Marsh Sheffield Shield 2020-21
Lyon's Park: Test star returns to where 'magic' began
An unusual Sheffield Shield season sees Nathan Lyon return to the venue where the seeds were sown for a career that no one could have predicted
Kicking back on his couch last weekend, Nathan Lyon flicked on the live stream of Queensland's Marsh Sheffield Shield match against Tasmania in Adelaide and found himself increasingly perplexed.
Despite having played first-class cricket for a decade and lived in South Australia for several years where he worked preparing pitches at a number of metropolitan venues, he could not place the quaint village-style ground with the bright white picket fence that was hosting the Bulls-Tigers game.
"I even said to my girlfriend, Emma, a few times 'I don't know where this ground is in Adelaide, I can't remember it'," Lyon recalled this week.
It was only when the camera panned back to reveal an unmistakable backdrop – the busy arterial road rising over railway lines that traverse the oval's western boundary – he was forced bolt upright in his chair.
Even allowing for the radical transformation Park 25 (now Gladys Elphick Park) has undergone to become a bona fide cricket ground, how could he not have recognised the playing field for which he was singlehandedly responsible during his curatorial tenure in Adelaide?
How did he not know the wicket block he had tended so devotedly after taking a punt to pursue his dream of professional cricket by quitting Canberra and relocating interstate with little more than a groundman's qualification and a fizzing off-break?
And how could fate dictate that the very field where he took the first step of his defining summer ten years ago will also launch the season in which he is destined to play his 100th Test match?
It's not a stretch to suggest the swathe of grassland known bureaucratically as Park 25 (the parklands encircling Adelaide city are numbered 1-29) could be a wild place.
During the annual country cricket carnival in the summer of 1951-52, a lone gunman appeared at Railways Oval (now the site of Karen Rolton Oval) and fired six shots from a .303 rifle at terrified players.
A 31-year-old army captain fielding at cover was felled and died instantly from a bullet wound to the heart, while a 22-year-old standing at slip was also hit and suffered a compound fracture of his left arm before the sniper was found hiding among pepper trees towards the railway tracks.
By the time Nathan Lyon arrived in Adelaide aged 22 in 2010, having completed his curator's apprenticeship at Canberra's Manuka Oval where he had moved from the family home at Young (160km away) to further his cricket ambition, the western parklands were undergoing an upgrade.
But as Damian Hough - Lyon's boss at the time having recently taken over the role of SA Cricket Association's head curator from legendary Les Burdett - notes it was scarcely the most salubrious of Adelaide's many suburban cricket grounds.
"It was a pretty old, had a run-down pavilion of sorts with about six changerooms and a canteen/umpires room as well as a workshop with a big old roller door," Hough said of the venue that was used for grade cricket in summer and churned up by lacrosse players during winter.
"It was always being graffitied or vandalised, it's on the edge of a railway line and even the playing surface itself wasn't great.
"But when I showed Nathan Park 25, he was really keen to work there which left me scratching my head a bit.
"I'm thinking 'okay, you’ve been at Manuka Oval as second-in-charge but you want to come to work down here where you're going to be looking after this ground pretty much on your own?'."
Lyon recalls his biggest challenge was arriving at Park 25 on Saturday mornings to prepare the track for that afternoon's Premier Cricket only to find a few folks asleep on the outfield after a big night at the Newmarket Hotel, only a short staggering distance away.
He also remembers the thrill he felt in effectively becoming 'head groundsman' of his own turf fiefdom, albeit a suburban park that hosted dog walkers as often as it did cricket matches and training sessions.
His crowning achievement, and one that he revisited with pride when he returned to the ground for training with his New South Wales teammates this week, was introducing checks and other patterns mown into the grass, an innovation he also convinced Hough to adopt at Adelaide Oval.
"The thing I remember about Park 25 was, it was always just cut in circles, there was never any pattern to it," Lyon told cricket.com.au.
"It was the same at Adelaide Oval, and I said to Damian Hough 'if I'm going to be down here at Park 25 full-time, I'm going to make it look respectable.
"So I started doing the ring patterns, and started checkering it up a little bit which, as a green keeper, it's those little one per cent things that make it more pleasing on the eye.
"It just gave it that look of a little tender loving care.
"There was probably a lot more pride in my work being pretty much the only guy working down there for 80 per cent of the time I was with SACA.
"It was mainly used for Premier Cricket but also junior carnivals – under-17s and under-19s – as well as disability cricket, I remember blind cricket being played there."
It was also the ground where Lyon made his SA Premier Cricket debut for Prospect in a Saturday afternoon T20 fixture against Sturt in October 2010.
Ever mindful of criticism from opponents if a pitch he prepared overtly favoured his style of bowling, he produced a track on which his team struggled to score 9/87 from their 20 overs and lost by nine wickets (although Lyon did claim that solitary scalp).
Nobody among the handful who bore witness to that game, or those who might have glimpsed Lyon atop the mower or heavy roller at Park 25 during that early Adelaide spring could have foreseen what came next.
Hough remembers how his young charge would finish a weekend's work on the tools and then in his whites, and jump on a plane back to Canberra to continue his Futures League (the state second XI competition) playing commitments before returning to Adelaide on the first available flight when those games concluded.
While such a punishing regime underscored the work ethic for which Lyon has become renowned, it also reinforced reservations Hough held when first told that a young bloke from Canberra was being hired to prepare pitches and play cricket.
"I thought 'nah, I'm not having a cricketer on staff because they aren't available when you want them'," Hough told cricket.com.au this week.
"We'd had a few with us over the years with the academies here and their priority is cricket, not pulling covers and working long hours at weekends."
However, Hough's initial reluctance was mollified by an assessment from a senior official who has earned a place in cricket folklore not dissimilar to Decca Records' Dick Rowe, who famously failed to sign The Beatles in 1962 because "guitar groups are on their way out".
In Lyon's case, the official apparently surmised the new boy would be available for far more curatorial work than cricket playing because, despite the lad's ambition to crack a place in the SA team or even the Redbacks second XI, he was deemed "a net bowler at best".
As events unfurled, Hough had his new recruit for barely 10 weeks.
Playing for Canberra's under-23 team in the 'baby bash' T20 competition in Melbourne that 2010-11 summer, Lyon came to the attention of Darren Berry who was coaching SA in the domestic T20 competition that preceded the current KFC Big Bash League.
Then SA selector (and former Australia all-rounder) Andrew Zesers told Lyon that Berry had been watching him closely during the 'baby bash' and wanted to include him in SA's squad for the grown-ups tournament that was about to start.
Stories abound that it was while SA were training under Berry at Park 25, with Adelaide Oval's nets unavailable due to construction of a new western grandstand, that the coach was alerted to the spin credentials of the groundsman operating a roller nearby.
That legend maintains Berry then approached Lyon and asked if he would take part in training, with Lyon initially voicing reluctance because he had pitches to prepare before sending down a few deliveries, sufficient to convince Berry he was a special talent.
Lyon doesn't actively refute the tale, nor does he endorse its authenticity.
"We're talking about ten years ago, and I can believe that might have happened but I honestly can't remember," he said.
"The story certainly doesn't go 'I was on the roller, the ball was hit towards me and I jumped off the roller and bowled it back to them and they suddenly thought 'shit, this bloke can bowl'.
"But I know Darren (Berry) was a big fan, and I remember he wanted me to be at training a lot more and to bowl a lot more while I was still working there.
"They did a lot of centre wicket training at Park 25 back then, so I'd roll the wickets, then go to the shed and put my gear on for training.
"I felt a bit like I was walking on egg shells - I was very conscious of doing my job and not wanting to annoy Damian, the boss."
What Hough also didn't know was he was about to lose his new employee to a far more lucrative trade.
Three months after preparing the pitch for his Premier Cricket debut at Park 25, Lyon shared the new ball with SA's West Indian import Kieron Pollard at Adelaide Oval against New South Wales' T20 opener (now his Blues and Australia teammate) David Warner.
A month after that, the 23-year-old played his first Sheffield Shield game for SA against Western Australia at the WACA in Perth, a trip that also included his maiden domestic one-day appearance against the same opponent.
Lyon finished with 12 wickets at 43 from his four Shield games that 2010-11 summer but, in the wake of humbling Test series losses to India (away) and England (home) Lyon was included in an Australia A squad to tour Zimbabwe under skipper Tim Paine.
Two months hence, he was plucked to make his Test debut against Sri Lanka at Galle in August 2011.
It was less than a year since he had taken up the job at Park 25 in the hope of snaring a place in SA's second XI and, perhaps, a senior cap.
"It's an amazing story," his former boss Hough, still head curator at Adelaide Oval, said today.
"For a guy to come over here with no promises other than 'you can look after Park 25', and to back himself to chase a dream, it shows you how he's worked and worked and worked.
"We were blown away when he first got here.
"I just thought to myself 'this guy's got a good attitude, he's a real positive influence around the group, and he brings real energy and a breath of fresh air.
"I hit it off with him straight away, I just really liked him as a person.
"And he hasn't changed, he's still that humble, down-to-earth guy who I see a couple of times a year and he sometimes says to me, tongue in cheek, that he's struggling and might need his old job back.
"But if he comes out to look at a pitch, I'll ask him what length he thinks I've cut it and he's always miles out – he's been out of the (curator) game too long, he's got no idea."
On Monday, Lyon returns to his former domain, that formally became a first-class venue when it hosted Queensland and Tasmania last week, as one of Test cricket's genuine greats.
His 390 wickets almost triples the next-highest haul by an Australia off-spinner (Hugh Trumble's 141) and only Sri Lanka's Muthiah Muralidaran (800) and India's Harbhajan Singh (417) surpass him among finger spinners to have played Test cricket over the past 143 years.
And with 96 appearances to date in the Baggy Green Cap, the 32-year-old is likely to become the 13th Australian player to reach 100 Tests if he remains uninjured for the proposed upcoming four-match Vodafone Series against India.
Of greater interest to Lyon come Monday will be the pitch at Park 25, now overseen by former SA and WA pace bowler Trent Kelly (who learned much from his father-in-law, Les Burdett) who is now the ground manager, and the transformation of his unprepossessing old work place.
Which he has long looked upon as a proud parent, even if he didn't recognise it in its formal wear last week.
"I always take a keen interest when coming into Adelaide, whether flying over the top of it or in a bus or vehicle driving past, I always keep an eye on what the oval looks like," Lyon said.
"Hats off to the South Australian Cricket Association, what they've done there has transformed it and Trent Kelly's done an absolutely fantastic job with the wickets and the presentation of the ground.
"With the picket fence it looks totally different, and it's made a massive difference.
"We're very lucky to have something like that for the Shield hub given what's going on at the moment.
"If somebody had suggested it 10 years ago, I would have said 'I'd love to make you a wicket for a Shield game out there but I wouldn't be that keen to have a bowl on it' – it's quite small as a ground.
"But now, I can't wait for Monday to start playing some competitive cricket.
"Hopefully it will take a bit of spin, although I was talking to Trent Kelly the other day and he said the pitch we're playing on against WA is part of a new square that was laid about a year or more ago.
"So all my magic touch has left it."