Nathan Lyon‘s spinning finger made a good metaphor for the Australian spin bowler’s nerves by the end of the Old Trafford Test, its callus split in two, held together by superglue, painkillers and a fierce desperation to win the Ashes.
As his teammates all looked achingly towards one of the ground’s big screens for confirmation of the final wicket with less than an hour’s play remaining, Lyon’s head was turned in the other direction – he could be forgiven for not bearing to look. After Edgbaston, where Lyon had dominated England with a second innings display redolent of the 2017-18 series in Australia, he and the team had looked set for a straightforward steamrolling. The story that has unfolded since has taken it out of Lyon in ways he has never had to deal with before.
First, he drew level with Dennis Lillee’s Australian wickets tally at Lord’s, then struggled to go past him, a sensation shared by none other than Shane Warne in 2000. Next, came Headingley with all its many traumas. Lyon fumbled the critical run out chance, was denied the crucial lbw, and sank to the floor in desolation when Ben Stokes fashioned victory in the following over. With that result arrived a torrent of abuse, referencing some of Lyon’s more unkind comments about England in 2017 and the fact that he had effectively dropped the Ashes.
At Old Trafford, the crowds took to ironically cheering him whenever he caught the ball before ambling in for his next delivery, meanwhile hurling all sorts at him from closer range. For a team that had already weathered the persistent booing of David Warner and Steven Smith, this underlined, as the captain Tim Paine said, “It’s a nice place to play cricket but it is bloody difficult in England if I am honest.”
Certainly Lyon, his spinning finger cut open in the first innings then only barely held together in the second, could relate. “I split my finger in the first innings but in Test cricket you have to find a way to compete,” Lyon said. “It’s probably like a singer losing the vocals probably. I was pretty proud of that bowling effort, to take 20 wickets on that pitch.
“You hear it [the crowd] for the first over or two then it just becomes white noise, if that makes sense. I know that’s hard to believe but when you’re a professional sportsman – your job is to come out and bowl well, compete against whoever you’re playing. To be honest with you, I didn’t really feel it or hear it at the back end, so it doesn’t worry me. We’re sitting up there, we’re going to have a couple of beers tonight and celebrate because the urn is coming home. I’m not sure what the 9000 people in that stand are doing tonight.”
What Lyon was doing after Headingley was grieving the defeat, his role in it, and trying to deal with a myriad of personal issues back home, one of which has been an ill uncle. But somewhere, perhaps from Paine’s early advice to him in the aftermath of defeat, or perhaps from a text message sent to him by Smith – relating his own learnings from his one-year ban from cricket – Lyon found a way to drag himself back into a frame of mind capable of doing a job in Manchester.
“Obviously you’re devastated. I wear my heart on my sleeve and playing cricket for Australia means everything for me, it’s not about personal success for me,” he said. “But I’ve had some family issues over the past – my uncle’s quite sick. You realise quite quickly it’s just a game. It does impact a lot of people. Mistakes happen. I didn’t meant to drop the run out or anything like that but I had him plumb next ball. That’s just the game of cricket. You’ve got to pick yourself up and it’s just the way you bounce back.
“I would’ve loved to win five-nil, don’t worry about that. That means a lot of parties. But you’ve got to give credit where credit’s due. Both sides have played some really decent cricket. You’ve got to respect the opposition. We’re playing against some absolute superstars of the game. You look at Archer, Root, Stokes – that’s just three and we could sit here all night and talk about them – but they’re absolute superstars of the game. I think this series is rivalling the ’05 series, as a spectator back then you were riding the waves with the Australian cricket team. The sport in this country, England, alone over the past five months has done wonders for cricket.
“You get the chance to come out here and play cricket for Australia and represent your family, friends and everyone back home. I guarantee when I get my phone back I’ll have a fair few messages from mates staying up – I think it’s about 3.30am back home. It’s quite a special moment that a sport can bring a nation together. I daresay that the boys in that change room up there, where we’re going to celebrate tonight, have brought a nation together.”
In both the first innings and on the final day, Lyon was not the dominating figure of the last Ashes series or Edgbaston, rather a supporting character to the unstinting brilliance of Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, with help at vital times from Mitchell Starc and, finally, Marnus Labuschagne. Their collective performance was enough for Lyon to make the sort of blanket statement that comes with winning Ashes series.
“Everyone is going to think this is a big statement but I think the bowling squad in that change room there is the best in the world,” Lyon said. “I believe that and I’m very confident that we are the best in the world. To have the fast-bowling stocks that we’ve got as the Australian Cricket Team at the moment we’re very lucky. But in saying that the boys are working their backsides off. There’s no surprise they’re out there reaping the rewards they deserve.
“You’ve got Pat Cummins, the best bowler in the world in my view but then Josh Hazlewood, jeez, if he’s not second I don’t know what is. That’s my personal view. But then you’ve got Starcy, Patto, Sidds, Michael Neser as well. We had an hour to do our skill [get the last wicket] and, to be honest with you, I was quite confident in our skill, we’d be able to get the job done.
“It’s about positive thoughts and backing the bowlers, even the decision from Tim Paine to give Marnus a bowl was a very brave and ballsy decision but it paid off. Marnus is a guy who wants to do well for the Australian cricket team, he wants the ball in his hand. Hats off to him, spinning into the rough into a left-hander. Personally, I’d rather bowl to a right-hander on those wickets. Hats off to Marnus and hats off to Tim.”
But for all that bravado there were nerves, of course there were. Lyon knew from his square position that Craig Overton’s lbw was not going over the top of the stumps, but the interminable moments before the final confirmation arrived were torturous given all that had come before, as the words in the team huddle emphasised. “‘Is it out? Is it out? What do you reckon Josh? Is out out? Is it sliding’?” Lyon recalled.
“I felt pretty confident from point. I know I can’t see the line or anything but I can see the length and I knew it wasn’t going over the top, so I was pretty confident. But I was nervous. All I was hoping was three reds or umpires call and it was out. It’s a dream come true. I’ve wanted this. Personally and as a team, it’s pretty special that the urn’s coming home.
“As a kid growing up, and as soon as i got my baggy green – the biggest goal in my career has been to win the Ashes away. We’re 2-1 up and I want to go 3-1 up and when we hold the urn up at The Oval, it’s going to be an amazing feeling. Yeah we’re going to enjoy this tonight and take in this moment, but there’s still a lot of work to do if we want to become a great cricket side and get to where we want to go to.”