Head offers solace for stealing Lyon's thunder

Part-timer claims final Pakistan wicket to deny veteran off-spinner his 500th, before claiming it was perhaps for the best

'Back to normal': Hazlewood welcomes return of Lyon

It was Nathan Lyon who so poignantly presented Travis Head with Baggy Green Cap number 454 when the latter made his Test debut in 2018, and five years later the newly crowned World Cup hero reckons he might have inadvertently part-repaid the favour.

While Head's occasional off-spin was responsible for the final Pakistan wicket to fall yesterday, thereby ensuring his close mate and long-time mentor Lyon remained on 499 Test scalps at the close of innings, he reputedly portrayed himself as a memorabilia saviour rather than a party pooper.

Lyon had appeared destined to join one of cricket's more exclusive fraternities – only seven men in the Test game's almost 147-year history have reached 500 wickets – when he found himself bowling at Pakistan's final pair at Perth Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

With three wickets already to his name and showing signs of "getting better and better" the more overs he sent down in his return from a serious calf injury six months ago, the 37-year-old seemed destined to scale the peak in his first innings back with ball in hand.

When he deceived Pakistan's No.10 Aamir Jamal and had him stumped shortly before tea, the crowd of almost 16,000 began a chorus of 'Garry, Garry' in expectation of the cult hero finishing the tourists' batting stint in a blaze of history.

But as had been the case with local favourite Mitchell Marsh's unsuccessful surge to a century a day earlier, the moment wasn't to be, as last man Shaheen Shah Afridi showed disdain for Head's modest spin and skied a catch that saw the slightly embarrassed bowler rejoicing at his 10th Test wicket rather than his mate's 500th.

As the Australia players gathered after Shaheen's dismissal to congratulate each other on having restricted Pakistan to 271 and a deficit of 216, Head reportedly offered Lyon an upbeat disclaimer rather than an abject apology.

"I think Travis said, 'when they replay your 500th wicket you don't want it to be a tailender, you want it to be a good wicket up the top (of the order)," Australia fast bowler Josh Hazlewood revealed of the discussion that took place.

"So we'll see that for the second innings hopefully."

Lyon was inches away from bowling Shaheen for his 500th wicket // Getty

Lyon is renowned among teammates for harbouring a high level of anxiety before each of the 123 Test appearances he's made to date, with the standing dressing room joke being "he's made his Test debut 123 times".

But having played 100 consecutive games in the Baggy Green before "blowing up" his right calf in an innocuous fielding movement at Lord's last June, Lyon had been even more toey in the lead-up to his return to the team after undergoing months of intensive rehabilitation.

He went wicketless in his opening spell on Friday afternoon, but made the vital first breakthrough for Australia late in the day when he had Pakistan opener Abdullah Shafique neatly caught at leg slip.

He moved to 498 wickets when he removed Shafique's opening partner, and Pakistan's first-innings top scorer Imam-ul-Haq stumped by Carey during yesterday's morning session, before returning to the attack after lunch with the second new ball barely 15 overs old.

"He was a little bit nervous, first bowling innings," Hazlewood said. "When you miss a few games you can't wait to get back out there, and you're probably a bit nervous to do well again, but he fitted straight back into the team and it felt like a normal attack.

"We know what he can do, we've seen it for a lot of years now and I thought he just kept getting better and better as the innings progressed."

Lyon closes in on milestone with Carey's clean hands

As a result, when Lyon added a second stumping to all-but close out Pakistan's innings it seemed a matter of destiny that he would crown his return in fashion most memorable.

That scenario seemed even more likely after Shaheen, with a batting average of 6.16 from 33 prior Test innings, survived two balls from Australia pace spearhead Mitchell Starc (one of which scythed past the tailender's speculative drive) thereby ensuring another over of spin.

Lyon came close to joining legendary Australia duo Shane Warne (708) and Glenn McGrath (563) in the 500 club from the first ball of his next over, which Shaheen's more accomplished batting partner Salman Ali Agha decided to try and reverse sweep to the boundary.

The high-risk stroke took a top edge that looped despairingly close to Steve Smith at leg slip who was unable to make sufficient ground to his right as it ballooned above him, but the resultant single also meant Lyon had a clear shot at Shaheen and cricket immortality.

However, despite the crowd's exhortation of the record-breaking off-spinner as well as Shaheen's flimsy batting credentials, the underdog managed to keep out the ensuing five deliveries with varying degrees of accomplishment.

A missed attempt to tickle Lyon to the leg side was followed by a confident leave of a faster, flatter delivery, then a resolute defensive shot shown to a slower, flighted offering.

When the spinner tried to tempt his quarry with some width, spinning even further away from the left-hander off the pitch, Shaheen refused to take the bait.

And finally, he allowed the last ball of the over to pass even though it went perilously close to off-stump, leaving Lyon on his haunches with head in hands at the bowler's end.

It then seemed only a matter of time before Starc would castle one of the 10th-wicket pair as he steamed in from the opposite end.

But after another play-and-miss from Salman and a similar effort from Shaheen before he ducked under the over's ultimate ball, the duo survived to allow Lyon another chance.

As expectation grew and noise levels intensified, Lyon opted for less pace and more flight in the hope of buying his 500th – a justifiable ploy given Australia held a lead of more than 200 – but Salman and Shaheen both made sufficient contact with lusty blows to clear the infield and score boundaries.

With tea approaching, Australia skipper Pat Cummins then summoned auxiliary spinner Head to the bowling crease with the apparent ambition of getting quickly through another over thereby allowing Lyon one last dip before the break.

However, after a couple of genuine looseners that barely made it to the batter's end, and a drag-down that Salman worked effortlessly through square leg for a single, Shaheen aimed a full-blooded slog-sweep that flew from the top edge to Usman Khawaja at mid-on.

Head greeted his anti-climactic moment by raising his right index finger in knowing triumph, with Lyon also lifting his arm in celebration as he jogged towards the team huddle from his fielding position at deep backward point.

The pair then briefly shook hands, at which point Head seemingly offered his silver-lining scenario to Lyon whose focus turns to Pakistan's second innings.

And if history provides any guide, Head's claim to have saved Lyon from the ignominy of claiming a batting bunny as his long-awaited trophy wicket might prove prophetic.

After all, both Warne (Sri Lanka captain Hashan Tillakaratne at Galle in 2004) and McGrath (England opener Marcus Trescothick at Lord's a year later) removed top-order specialists to claim their place among the game's prestigious 500-club.

NRMA Insurance Test series v Pakistan

First Test: December 14-18, Perth Stadium (1.20pm AEDT)

Second Test: December 26-30, MCG (10.30am AEDT)

Third Test: January 3-7, SCG (10.30am AEDT)

Australia squad: (first Test only) Pat Cummins (c), Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitch Marsh, Lance Morris, Steve Smith, Mitch Starc, David Warner

Pakistan squad: Shan Masood (c), Aamir Jamal, Abdullah Shafique, Abrar Ahmed, Babar Azam, Faheem Ashraf, Hasan Ali, Imam-ul-Haq, Khurram Shahzad, Mir Hamza, Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Mohammad Wasim Jnr, Noman Ali, Saim Ayub, Salman Ali Agha, Sarfaraz Ahmed (wk), Saud Shakeel and Shaheen Shah Afridi