Men's Ashes 2021-22
Ponting, Khawaja's key roles in the birth of Lyon legend
A lesser known aspect of Nathan Lyon's legendary rise is the role Ricky Ponting's keen eye played in his fairytale debut
Nathan Lyon's unlikely journey from the curator's shed at Adelaide's Park 25 to Australia's most enduring and successful Test finger spinner has been regularly recounted over the past decade.
What is less well-known in that legend is how the keen eye of the nation's most prolific Test batter, Ricky Ponting, helped swing last-minute selection for a fairytale debut in Lyon's favour.
And the crucial support act played by the only other member of the XI involved in that famed match at Galle in 2011 who is still part of Australia's Test squad.
Usman Khawaja was aged 24 and one match deeper into his Test career than then-23-year-old Lyon when the pair were named for the three-Test series in Sri Lanka, a tour which formally heralded the change in Australia's captaincy from Ponting to Michael Clarke.
While Ponting remained as senior batter and the last direct link to Australia's all-conquering outfits of the 1990s, it was a team in transition that had failed to post a Test win in its preceding six matches in sub continental Asia stretching back over three years.
Even more problematic was the search for a specialist spinner, with selectors deploying 10 different options – Stuart MacGill, Brad Hogg, Beau Casson, Cameron White, Jason Krejza, Nathan Hauritz, Bryce McGain, Steve Smith, Xavier Doherty and Michael Beer – in the 31 months after Shane Warne's retirement.
Lyon had been fast-tracked into Australia's Test squad after just one season of interstate cricket with South Australia, in which he played four Sheffield Shield games, two domestic one-dayers and seven T20 fixtures.
But in none of those games had he come up against members of Australia's Test top order.
Consequently, as Australia's brains trust – then coach Tim Nielsen, Clarke and Ponting – mulled over the starting XI for the opening Test at Galle, their combined lack of first-hand knowledge about Lyon's red-ball prowess meant they effectively had a 'mystery spinner' in their ranks.
Based on his first experience facing Lyon in the Galle practice nets, Ponting was so impressed with the way the ball fizzed from the off-spinner's fingers he recalls he immediately informed Clarke the new boy had to play ahead of left-arm orthodox Beer.
"Michael Clarke was desperate to have a left-arm spinner, and Michael Beer was a bit more of a defensive bowler, would tie up an end and we could use our fast bowlers around that," Ponting told cricket.com.au.
"Then I faced both of them in the nets, and walked out and said to Pup (Clarke) 'you’ve got to pick Lyon'.
"The way the ball came out of his hand was better than any Australian off-spinner I’d ever seen.
"His wrist angle – you could see the seam angle on the ball, you could see the shiny side – his release was just so pure.
"It was like Harbhajan (Singh, Ponting's Indian spin nemesis) in his day – Harbhajan’s release was magnificent, and Nathan Lyon’s was just like that.
"So I remember walking out saying, ‘nup, you’ve got to go with (Lyon)’."
However, Ponting apparently also sought a second opinion to vindicate – or perhaps challenge – his strongly held view, and decided the least experienced batter in the incumbent line-up was best placed to provide it.
As Khawaja remembers it, Ponting's approach came after he (Khawaja) had ensured his retention in Australia's starting XI at Galle with a classy 101 (retired) in the sole warm-up game against Sri Lanka A at Colombo a week earlier.
And when Khawaja emerged from the nets at Galle having faced both Lyon and Beer, Ponting asked him point blank which of them was the better bowler.
"I've got to be totally honest, I don't think I was a good enough player of spin back then to know which of them was better," Khawaja told cricket.com.au.
"So I said something like 'well, Beery's good and he gets good turn in these conditions, but Lyno's good also and bowls a difficult line to me ... but what do you think Punter?'
"And Punter said 'definitely Lyno, the way the ball comes out of his hand he's definitely the better bowler'
"So I said 'yeah, yeah, I thought that too ... it comes out beautifully'.
"I had no idea what I was talking about, but I know now what Punter was saying.
"No offence to Beery who was a very good first-class and white-ball cricketer, but the way the ball comes out of Nathan Lyon's hand – the trajectory, the spin he gets on it, the work he puts on it over the top, and then combined with his accuracy.
"I haven't really faced anyone in the world who puts that many revs on the ball.
"I mean, he started playing BBL and you can't get a proper gauge on bowlers there because T20 cricket doesn't give you a proper indication.
"Sometimes it's just natural variation, and poor bowlers can be really good at T20 cricket because they hit different spots and can confuse people.
"But red-ball cricket is all about hitting a spot over and over and over again, having consistency and it wasn't until I saw him bowling a bit more that I said to him 'can you play red-ball cricket?'
"And he looked at me and said 'I'm not sure'."
That committee decision in Galle – initially moved by then-selector Greg Chappell who intuitively championed Lyon's ascension to the touring party – was vindicated by the first ball Australia's newest spin option delivered in international cricket.
Not only did it land precisely where the nervous bowler intended, it spun and bounced as his assessors had foreshadowed and brought the wicket of Kumar Sangakkara who, like Ponting, would finish his career as his country's leading Test runs scorer.
But none of those who actively campaigned for Lyon to be presented a Baggy Green Cap can honestly confess to foreseeing the slightly built, self-doubt wracked curator would assume similarly lofty status among Australia's rich history of finger spinners.
"The short answer is no – I don't think anyone did," Khawaja said when asked if he might have considered a decade ago that Lyon would play 100 Tests and find himself on the cusp of 400 wickets.
"I'm not even sure that he did ... in fact, I'm pretty certain he didn't.
"I've seen him all the way through, and he's definitely a very different Nathan Lyon now.
"He was always a good off-spinner, but he didn't have that confidence back then when he started out in first-class teams.
"And he's a nervous character at the best of times - even in his first 30 or 40 Tests, he really struggled just because he was in and out of the team a lot.
"Australia was looking for the next Warney, he had all this pressure on him and he was getting dropped from the team which meant there was always speculation about his selection which hasn't been the case over the past four of five summers, but people tend to forget that.
"Then there came a time around 2015 when he was bowling like an absolute genius, when people accepted he was the number-one spinner in Australia by far and his confidence just grew after that.
"He started to get that little strut, and I make fun of him all the time because he's developed that, but I guess it's fair enough – he's about to take 400 Test wickets."
Having entered last summer's four-Test series against India with 390 wickets, and boasting a career average of four wickets per match, Lyon understandably admits the prospect of claiming that 400th scalp has "been on my mind for a fair amount of time now".
His return of 9-496 from 187 overs in Australia's 1-2 home loss to India represented his least potent strike rate – more than 20 overs per wicket – in any series of four or more Tests he's played.
However, that was against batters acknowledged as being among the most accomplished players of spin bowling in the game and the now 34-year-old's habitual anxiety can be slightly salved by his record in Tests against Australia's oldest rival.
Only turn-of-the-20th-Century tweakers Hugh Trumble (141 wickets at 20.89 from 31 matches) and Monty Noble (115 at 24.87 from 39) have surpassed Lyon's Ashes haul of 85 wickets (at 30.53 from 23 Tests) among all off-spin bowlers.
And since that debut Test in Galle 10 years ago, only one other bowler has claimed more England wickets in Tests – India off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, who snared all-but 14 of his 88 victims (at average 28.59) on his traditionally spin-friendly home tracks.
In Ponting's eyes, such comparisons only add to the Lyon legend.
"He’s got 399 wickets without much variation," Ponting said.
"He hasn't got a great carrom ball (Ashwin's famed weapon), he hasn’t got a great under-cutter, he hasn’t got a doosra.
"He has got a good arm-ball ... but there's not many other variations an off-spinner can have, and that's why it makes his career even more remarkable.
"His consistency and his ability to build pressure is what has stood him apart from the rest.
"Yes, he's bowled some magnificent wicket-taking deliveries but when he's at his best, he's just relentless with the areas that he bowls and the fields that he sets.
"He’s found a way to get it done.
"He doesn't need any more variations, he just needs to make sure that his off-spinner, that he’s drifting and spinning it and he’s landing it where he wants to.
"If he does that, he’s hard for anyone to face."
Khawaja first crossed paths with Lyon during the Australia A tour to Zimbabwe that preceded the Sri Lanka series in 2011, although it was a fleeting encounter given Lyon was selected only for the white-ball component of that campaign while Khawaja was exclusively part of the red-ball squad.
Much has changed for the pair over the ensuing decade, not least their respective shifts in domicile which saw Khawaja move from Sydney to Brisbane the season prior to Lyon's return to New South Wales after beginning his senior career with SA.
Should the pair take the field together for the Vodafone Ashes opener at the Gabba starting Wednesday, it will be the 43rd occasion they've been Test teammates.
But it will be just their 11th Ashes outing together, and their sixth joint Test against the old enemy in Australia having been integral members of the outfit that reclaimed the urn during the previous home series in 2017-18.
In addition to the development of his "strut" and his enhanced self-confidence – although other teammates laugh that Lyon gives the anxious appearance he's making his debut before every Test he plays – Khawaja has seen other, more subtle, changes in his long-time Test teammate.
"I can remember when he first came into that (Australia) team, he kept to himself a bit just to work out what was what," Khawaja said.
"We were both similar ages, and we were in the team young and there were still those big dogs (senior players) around us.
"But he gets along with everyone, so he fitted in pretty quickly.
"Over the years he's become a senior member of the team, it's just the circle of life and he's now a bigger voice and a bigger presence among the group.
"And obviously he's still a pest, just like myself, so that's another reason we've always got along well."
Vodafone Men's Ashes
Australia: Pat Cummins (c), Steve Smith (vc), Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Josh Hazlewood, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Michael Neser, Jhye Richardson, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, David Warner
England: Joe Root (c), James Anderson, Jonathan Bairstow, Dom Bess, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Zak Crawley, Haseeb Hameed, Dan Lawrence, Jack Leach, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ollie Pope, Ollie Robinson, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood
First Test: December 8-12, The Gabba
Second Test: December 16-20, Adelaide Oval
Third Test: December 26-30, MCG
Fourth Test: January 5-9, SCG
Fifth Test: January 14-18, Perth Stadium