later, one is struck by how much is the same. There’s that same standing-start jump at the bowling mark. Two deep breaths and then out the ball curls, drifting right to left, before turning onto almost the face of Kumar Sangakkara’s bat en route to Clarke’s left hand at slip. All that’s different is the mop of dark hair that was rustled by 10 teammates five times that day. The last wicket – a one-handed caught and bowled – was as good as the first. The debutant had 5-34 in Sri Lanka’s 105 all out.

‘‘To take a wicket first ball and get a five-for and have a win and a series win … yeah, it’s been a magic ride.’’

Lyon is all about team, so it’s no surprise that he nominates the 2013-14 Ashes whitewash as his career high, with the 4–0 triumph in 2017-18 as a close second. His best innings return, 8-50 at Bengaluru in 2017, was a personal highlight in a deep low for the team – Australia lost by 75 runs to squander the rare chance of a series win in India. Thirteen wickets (7-94 and 6-60) to square the Bangladesh series in 2017 is, at the time of writing, Lyon’s best match haul.

Bowling Australia to victory against India in the Phillip Hughes Test in December 2014 is another treasured memory of a hard time.

Teammates race to congratulate Nathan Lyon in 2014.

Teammates race to congratulate Nathan Lyon in 2014.Credit:AAP

It is right and proper that the first Test after Hughes’ death, the game in which cricket was in deep, black mourning, was when cricket rose to new heights. A badly lame Michael Clarke willed himself to a hundred. David Warner and Virat Kohli both made centuries in each innings. Yet Lyon was man of the match after taking five wickets in the first innings and seven in the second. In doing so, he overcame the powerful forces of his own sadness, Virat Kohli’s genius, and a lifeless Adelaide drop-in pitch.

Yes, he’d lived the dream of the roller from not-so-many years earlier.

‘‘It’s a hard game, bowling spin,’’ he said in 2018. ‘‘I won’t lie. But Ishant Sharma bowling around the wicket to Davey created good rough. I won’t be able to rely on that this year.’’

Field of dreams: Author Jesse Hogan at the MCG.

Field of dreams: Author Jesse Hogan at the MCG.Credit:Eddie Jim

Lyon was referring to the 2018-19 Indian series. And no, he didn’t have Warner. Or Steve Smith.

Lyon was already the Test side’s most experienced player, in games played, even before the ball-tampering scandal in South Africa. The Smith-Warner suspensions thrust more responsibility Lyon’s way as Australia set about repairing its tainted image.

‘‘There’s nothing bigger than the baggy green. What [South Africa] does is it adds another story. Not all stories have a fairytale end. The baggy green is the baggy green and people will love cricket in Australia forever.

People will definitely learn from it. We know we’ve got a lot of support out there, but we know we have to work hard to regain the trust of the rest of the Australian public. You have to look at the good things. If you keep looking at the negative things, you’re never going to get anywhere in life.’’

This is an edited extract from For Cap and Country, by Jesse Hogan, Andrew Faulkner and Simon Auteri, published by HarperCollins. Available online and instore from Monday. rrp: $34.99

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