The first injury-enforced layoff of his career has allowed Nathan Lyon to reset his goals, and discover he's "hungrier than ever"
Lyon looks to Shield return, and maybe one more Ashes tour
Twelve years ago today, Nathan Lyon became the 421st men's cricketer to don Australia's Baggy Green cap in a Test match and almost immediately earned himself a privileged place among that cohort.
As the oft-revisited legend goes, barely an hour into his second day as an international cricketer – and with the very first ball he delivered at Test level – Lyon had Sri Lanka's Kumar Sangakkara (then the world's number-one ranked batter) caught at slip.
It meant the little-known 23-year-old playing just his sixth first-class match became only the 18th men's player in more than 134 years to snare a wicket with his first maiden Test delivery, and the first to do so for Australia since legendary allrounder Keith Miller 55 years earlier.
It also emphatically ended a four-year quest by national selectors seeking a substitute for Shane Warne as principal spinner in the Test outfit, after they had tried and discarded 10 options in the aftermath of Warne's retirement in 2007.
From the time he gained instant immortality at Galle in 2011, Lyon played 122 of a possible 126 Tests from his debut match until becoming the first specialist bowler in Test history to complete 100 consecutive appearances at Lord's last June.
But the remarkable results and resilience that enabled the now 35-year-old to reach that never-before-scaled peak also meant he was caught entirely unawares when his right calf was "blown to bits" in an innocuous fielding mishap in that second Ashes Test at Lord's.
While Lyon realised instantly he had suffered a significant injury, the fact he had not been forced from the field at any previous time in his senior playing career meant he knew little about what to expect from either the recovery process or the emotional angst of watching his team from afar while undertaking it.
As events have transpired, the former has seemed far more straightforward than the latter.
In the nine weeks since Lyon limped to the Lord's pavilion in obvious distress, he has progressed from crutches to walking unaided, then from gentle exercises to more recognisable cricket-related activities.
While no definitive timeline had been revealed for his return to competition, it appears New South Wales' second Marsh Sheffield Shield fixture of the coming summer – against South Australia at Adelaide Oval from October 15-18 – looms as the most likely.
That would grant him two months and a possible five Shield outings prior to Australia's next Test commitment, which is the three-match NRMA Insurance Series against Pakistan beginning in Perth on December 14.
"It's coming along really nicely," Lyon told cricket.com.au when asked about his rehabilitation program.
"First time ever in rehab which is a new experience, but I've got all the support there at New South Wales Cricket and within Cricket Australia, so all going okay.
"I'm getting sick of calf raises, but should be pretty good come summer."
If the physical pain that initially left Lyon unable to place any weight on his right leg – apart from his bravely brief stint with the bat at the end of Australia's second innings at Lord's – has slowly subsided, the mental discomfort has left an even more pronounced mark.
On the other occasions across his 12-year Test tenure he's been forced to watch from the sidelines, both in 2013 when he was overlooked for matches in India and England, he was at least part of the touring party and shared the team's vicissitudes from the dressing room's inner sanctum.
But having returned home to Sydney in the days after leading the victory song at Lord's, Lyon found watching the remainder of the Ashes from a distant country and a vastly different time zone a new and profoundly unpleasant experience.
"It was horrible," he said.
"There's no point hiding behind it, I struggled watching it, and struggled mentally not being there.
"It was the first time in twelve years I've been away from the Test team, so it was a different lens.
"But I now know the reaction back here while the Ashes is on, because I never see that side of things."
Lyon's angst was compounded by the frustration of watching the two-nil series lead Australia held when he departed the UK whittled down to a 2-2 finish, with two days of relentless rain in Manchester ensuring Pat Cummins' men retained the urn.
Furthermore, he acutely understood his absence played a pivotal part in England's resurgence given he had been the most successful Test bowler among all nations across the year leading into the Lord's Test with 60 wickets at 23.05.
England's left-arm spinner Jack Leach had been third on that list for the preceding 12 months (42 at 35.57) but was ruled out of the Ashes due to a stress fracture in his back, and England had instead recalled spin-bowling allrounder Moeen Ali who had not played first-class cricket for two years.
The fact Moeen finished his comeback campaign with the same number of wickets (nine) from his four completed matches as Lyon managed from one and a bit highlights how Australia's fortunes might have varied had their number-one spinner remained on the park.
"I don't want this to come across arrogantly or anything like that, but I felt like I could be the difference within the two teams with Jack Leach going down at the start of the series," Lyon said.
"I felt like there was an opportunity for me to be the difference in the two sides.
"And to have a decent first game (eight wickets and a match-winning ninth-wicket partnership with Cummins at Edgbaston), then go two-nil up only for me to do my calf in the second Test was pretty gut wrenching and pretty devastating.
"But it's given me a chance to reset some goals and that's probably come from being at home, watching on the TV and reading the newspapers about the Ashes.
"It's probably made me hungrier than ever, and it's the drive for me to get back and start getting better again.
"It's really driving me to chase some bigger things.
"I've said previously that I want to win in India and want to win away in England, and haven't been able to do either of them.
"So it looks like I've gotta go round another cycle."
Given Australia's next scheduled Test tour of India is not until early 2027 which – as was the case this year – will be followed by the next Ashes campaign in the UK, Lyon will be approaching his 40th birthday if he continues for another revolution of the four-year Test playing roster.
The most recent specialist spinner to represent Australia in Tests into their 40th year was late-blooming leggie Bob Holland who was aged 39 years 79 days at the conclusion of his final outing against India at the SCG in January, 1986.
And the last two male players to tackle an Ashes tour to England aged 39 or older were then-captains Donald Bradman and Lindsay Hassett – both approaching their 40th birthdays – in 1948 and 1953 respectively.
But as Lyon demonstrated in reaching the unprecedented 100-consecutive-Tests benchmark for a bowler, the combination of drive and durability can carry him places few previous players have been able to scale.
"I'd like to think so," he said when asked if he genuinely believed he could play a further four years and add substantially to his current tally of 496 Test wickets.
"I definitely know my skills can get better, that's what I'm chasing.
"And I'm pretty confident with all the work I'm doing rehab-wise, and all the gym stuff and the fitness side of things that I'll be (physically) right.
"So the drive's there mentally to get better and to keep going on."