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When Mike Hussey walked into his hotel room after the 2007 New Year’s Test he found a note slipped under his door.
That note would change his life.
“I felt goose bumps, I couldn’t believe it,” Hussey reflected to foxsports.com.au.
“I had to take a few moments really to read it and compose myself because I started to choke up a little bit and got tingles all over my body.”
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Roughly seven years later he would be leaving a note of his own that would have similar reverberations on its recipient.
The letter laid out a mission.
He was to uphold one of Australian Test cricket’s finest traditions. It was his job, from now on, to lead the team victory song ‘Under the Southern Cross I Stand’.
The note under Hussey’s door was from Justin Langer, the custodian of the team song, who was pulling up stumps at the end of a 5-0 Ashes whitewashing of England.
“Justin just explained that he couldn’t think of anyone more suited to taking on this great honour and to treat it with great respect and great pride, which he knew I was going to.”
Hussey was only 16 Tests into his career when Langer gave him that honour but there was already a sense he was going to be a rock of the team for a long time to come. An average of 79.85 with five centuries suggests that kind of thing.
When he himself passed the job on to Nathan Lyon in 2013, well, things did not look as certain. The off-spinner had played 19 Tests at that point and while he had embedded himself in the side it still looked like things could go either way.
Despite that, Hussey said it was an easy choice.
“It was all about character traits. In my view he played cricket for the right reasons, he worked really hard, he was a good team man with great respect for the game, great respect for his teammates and past players and the history of the game.
“They were the sort of virtues I wanted passed on to the next generation of player coming through.
“It was a bit of a gamble because the team was in transition at that stage, so we weren’t sure who was going to be there for the long haul.
“I thought Nathan had great skill and cricket ability so I was hoping he could keep his place in the team but it was more about the character traits I saw in the guy.”
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REACHING 100 TESTS
Eight years later and it’s fair to say that gamble has well and truly paid off. On Friday, Lyon will walk out to play his 100th Test for Australia and he says he still hasn’t got sick of the honour of leading the team’s victory song.
“It was remarkable,” Lyon told foxsports.com.au of the moment Hussey told him the news.
“It is probably up there with the biggest things in my career, that moment when Huss called me up to his room and handed me the team song.
“I was quite nervous. I still get quite nervous today leading the team song because I know how much it means to everyone.
“It is quite an amazing thing to be handed the team song and it’s a privilege to lead it and make it so special for everyone else. It’s pretty amazing.”
As Hussey remembers it, he could have “pushed Lyon over with a feather” after he told him he had picked him to carry on one of Australian sport’s greatest traditions.
“I wrote Nathan a letter as well because JL’s had made such a big impact on me and then we spoke about it afterwards.
“It was all a bit of a whirlwind really because I was just retiring so I had a lot going through my head with that. I told Nathan and he didn’t want to accept that I was retiring to start with, he said I wasn’t allowed to and was pushing back a little bit.
“Then I had to explain that he was taking on the team song as well. I think I could have pushed him over with a feather.”
For any player to reach 100 Tests for Australia is remarkable, but in a country that has so rarely taken to its off-spinners, for Lyon to get there is truly special.
Only 12 players have achieved the feat. Only two others managed it as bowlers and only one as a spinner – Shane Warne.
Warne, unsurprisingly, is the only Australian spinner to have claimed more wickets than Lyon and Glenn McGrath (563 wickets across 124 Tests) is the only other bowler from these shores to have taken more than 400 wickets. Lyon might just make that a club of three this week as he goes into the series decider against India with 396 Test wickets to his name.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
In his recent column for foxsports.com.au, Lyon insisted the story of his road to Test stardom is no more special than any other player’s. In all due respect to the humble offie, his story is more remarkable than most.
Just over a decade ago Manuka Oval curator Brad van Dam approached Adelaide Oval counterpart Damian Hough at a convention at the Gold Coast and had some news for him.
Van Dam told him a young man named Nathan Lyon, a handy bowler with aspirations of being a professional cricketer, would be joining Hough’s team in South Australia, praising the go-getter for his work as a groundskeeper at Manuka Oval.
Hough, who was just taking the reins as Adelaide Oval’s pitch whisperer from mentor Les Burdett, was sceptical to say the least. He had nothing against cricketers per se but he was wary of having one on his staff given the time demands of the two crafts.
‘Haven’t heard about it, wouldn’t have thought so, it’s not happening’, was roughly Hough’s response to van Dam.
Then he met the man who’d later be crowned the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time).
“I can still remember the day he walked into my old office, and he just had that energy from day one,” Hough told foxsports.com.au.
“Quiet, polite, energetic, a twinkle in his eye – a really good attitude.”
Hough took Lyon out to Park 25 to show him just what his dominion would be. He expected it to scare the youngster off but all it did was spur him on. Suffice to say, Hough had been won over.
He had also been placated by word from on high that the South Australian Cricket Association did not believe the rookie from Young in NSW would be playing for the Redbacks any time soon.
“The clear thing I can remember is someone quite high up at SACA ringing me when I was deciding whether to take this guy on or not and telling me ‘you’ll have him for 40 hours a week, he’s a good bowler but he’s not in our immediate plans’.
“Within 10 weeks he turned it all around. So the 40 hours turned into zero pretty quickly.”
FINDING HIS FEET
Across his first month in South Australia, Lyon could not crack into the state’s second XI. His chance, ironically enough, would come in the territory he had just left. Canberra was keen to play him in the Futures League and a deal was made with Hough.
“He might fly out on a Sunday, play Monday to Thursday, and knowing Nathan get on the drinks Thursday night, get on the red-eye back to Adelaide mid-morning, and get back into work.
“That’s what I liked about him, he’d get back in there, back to work and away he would go.
“He’d work reasonably late Friday and then Saturday he would train, go into work again and then he would be off playing (grade) cricket on Saturday afternoon. He’s got a bloody good work ethic.”
It was that work ethic – which has stayed with him his whole career – that landed him in the right place at the right time and it was playing for the Canberra in the T20 Futures League, known as the Baby Bash, where Lyon finally caught the right eye of the right man.
South Australia coach Darren Berry simply had to see more of him.
“He was a little nervous and apprehensive, that would be the best way to describe him initially,” Berry remembers of the first time he met Lyon, calling him off the roller at Park 25 to have a bowl in the nets.
“The first thing you noticed was his shyness and his reluctance,” the former South Australia coach told foxsports.com.au.
“The second was the way the ball spun out of his fingers – there was a real fizz, especially for an off-spinner.
“Not many off-spinners fizz the ball out of their fingers. I immediately thought this kid was special.”
LANDING A BAGGY GREEN
In January 2011, Lyon made his T20 debut for South Australia against NSW. The following month he got his first taste of Shield cricket. By August that year he got his hands on a baggy green.
“I was surprised at how quickly they pushed him through,” Berry said.
“But I wasn’t shocked because of the talent I had seen. The way that he bowled the ball over the top of the seam, got bounce, he had a natural skill that just needed to be unearthed.
“It’s a great story for everyone out there that you’re never as far away as you think from that opportunity. It’s just a matter of getting someone that believes in you and then running with your ability. He just went from strength to strength to strength.”
At the same time, Berry did hold apprehensions. Lyon was not the first young spinner the team had turned to since the retirement of Shane Warne in early 2007.
In total, 10 spinners – including Steve Smith and Cameron White – were turned to for the unenviable task of replacing Australia’s greatest ever wicket-taker before Lyon got a go.
“They had pushed spinners before in the hope of finding the next Shane Warne and then they had spat them out of the system way too quick.
“I’m thankful that one, Nathan Lyon took his opportunity, and two, that he was nurtured and protected almost throughout the early stages and the results have been outstanding.”
In fairness to selectors at the time, there had been a succession plan in place for when Warne retired. That succession plan was one Stuart MacGill.
Alas, MacGill was in his late 30s by the time Warne called stumps. By that stage he had already suffered a bad knee injury at a boot camp with the team and in 2007 he was diagnosed with carpal-tunnel syndrome, leaving him requiring wrist surgery and robbing him of the magic he once had. In 2008 he simply had to call it a day.
“No one really grabbed the opportunity with two hands after Macgill retired,” Tim Nielson, Australia’s coach when Lyon debuted, told foxsports.com.au.
“MacGill was certainly the one everyone planned to play a big role once Warne finished and then his knee gave away. It was a bit of a searching process from there.”
Of the nine spinners squeezed between MacGill and Lyon, only two of them were traditional off-spinners.
“My gut feel was we were looking for someone to spin the ball away from the right-hander. Obviously Warnie was a leg-spinner and some of our greatest spinners were leg spinners. That was probably the preference.”
THE OFFIE’S INSPIRATION
Funnily enough it took the success of an Englishman on these shores to open Australia’s eyes to what a skilled offie could do no matter what the conditions.
“The impact Graeme Swann had in the 2009 Ashes in England and the 2010-11 Ashes out here showed that if you got a really good off-spinner they could certainly be successful,” Nielsen, who finished his tenure as Australia’s coach after Lyon’s first Test series, said.
“That might have just made us be a little bit more patient with Nathan and he’s obviously developed to the point where he is Australia’s best ever off-spinner.”
Funnily enough it was before the 2010-11 Ashes that Hussey and Lyon first crossed paths with the tweaker used as a net bowler to prepare the southpaw for his battle against Swann.
Lyon played a total of five first-class matches before he received his baggy green and one of them was a warm-up game ahead of his Test debut.
However, while his ascension to the big stage is as rapid as any have been, by the time he debuted there were already plenty of whispers around Australian cricket that he was the real deal.
In June that year he had been called up to play for Australia A in a one-day tri-series against Zimbabwe A and South Africa A. It was there that he first left a mark on future NSW and Test teammate Steve O’Keefe.
“From that point on I was like wow, this guy is an unbelievable bowler,” O’Keefe told foxsports.com.au.
“Right from the outset he just exuded talent and you could tell he was quite humble and was just enjoyable to have around the group. You knew at that stage that he was definitely something special.”
Australian cricket was in a transitional stage in 2011 as the invincibility of the previous decade-and-a-half faded away. Players like Ricky Ponting, Hussey and Michael Clarke were tasked with taking care of the next generation. A buddy system was introduced with each senior player paired with a rookie.
As fate would have it, Hussey was paired with Lyon.
The duo have remained tight ever since and Hussey was among the friends Lyon turned to for advice when he decided to leave South Australia for NSW in 2013.
Both Hussey and Nielsen recall Lyon taking to the Australian team environment like a duck to water, unawed by the calibre of players around him despite his own lack of experience.
That’s a noticeably different Lyon to the one Berry sat down with ahead of the Sri Lanka tour.
“He was still quite taken aback and shocked at how quickly everything had taken place.
“I remember distinctly before he flew out to Sri Lanka on that first Test how nervous he was and he couldn’t believe he was going to hopefully bowl in Test cricket for Australia.
“There were very apprehensive beginnings from which he has grown into the best off-spinner this country has ever had.”
MAKING HIS MARK
Alongside his bowling, what stood out to Nielsen when Lyon joined the Australian camp was how competitive he was and just how hard he was willing to work. They are traits which have seen Lyon constantly improve over the course of his career to the point where he is among the first names on the team sheet.
Like so much of Lyon’s first year as a professional cricketer, his debut could have not been scripted any better.
With his first ball he took the edge of Kumar Sangakkara and had him caught superbly by a lunging Michael Clarke at slip. With his 90th he wrapped up a five-wicket haul, flying to his right to take an incredible catch off his own bowling – a trick he has pulled off with alarming regularity since.
Nevertheless, the success was met with cautious optimism rather than celebrations that Australia had finally found its replacement for Warne.
“There was a real positive feel that Nathan had showed the ability to take wickets and about the way he bowled in his first Test match and early in his career,” Nielsen said.
“There was probably a little bit of caution as well about ‘okay, let’s see where we get to and make sure that we keep supporting him’.
“There are going to be good and bad times and we need to keep him learning and developing and most importantly playing as much as we can so he learns in the game rather than trying to learn in the nets all the time.”
And, as could only be expected, Lyon would not go on to take five wickets every innings. Despite the early success, for the first half of his career Lyon seemed to be walking a tightrope from series to series.
He was only an offie after all, his destiny was to do a job for the team until a wrist spinner worth his salt came through. Time and again he found a way to keep the wolves at bay.
They were coming for him in late 2014, then he took 7-94 to win Australia an incredible Test at Adelaide Oval against India.
The doubters were there again in 2016 as he failed to go toe-to-toe with Sri Lanka’s spinners in their own conditions before enduring a lean series against South Africa (six wickets at 57.66) which saw Australia axe five players mid-campaign. Lyon survived the first axing and who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t taken 3-60 in the final Test.
“He has been through as many ups and downs as anyone, at one point there he is the ‘Lyon King’ on the back pages and then you can shoot forward six months and it’s all about how he hasn’t taken a wicket for 200 overs in first-class cricket,” O’Keefe said, referencing a lean run Lyon endured around the time of the South Africa series.
“To be able to put up with that constantly would be bloody tough. One of the things he always seems to do is shrug it off. Whether he is feeling it on the inside you tend not to see it on the outside, he’s a great team man.
“It is a feather in his cap when you can look at the guy and whether he’s taken 5-100 or 0-100, he’s still the same person. I’ve always loved bowling with him because of that fact.”
RIDING THE ROLLERCOASTER
For Lyon, that period in his career was just like any other. A phase in which he needed to strive to master one of cricket’s subtlest crafts and that is what it has always been about for the Australian great – looking at each day as a chance to better himself.
“You’re always asking questions of yourself because you are trying to get better, no matter when it is or what is going on,” he said.
“You can learn from each experience and the wickets will come, you just have to trust the process.
“As bowlers we only control what happens from our run-up to the moment we release the ball. I’ve got no say what will happen at the other end. Wickets will come if you trust the process.
“It’s never been such a negative mindset for me reading the media and having people write you off — you get the chance to prove people wrong. That’s the best thing about playing professional sport.
“Your back is always up against the wall and you get the chance to move forward and show how resilient you are.”
Since that lean run in 2016, he has been untouchable and through it all he has very much been his own bowler. An off-spinner somehow making it work in a country that has long shunned them.
“Being a right arm offie is bloody hard, you’ve got to bowl to right arm batters most of the time spinning the ball in,” O’Keefe, a left-arm finger-spinner, explains. “That’s pretty difficult.”
So how does he do it?
“Gaz has this ability to do blokes in the air with a great seam position. He’s able to drop the ball on a length and then he’s got this extra bounce,” O’Keefe said.
“It’s that extra bounce that stood him apart from most other spinners around the country.
“When it’s not spinning you’ve got to have something extra and he has got that ability to always hit up on the splice, on the thigh guard when they’re pressing forward.
“That’s what you need when you’re playing Test cricket to be able to do that consistently to take wickets. It doesn’t surprise me he’s on his way to 400 Test wickets and probably more.”
A CUT ABOVE
For O’Keefe, the big leap Lyon took in his path to greatness came in 2017, a year in which Australia played six Tests in India and Bangladesh.
“He had always been a guy who would come up the back of the ball and bowl big dropping spinners but he started to take his ego out and bowl quicker ones and was hitting guys flush below the knee roll as well (in the subcontinent). So he added that extra dimension to his game as well.
“Gaz just couldn’t hit the stumps in the subcontinent before because he’d bounce the ball that much that he’d miss the stumps.
“He has developed a way to bowl a bit straighter, a bit quicker, and also trap guys on the crease with lbws and started single-handedly winning the games in the subcontinent, that’s really impressive.
“You forget this guy has had to learn all his craft at Test level, he’s barely played any first-class cricket.”
But while he has adjusted his game for the subcontinent, he has stayed true to the bowler he has always been.
‘Jeff’ and ‘square Jeff’ aside, Lyon has gone the opposite way of most finger spinners of the modern era. His game is built on the brilliant reliability of his stock ball rather than having more variations than fingers.
“He’s never tried to be anything else than Nathan Lyon and that’s the good part about him,” Berry said.
“A lot of young kids come in and try to be something they’re not. They try and be the person that came before them. Not just spinners but in all aspects of the game. Nathan Lyon was Nathan Lyon.
“Determination, dedication, persistence, resilience – they’re all factors of Nathan Lyon the person. He hasn’t got a lot of tricks in his bag and he’ll tell you that.
“The mastery of the basics is his strength whereas a lot of spinners think they have to bowl five or six balls to be a weapon at that level – they don’t.”
As Lyon puts it: “I’m always trying things but as a bowler, whether you’re a fast bowler or a spinner, you’ve got to trust your best ball. If you don’t have trust in your best ball in Test cricket, one-day cricket, T20 cricket, you’re not going to have success.”
Alongside that obsession with the basics, the one thing that has remained constant for Lyon according to those who knew him before and after he earnt the moniker of the ‘GOAT’ is that he’s still the same humble man who took a leap of faith at Park No.25 all those years ago.
“There has never been an inflated ego or a sense of ‘I’m the number one man’,” Berry said. “I’ve had no involvement with him for five years, he’ll still drop me a text message now and again to see how I’m going or to ask if I’ve seen anything in his bowling action.
“He has never forgotten where he has come from and that’s the reason why he hasn’t lost his feet becoming the great bowler that he has.”
THE MAN BEHIND THE PLAYER
Berry is out of the high performance system now, coaching a school team in Melbourne. Last year, during the peak of Melbourne’s lockdown, he shot Lyon a text message. His former ward was in the UK as a part of Australia’s limited overs squad, and Berry told him that a short message for the boys would lift their spirits no end.
Lyon did not hesitate, shooting back a video message from the warm-ups at Old Trafford.
“It meant nothing to him to do that. It was purely because I said it would give the boys an enormous lift, we’re in Melbourne locked down with COVID-19 and the kids are depressed and they’re missing cricket.
“He is out there warming up for Australia and he said ‘here I am at Old Trafford boys, keep your heads up, stick to the basics, Chuck (Berry) will help you’. Little things like that are just gold nuggets of Nathan Lyon.”
To Hough, he’s a “sh*t stirrer”, “a tongue-in-cheek smart arse who makes those around him feel comfortable”.
“He has nicknames from everyone from different moments and different themes and he takes time out for everyone, whether it’s the staff he worked with or the staff here now,” the Adelaide Oval curator said.
“Even with my family he will go out of his way to find them and say g’day. He hasn’t changed.”
To O’Keefe, he’s simply a man of the people.
“He’s the sort of bloke that would engage with any random punter on a night out,” the finger-spinner said.
“You’d be out with five or six blokes in the team and you’d find Gaz sitting at a table with a bunch of strangers sharing a beer and a few stories.
“I think that’s what also makes him so endearing and liked by the Australian community – he’s a knockabout bloke and that’s why a lot of people enjoy his work.”
And you get the sense people are going to be enjoying his work for a lot time longer.
He’s only 33 years old now and aside from the odd busted finger callous he has been fit as a fiddle for Australia.
No doubt there will be new challengers who emerge to fight for his spot in the Test team but displacing him is going to be up there with the toughest jobs in Australian cricket.
He’s excited about the prospect of taking his 400th wicket and can’t wait to walk out in front of his entire family, minus brother Brendan stuck in Sydney due to border closures, at the Gabba for his 100th Test.
At the same time he says they’re things he will have to “look back on at the end of his career”, which won’t be for a long time.
What he’s doing at that stage is anyone’s guess.
“Ten years ago I was still at Adelaide Oval. It has been a massive journey and something I’m really proud of.
“Ten years in the future I dare say I’ll be doing something like ‘Nice Gary’s Gardens’ somewhere around Australia so we’ll see how we go.”
But not before he pens his own letter to the next custodian of the team victory song.