Humble Lyon takes his place alongside legendary Lillee
Off-spinner's self-effacing persona evident after he joined champion paceman as Australia's third-highest Test wicket-taker
Andrew Ramsey at Lord's Cricket Ground, London
16 August 2019, 09:02 AM AEST
At a team reception hosted by Australia's High Commissioner to the UK in the heart of London last Monday, one of the loudest cheers from a parochial audience greeted Nathan Lyon as all 17 members of the Ashes touring party were introduced.
A reason why Lyon, the unlikely bowling demon who began his professional cricket journey as an Adelaide Oval groundsman and whose specialty then was the white-ball formats, carries such popular appeal is his humility.
He's that laconic, wry-humoured bloke who plays for 40 years at the local cricket club, and is always the first to volunteer for a shift on the barbecue after training or hand mow the oval if needed.
And that self-effacing persona has rarely been more obvious than when the 31-year-old fronted the media after the second day – albeit with the first day abandoned without a ball bowled due to rain – of the second Ashes Test at Lord's.
Lyon fronted the press partly because his 3-68 was crucial in England being bowled out for 258 after being sent into bat, the other notable contributors being Josh Hazlewood (3-58) and Pat Cummins (3-61).
But largely, he was there because in claiming those three wickets he lifted his Test tally to 355 which is the same number as arguably Australia's most flamboyant fast bowler and inspiration to generations of aspiring quicks, Dennis Lillee.
If anyone was to suggest that Lyon's fizzing, nagging off-spin was something of an antithesis to Lillee's snarling, bare-chested pace and aggression, they would be met with furious agreement from the nation's most successful finger spinner.
Nor does Lyon consider himself in the same echelon of bowlers as the two men who remain ahead of him on the Test wickets tally among the Baggy Green Cap brotherhood – Shane Warne (708 wickets) and Glenn McGrath (563).
"I wasn’t really aware of it (equaling Lillee's benchmark) until walking off," Lyon said at day's end.
"Brian (Murgatroyd, team media manager) told me, he came up and shook my hand and he’s the only one who's done it.
“I really struggle to see myself up with the likes of Warne, McGrath, Lillee – it doesn’t sit well with me.
"In my eyes, those guys are true legends of the game and I’m just some bloke trying to bowl off breaks and trying to make Australian fans proud of the Australian cricket team.
"It hasn’t really settled down with me yet, but I'm sure I will have a message from mum and dad."
He might even get one from Lillee when he surpasses the great fast bowler's record – likely to happen in England's second innings at Lord's, luck and weather permitting – given Lillee remains a close follower of the men's team, particularly during an Ashes campaign.
But a quick anecdotal comparison of the times in which both of those greats of Australia cricket plied their trade sheds further light on Lyon's humble acceptance of his place in the Test pantheon.
When Lillee claimed wicket number 310 on his way to career tally of 355, he took the mantle of the most successful bowler the Test game had seen.
The fact that the holder of the title at that stage, West Indian Lance Gibbs, was a finger spinner prompted more than a few to speculate the days of the spin bowler were numbered.
It was, after all, the Boxing Day Test of 1981-82 when Lillee set a new Test record with the wicket of West Indies batter Larry Gomes, caught at slip by another Australia great of the time, Greg Chappell.
That was also when the West Indies dominated world cricket because of their battery of big, scary fast bowlers – Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft in that Test, with the likes of Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose to follow in their wake.
The notion that a mere finger spinner, and one playing for Australia at that, would surpass Lillee in Test wickets would have been as fanciful as suggesting the West Indies would soon become a spent force in the five-day game.
Yet Lyon, whose eight-year Test career to date could feasibly double in length and therefore in wickets, might yet overtake Australia's all-time wicket-taker, wrist-spinner Warne.
Lillee also carries legendary status because he was able to return to top-level cricket after suffering stress fractures in his back, a condition that sidelined him for almost two years and which some believed would see his career prematurely ended.
But with the advances in training methods and preventative diagnoses, the scourge of stress fractures which is something of an occupational hazard for fast bowlers now sees them return as a matter of course, often after a few months of rest and rehabilitation.
That was certainly the case for seamer Hazlewood who returned to action at Lord's on Thursday having been diagnosed with the back injury last January.
And the fact that he was able to resume his career with such immediate effect that he claimed a wicket with the third delivery of his opening over has him, in Lyon's view, one of the genuine greats of the bowling fraternity.
"I think Josh has been a world-class bowler for a long period of time," Lyon said.
"I don't think he's got the rewards he's deserved as yet in his career, I think they're to come.
"In my eyes Josh is up there in the top-three bowlers in Test cricket - that's my personal opinion.
"His control - hitting that nagging length - but having the skill to go both ways, in and out.
"But then he's got a pretty strong bouncer as well, and it's usually on the money.
"Josh has been outstanding.
"I know he was disappointed to be left out of the first Test, but to come back and bowl the way he did today - hats off to Josh.
"I thought he was the pick of our bowlers."
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), Moeen Ali, Jimmy Anderson, Jofra Archer, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Joe Denly, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes (vc), Olly Stone, Chris Woakes.
First Test: Australia beat England by 251 runs at Edgbaston
Second Test: August 14-18,Lord's
Third Test: August 22-26, Headingley
Tour match: Australians v Derbyshire, August 29-31
Fourth Test: September 4-8, Old Trafford
Fifth Test: September 12-16, The Oval