After a severe injury that has marked one of the biggest challenges of his career, Nathan Lyon now sees no end in sight
'Five more years': How Lyon reset after Ashes despair
Like scores of bleary-eyed cricket fans Down Under who lived every moment of this winter's Ashes series in England, Nathan Lyon did not miss a ball – even after injury dislodged him from the action.
For Australian fans watching on television in the dead of night, the spiralling of their team's fortunes after their ever-present spinner left Lord's on crutches with a four-centimetre tear in his right calf was an increasing source of exasperation.
For Lyon, watching Australia play Tests without him for the first time in a decade, it was akin to a mourning process. "I found myself struggling quite a bit mentally," he told cricket.com.au ahead of his Marsh One-Day Cup return on Friday.
Weeks before his abrupt departure from the UK, Lyon had sympathised with his counterpart Moeen Ali's efforts to bowl off-spin with a calloused finger, likening it to a singer trying to put on a concert after losing their voice.
Now, for the first time in his career, Lyon could not even get onto the stage.
"He's never been injured," Tom Carter, Lyon's long-time trainer who found himself playing the role of grief counsellor in the months after he was injured, told cricket.com.au. "He was dealing with shock, then despair, and then he felt really helpless.
"I think he watched every ball and rode every moment in his living room."
It was no coincidence that after the initial high of their Lord’s triumph without Lyon, Australia failed to win the next three Tests as the bowler they relied on for long, controlling spells over the course of his 100 consecutive matches was suddenly no longer there.
Carter, an ex-professional rubgy union centre who is now the head of athletic performance for Australia's women's sevens team, admits he initially feared for his close friend and client’s future when he saw how the 35-year-old had, as Lyon put it, "blown (my) calf to bits".
"You get worried because that's a lot of trauma," he said,
The pair incidentally grew up in the same New South Wales country town of Young, but met for the first time after being introduced by Brad Haddin. Lyon had only known of Carter, who is five years older and left to attend boarding school at Sydney's Knox Grammar when he was a teenager.
After initially meeting over coffee at Sydney University more than 10 years ago, Carter perhaps now understands what makes Lyon tick, physically and mentally, better even than his long-standing teammates.
"He's always had incredible hip and trunk control, which allows him to get such good top-spin and revs on (the ball)," said Carter. "It's his motor control – his ability to control his body in time and space, repetitively … to put the ball where he wants to.
"I've never met anyone who's a harder worker on his game. He's just relentless, obsessive-compulsive around how hard he works to get better."
Carter helped Lyon move beyond his anguish.
"After that initial shock and grief, and I suppose a mourning period as he's referred to it as, he just got really pragmatic about: 'How do I get the best people around me? What do I need to do to get back and ensure this doesn't happen again? How do I come back better than ever?'" he added.
Lyon progressed from basic calf exercises in the basement of his Tennyson Point home to climbing stairs with weights on his back, step-by-step increasing confidence in his body after it failed on him at Lord's.
"He made me realise this is just part of the journey and allowed me to reset some goals – and make sure we rehab this like no-one has rehabbed it before," said Lyon.
His recovery was led not only by Carter, Cricket Australia and Cricket NSW medical staff, but also Evan Jeanguyot, a NSW Institute of Sport physiotherapist who started 'The Calf Project'.
Time will tell whether his rehabilitation was like none before.
There are encouraging signs; Lyon played his first game in nearly four months for club team Northern District last weekend as part of a staged return, which continues with a domestic 50-over match for NSW at his old stomping ground, Adelaide Oval, and then a Sheffield Shield match at the MCG next week. All of which is designed to have him tip-top for the Test summer opener against Pakistan in Perth in mid-December.
Lyon has found inspiration in both familiar and unlikely places.
The latter came around the time Lyon had resumed bowling in the nets, steadily building up the frequency and intensity of his sessions, right as Australia's major winter sporting codes reached their climaxes.
"Sitting at home and watching the AFL and NRL grand finals and seeing the adrenaline and excitement of the guys," Lyon said of the stirring effect of Collingwood and Penrith's triumphs.
"Even though I was sitting on the couch and had nothing to do with either, I actually said to (wife) Emma that I'm not even close to giving away this thrill of international cricket and winning games of cricket.
"You've got so much to give and there's so much more you can achieve."
Which feeds into his other main source of motivation.
Several of Australia's Test veterans commenced the year viewing dual tours of India and England as career-defining. While a World Test Championship final triumph was more than a consolation prize, the 1-2 (in India) and 2-2 (Ashes) series results fell short of expectations.
Most of the elder statesmen know they will not make it back to either country for another shot at an elusive Test series victory. But Lyon believes he can.
"I've said that I want to win Test series in India and England. That's a massive driver," he said. "I know we're a while away but there's no reason why I can't still chase that dream and be successful in India and England again."
Lyon will be 39 by the time the 2027 tours of India and England roll around. Carter thinks he can get there.
"You see (Jimmy) Anderson and (Stuart) Broad do it (play into their late-30s and early-40s) from a fast-bowling perspective in England," he said.
"You've got to reinvent yourself physically, you've got to challenge yourself with different stimulus. But I have no doubt that he's more than capable of doing that.
"That's what our next focus is; that capacity to play another five years. I'm really confident, because of the way he applies himself, that he'll be able to do that.
"I have no doubt that time will fly by and we'll be talking about him leading us to victory in India and England."
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