All the talk before the start of the much-anticipated Ashes Down Usher revolved around the intimidating pace trio at the disposal of the hosts. Let’s admit it! There are few worse nightmares than Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins lining up to bowl one after the other.
Take a moment to absorb England’s predicament. The debacle of the 2013-14 Ashes hung over their heads like the worst hangover ever and to top that up, their X-factor all-rounder was forced to watch the series from the couch after his street brawl antics which obviously didn’t go do down well with the police. With the prospect of Starc and Cummins rampaging in on the quick Gabba wicket looming, one can only sympathize with the English.
It seemed true the moment Alastair Cook walked out to bat, refused to go forward even to length deliveries and eventually nicked off Mitchell Starc to the cordon. Slowly but steadily, England clawed their way back into the match as the much-touted Australian triumvirate failed to live up to expectations.
The 60th over of the first Test turned out to be the turning point in the whole game. James Vince tapped one to cover and set off for a single. Nathan Lyon, covering the area, scampered in, caught the ball on the bounce, barely took a second to take aim and threw down the stumps with Vince well outside the crease. The outstanding piece of fielding had just tilted the Test in Australia’s favour. Not that Vince was England’s hero, but he batted like one on day 1 of the Test match.
Of all the bowlers on the day, Lyon had impressed the most. The fielding effort was just an added bonus. He put the body behind the ball, floated it over the eyeline of the batsmen, found sharp turn, drift and bowled like a champion.
A day 1 pitches at the Gabba is meant to be fielding day for the spinner in the side. But Lyon bowled..bowled..and kept bowling. Calls of ‘Njce Garry’ kept ringing in English ears by the time they left the ground at stumps. The off-break bowler had no wickets to show but the exceptional run-out and his relentless energy with the ball made him the hero of the day.
On day 2, Ali was outrageous. With no Stokes in the line-up, the England lower order, though strong, was a tad brittle. The Aussies needed to break the anchor in the lower middle-order, Moeen Ali. An off-spinner himself, Moeen was undone by a Lyon-special arm ball and was trapped right in front of the stumps.
Chris Woakes fell in the next over, undone by a dream delivery from the off-spinner, one which landed outside off-stump from around the wicket, dipped before it reached Woakes’ tentative push, turned square and beat his bat to shatter the stumps. Words can barely describe the beauty that Lyon produced.
As the pitch kept quickening up and the match see-sawed between the two teams, Australia needed a hero again. They found one in Steven Smith, their skipper, who weathered some tough, old-school English bowling to finish unbeaten on 141 and take Australia to the lead. The hosts still needed a hero with the ball, though.
It looked like it would be Hazlewood when he broke through with two wickets early. It looked like it would be Mitchell Starc when he smashed Joe Root on the helmet so hard that a piece of it came flying out. It looked like it would be Pat Cummins when he hurried a short delivery into Mark Stoneman and had him gushing in pain.
But once again, it was none of these three. The hero of Australia turned out to be that man, dubbed the ‘GOAT’ by the Australians, Nathan Lyon.
The off-spinner removed three of the four left-handers in the England top order, and might have had the fourth (Alastair Cook) as well if the former skipper hadn’t played an aimless hook shot the day before.
A year ago, the off-spinner was being teased around for bowling 540 successive balls without taking a wicket. The rampant Proteas had attacked their way around him in a boisterous tour Down Under. An injury to Steven O’Keefe saved him from the axe for the final Test of that series where Australia underwent wholesale changes. And then Lyon delivered a sensational performance, one that would cement his spot in the side and give him the confidence to make his 2017 better.
The year is turning out to be remarkable for the former groundsman turned off-spinner.
He is the third highest wicket-taker in the year with 51 scalps in 8 Tests at an average of 22.64 and five five-wicket hauls to his name. He could very well end up topping the list by the time the series ends with Kagiso Rabada (at the top) set to play just a maximum of one Test this year and Rangana Herath (at two) milked by the Indians.
Lyon’s spell on day 4 of the Brisbane Test altered the course of the see-sawing series opener and firmly established Australia’s dominance over the visitors.
What stood out was Lyon’s exceptional plotting of dismissals.
Mark Stoneman, the defiant southpaw opener already making a name at the top of the order for England, was teased with an arm ball the over before his dismissal. Lyon’s variation had Stoneman pondering and sure enough he tentatively poked at one next over to edge to Smith at slip.
Dawid Malan was undone by a sharp turn, generated by bowling shorter than Moeen Ali did for England. By shortening his length up a touch, Lyon achieved extra bounce and extra turn, making him much more threatening off the pitch that Ali. Malan could do nothing but poke at such a Lyon delivery and the edge carried to Smith once again.
The twin wickets broke the back of England’s resurrection process. From 62/2 to 74/4, they were struggling to get going with the relentless pressure exerted by Lyon.
And right when Moeen Ali and Johnny Bairstow threatened to counter-attack their way out, Lyon struck again. This time, removing the ever aggressive Moeen Ali, who had taken the offie on every time he walked into bowl.
Moeen was bamboozled by sharp turn as he prodded forward to defend but failed to move his feet a touchback in the process. Tim Paine, renowned and possibly even picked for his wicket-keeping skills justified the choice with a sharp stumping. Although countless replays were shown and innumerable debates emerged on Twitter, there remained little proof to believe that the third umpire was wrong in sending Ali back.
Lyon’s third wicket had sunk the English ship. After all the pre-match talk of “ending English careers”, Lyon had to walk the talk and he did it with aplomb. More than the perfect foil he is to Australia’s pace attack, he took on a leadership role with the ball at The Gabba.
“As a bowling unit it is great for us because he’s been bowling so well from one end it allows us to come from the other end in short and sharp spells and have a little bit of a break and come back and bowl at a decent pace,” Starc had said after play about the role of Nathan Lyon. “He had a bit to say old Nathan over the last couple of weeks but he has backed it up.”
2017 has been his year and if the day 4 performance is anything to go by, England might just need to forget worrying about Australia’s pace trio for a moment ’cause this 30-year old is causing them quite a headache.