Nathan Lyon had played just five first-class matches when he first stepped onto the ground in Galle to play Test cricket in 2011.
His first delivery has been much-replayed over the years, a perfectly pitched off-break from around the wicket that found the edge of Kumar Sangakkara’s bat, with Michael Clarke moving to his left at slip to take the catch, the vision made even more special by the great Tony Greig’s commentary.
Lyon is one of three Australians to have taken a wicket with his first ball in Test cricket, that the other two occurred in the 19th century tells you all you need to know about how rare that feat is.
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Lyon was the latest in a long-line of spinners tried by Australia as selectors searched for a permanent replacement for Shane Warne, who had retired in 2007. It was immediately apparent that they’d found something special in the 23-year-old, who walked off the Galle ground with figures of 5-34.
He returns to that same ground in 2022 with 427 Test wickets to his name, third only to Warne (708 wickets) and Glenn McGrath (563) in Australian history.
His former spin partner, Steve O’Keefe, told Wide World of Sports that Lyon’s talent was immediately obvious.
« I was there in 2011 when he played in an Australian A side in Zimbabwe, just before he got picked in the Test side, » he said.
« He was light years ahead of any spinner on the ground, and he took bags of wickets.
« He had this bounce and spin that was something I’d never seen before, and great control, and then he got rushed into the Test squad. »
Lyon finished with six wickets in Australia’s 125 run victory in Galle, and when he marked his home debut later that year with another seven wickets, it was apparent Australia had found a worthy successor to Warne.
« It actually wasn’t a surprise, because I’d never seen a more beautiful off-spinner, » O’Keefe said.
« I’d always admired Jason Krejza as an off-spinner, and he and ‘Gaz’ are quite similar at their best. You’ve never seen a ball leave the hand so nicely.
« It doesn’t surprise me that he’s done so well. It doesn’t surprise me Gaz has 400-plus Test wickets, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he finishes with more than 600. »
O’Keefe noted that much of Lyon’s initial success in Test cricket could be credited to one man.
« I think he was really well managed early on by Michael Clarke as captain, and that paved the way for Nathan to settle into Test cricket, and go on and have continued success, » he said.
« It’s not easy as a spinner, especially in Australia, you only have to look at how Jack Leach was mauled in the Ashes, he was treated with disdain.
« A lot of it can be mental, you need a good captain, you need good support around you, and I think Michael Clarke provided exactly that. Now when you speak to Gaz, he’s full of confidence in his own game.
« He’s stayed the test of time, he’s as fit and durable as any cricketer I know. I can’t really remember him missing a Test, or even a state game with injury. That in itself is remarkable. »
It’s a mark of Lyon’s durability and success that since his debut his 427 wickets almost totally overshadows any other Australian spinner. O’Keefe’s 35 wickets is the next best in that time frame, with part-timers Steve Smith, Marnus Labuschagne and Michael Clarke the only others with 10 or more.
Lyon hasn’t quite been a one-man band, but it’s fair to say he’s been a significant factor in any Australian success over the last decade, as he will be in the two Tests against Sri Lanka.
« The last time I bowled with him was a Test in Bangladesh in 2017, and that was one of the more special bowling performances I’ve seen, » O’Keefe explained.
« It showed me he’s now figured out how to bowl in those conditions.
« This is a big series for him, to put all those pieces together that he’s learned over the years, I’m really excited to see what this series holds for him. »
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