Warne's bold prediction for ever-improving Lyon
Legendary leggie says with a bit of luck, the man dubbed 'The GOAT' could eclipse his Australian Test wickets record
Andrew Ramsey Leeds
27 August 2019, 06:30 PM AEST
Now that Nathan Lyon has moved to outright third on the list of Australia's all-time Test wicket-takers, the man who heads that triumvirate – Shane Warne – believes the off-spinner can conceivably overhaul his lofty benchmark.
Lyon's milestone moment arrived at a crucial juncture of the third Test on Sunday, underscoring his value as a strike weapon and place among the nation's cricket blue-bloods.
In dismissing England captain Joe Root with his third delivery of the fourth morning at Headingley, Lyon looked to have set Australia on track, only to be derailed by the brilliance of Ben Stokes later in the afternoon.
But his 2-114 from 39 tireless overs installed him as equal second-highest wicket-taker of the current Ashes contest with 14 at 31.92 (behind Pat Cummins' 17 at 18.52).
And but for Australia squandering a review in the final frantic overs last Sunday afternoon, he would have been the hero at Headingley with his lbw shout against eventual match-winner Ben Stokes subsequently ratified by ball-tracking technology.
The fact that the angular spinner has overtaken Lillee who – when he called time on his legendary career 35 years ago – was the most successful bowler Test cricket had known, stands as testament to Lyon's skill and endurance.
The fact that his current tally of 357 wickets is still well short of halfway to Muthiah Muralidaran's record of 800 underscores how the efficacy and longevity of players has evolved in the ultra-professional era.
Which is why Warne believes that Lyon – on current form, and fitness and appetite willing – can reel in his career total of 708 wickets and install himself in the position that Warne assumed from Lillee in 2000 – as Australia's most prolific Test wicket-taker.
"I think he (Lyon) is a chance," Warne told cricket.com.au. "If you do the stats – if he plays another 85 or 90 Tests, and takes four wickets per game, that's 360 wickets – so he'll get me.
"As long as his hunger is there for the game, if he's still enjoying the game.
"I'd love to watch someone get my record, that would be fantastic because it would mean they've done bloody well for Australia for a long period of time."
Warne then laughed, adding: "Hopefully I'm still alive to see it – I'm 50 this year – because I'd love to present him with a bottle of wine and say well done."
As Warne notes, a lot would have to go right for Lyon over the ensuing decade if he is to enshrine the 'greatest of all time (GOAT)' moniker that was bestowed by teammates when he passed Hugh Trumble's haul of 141 to become the nation's most successful Test off-spinner.
But not a lot has gone wrong for the 31-year-old since he played his maiden Test in the steamy, Sri Lankan seaside city of Galle in August 2011, and immediately etched a piece of history.
He became only the third Australia bowler to claim a wicket his very first delivery at Test level – and the first since Arthur Coningham in 1894 – when he had Sri Lanka's all-time leading runs-scorer Kumar Sangakkara smartly snared at slip.
The likelihood of him becoming a regular member of Australia's Test outfit was recognised by a number of influential teammates, most notably Michael Hussey who ordained the unassuming former Adelaide Oval groundsman to take over the position of dressing room song master.
It's a job that current men's team coach Justin Langer, who was also entrusted with the team victory chant, once claimed was the next-best accolade to being named Test captain.
Since that match at Galle, Lyon has played a further 88 of a possible 92 Tests, his only absences coming when he was overlooked in favour of four quicks for the Perth Test against India in early 2012, and when left out of teams in India and England for three matches during 2013 on form grounds.
Since earning his berth back from left-arm spinner Ashton Agar at Old Trafford six years ago, Lyon has strung together 66 consecutive Test appearances, the most by an Australia player since Hussey's retirement in January 2013 ended his run of 79 matches on the trot.
One of the reasons Warne sees for Lyon threatening, and potentially overhauling his distant record is that the wiry finger spinner engages in a form of bowling that – while unquestionably arduous – takes less of a bodily toll than other methods.
Which, in turn, reduces the likelihood of Lyon having to undergo the same sorts of long-term maintenance procedures (shoulder reconstruction, finger surgery) that saw Warne sidelined for lengthy stints during his 15-year Test tenure.
"Spin bowling is still always taxing on your body," Warne said. "Off-spin is probably – if there is an easier form of the game on your body – the less stressful.
"You still get tired, it still hurts, but compared to fast bowling, leg spin and all the other forms of bowling, it's probably the easiest on your body.
"Which is even more of a testament to 'Lyno', because he's really only got an off-break and a straight one.
"A lot of the other offies that we've seen – Harbhajan (Singh from India), Murali (Muralidaran), Saqlain (Mushtaq, ex-Pakistan) – these guys had doosras and all sorts of other deliveries.
"Nathan's got the traditional old off-spinner, and a straight one.
"So he's very clever, he thinks about the game well, and hopefully his body holds up, which it should."
Spinners' age on reaching 356 Test wickets (and career totals)
Muralitharan: 29 years, 211 days (14 March 2001) – 67 Tests (800w; 133 Tests)
Harbhajan: 30 years, 24 days (27 July 2010) – 85 Tests (417w; 103 Tests)
Warne: 30 years, 184 days (15 March 2000) – 82 Tests (708w; 145 Tests)
Lyon: 31 years, 278 days (25 Aug 2019) – 89 Tests
Kumble: 32 years, 364 days (16 Oct 2003) – 78 Tests (619w; 132 Tests)
Vettori: 33 years, 1 day (28 Jan 2012) – 108 Tests (362w; 113 Tests)
Herath: 38 years, 290 days (3 Jan 2017) – 77 Tests (433w; 93 Tests)
Despite installing himself at number three among the 280 men to have captured a Test wicket for Australia, Lyon would readily admit that last Sunday was not his most memorable day at the office in a Baggy Green.
The squandered run out of England number 11 Jack Leach in what proved to be the penultimate over left Lyon prostrate and distraught on the Headingley turf when Stokes completed the historic win.
Former Australia captain Ricky Ponting was among those who called for teammates and fans to rally around Lyon in the aftermath of the one-wicket loss, which couldn't be attributed to any one player (except perhaps Stokes).
However, Lyon's mood represented a marked contrast to the final day of the series opener at Edgbaston, when the off-spinner was near unplayable as he bagged 6-49 to lead Australia to a 251-run win.
But as Warne pointed out, the impact that Lyon has wielded across 89 Tests has been – unusually for an Australia finger spinner – almost as profound in the first innings of Test matches as in the second, where spinners historically come into their own.
Of Lyon's 357 wickets to date, 202 have come in first innings which represents almost 57 per cent.
When compared to the off-spinners ahead of him on the all-time Test wicket-takers list – Sri Lanka's Muralidaran and Harbhajan, both of whom played a vast majority of their cricket on spin-friendly Asian pitches – that quotient is even more remarkable.
Muralidaran claimed 458 of his 800 (57.25) and Harbhajan 233 of his 417 (55.87) in the first innings of Tests, a period of the match when Australia pitches traditionally benefit fast bowlers with spinners wielding greater influence as pitches deteriorate on days four and five.
It's another factor in Warne's assessment that Lyon has the potential, if he can muster the motivation, to become Australia's most celebrated Test bowler.
"I think Nathan is getting better and better," said Warne, who captured 349 of his 708 Test scalps (49.29 per cent) in first innings.
"I think the job he does for the side in the first innings is very under-rated.
"The expectation is, is when it's turning and bouncing, that the spinner will just take wickets.
"You still have to bowl well, you need a little bit of luck, you need some patience.
"I love watching him bowl, but I am biased towards the spinners.
"He's done a great job for Australia, he's been a great foil for the good quicks we've got and I think he's done a terrific job."
Under the recently released five-year program for the ICC's World Test championship (which formally began with the launch of the Ashes), Australia is scheduled to play a minimum of 34 Tests until the end of the 2022-23 home summer.
If Lyon was to play all of those, and capture wickets at his current career rate of four per Test (although 11 of those are away Tests against Asian nations, which could inflate that average) he will end that period on the cusp of 500 wickets.
Given he will be 34 come the end of the 2022-23 Australia season, he could notionally have a further five-year tenure (or longer) in the Test game.
Fellow finger spinners Muralidaran (38 years), Sri Lanka's Rangana Herath (40) and even England's John Emburey (42) have enjoyed prosperous Test careers long after passing age 35.
At that stage, Lyon would have overtaken Glenn McGrath (563 Test wickets) on current returns as outright second on Australia's all-time list, with only Warne ahead of him.
And as Warne explains, it's safe to assume that Lyon – and the other bowlers alongside him in the Australia dressing room – will be quietly counting down as the next big name in the pantheon (current Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, 362 wickets) is ticked off.
"You can't not be," Warne said when asked if players were aware of where they stood in the game's statistical rankings.
"It's on the big screen when you're playing, it's in the papers, people talk about it, players chat about it among themselves, so it's something you're aware of.
"It's just one of those things – if you play for long enough, they come up.
"And when they do, it means you're playing pretty well."
2019 Qantas Ashes Tour of England
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c), Cameron Bancroft, Pat Cummins, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner.
England squad: Joe Root (c), Jofra Archer, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Joe Denly, Jack Leach, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes (vc), Chris Woakes.
First Test: Australia beat England by 251 runs at Edgbaston
Second Test: Match drawn at Lord's
Tour match: Australians v Derbyshire, August 29-31
Fourth Test: September 4-8, Old Trafford
Fifth Test: September 12-16, The Oval