Lyon pushes past the pain to grasp the Ashes
Australia’s spinner reveals the full extent of the mental and physical turmoil he went through during the Old Trafford Test
Andrew Ramsey at Old Trafford
9 September 2019, 05:00 PM AEST
The smile that split Nathan Lyon's unshaven, weather-worn face in the hour that followed Australia's fourth Test triumph at Old Trafford belied his difficult journey of recent weeks.
The third-most successful bowler to have donned the men's Baggy Green Cap had not just been stung by his central role in the calamity of Headingley for which he unfairly became a fall-guy.
As he endured the often quite vile torrents of personal abuse when walking to and from practice nets at training, and whenever he set foot beyond the team's hotel, Lyon bore other burdens in his typically quiet, self-effacing manner.
Among those were the hurt of personal trauma, including the illness of a family member in Australia, and the impact of the sleep deprivation those compounding concerns were causing.
Then, while bowling in England's first innings of the fourth Test in which he was expected to wield a major influence, the large callous that forms on his spinning finger and from which he rips his fizzing off-breaks split open.
Given that bowlers aren't permitted to wear protective material that might help aid them in their craft, Lyon was forced to cover the wound with a form of medical 'glue' and pop a few paracetamol tablets to combat the stinging pain.
The fact the 31-year-old was able to grip and deliver the ball at all, let alone send down 65 overs across two innings with the Ashes urn on the line underscores the importance of what was at stake in Manchester.
And it helps to explain why he found it tough to stop smiling in the aftermath of his team's hard-fought 185-run win on Sunday that granted them an unassailable 2-1 lead in the five-match Ashes series with one Test to play.
"I can't feel it, to be honest," Lyon said at game's end when asked about his damaged digit.
"I split my finger in the first innings and … it's probably like a singer losing their vocals, but you have to find a way to compete in Test cricket.
"Right now, it probably hasn't sunk in … but as a kid growing up, and as soon as I got my Baggy Green, the biggest goal in my career has been to win the Ashes away.
"We're 2-1 up and I want to go 3-1 up, and when we hold the urn up at The Oval (where the final Test starts on Thursday) it's going to be an amazing feeling."
While Lyon’s physical limitations on Sunday were largely unknown until after Australia’s secured the final wicket, his resilience did not go unnoticed by his teammates.
"He bowled his heart out with a finger that’s ripped in half,” skipper Tim Paine said.
"For him to bowl 30-odd overs … people probably don’t understand what he went through today."
Lyon's internal pain struck weeks before his finger ripped open and severely restricted the amount of spin and control he was able to exert upon the ball on the wearing Old Trafford pitch.
His fumbled run-out attempt in the hectic final overs of the third Test at Headingley, which was followed by an lbw shout that would have decided the match in Australia's favour had they not previously squandered their allotted reviews, made him the target for every couch and kerbside warrior in northern England.
Not only was there the heckling, and the inevitable outpouring of social media detritus that can mercifully be ignored, he became whipping boy for the fans who filled Old Trafford's 8500-seat temporary 'party' stand throughout the Test.
Each time the ball was thrown to Lyon at the top of his bowling mark, the crowd would cheer derisively when he caught it cleanly, or roar even louder if it slipped from his throbbing fingers.
"To be honest with you, you hear it for the first over or two then it just becomes white noise," Lyon said of the constant baiting.
"When you're a professional sportsman, your job is to come out and bowl well, and compete against whoever you're playing.
"I didn't really feel it or hear it at the back end (of the match), so it doesn't worry me.
"We're sitting up there (in the visitors' dressing room) and we're going to have a couple of beers tonight and celebrate because the urn is coming home.
"I'm not sure what the nine thousand people in that stand are doing tonight.
"I wear my heart on my sleeve, and playing cricket for Australia means everything for me.
"It’s not about personal success, but I’ve had some family issues over the past – my uncle’s quite sick – so you realise quite quickly it’s just a game.
"It does impact a lot of people, but mistakes happen.
"I didn’t mean to drop the run-out or anything like that, but I had him plumb (lbw) next ball.
"That’s just the game of cricket, you've got to pick yourself up and it’s just the way you bounce back."
Lyon's role model for 'bouncing back' is also the contemporary cricketer for whom he holds the highest esteem.
After serving a 12-month suspension, Steve Smith has returned to Test cricket in such dazzlingly dominant form that many have expressed amazement at how quickly he stamped his brilliance on an otherwise bowler-dominated Ashes series.
However, little of that surprise has percolated from within the Australia dressing room where Smith's teammates, who see how obsessively he trains and prepares, are anything but shocked by his run-scoring deeds in the series to date.
Skipper Tim Paine labelled Smith a "genius" and admitted it was "scary" to realise that, at age 30, the world's top-ranked Test batter is likely to improve still further.
It's an assessment that Lyon happily shares.
"The way Steve Smith came back after all this talk about him, he's an exceptional cricketer," Lyon said.
"He's probably the best cricketer I've ever played with, and to be able to play most of my career with him it's been extremely special and hopefully there's a lot of highlights to come.
"You get the chance to come out here and play cricket for Australia and represent your family, friends and everyone back home.
"I guarantee when I get my phone, I’ll have a fair few messages from mates staying up – I think it’s about 3.30am back home.
"It’s quite a special moment that a sport can bring a nation together.
"I daresay that the boys in that changeroom, where we’re going to celebrate tonight, have brought a nation together.”
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, Craig Overton, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes (vc), Chris Woakes.
First Test: Australia won by 251 runs at Edgbaston
Second Test: Match drawn at Lord's
Third Test: England won by one wicket at Headingley
Fourth Test: Australia won by 185 runs at Old Trafford
Fifth Test: September 12-16, The Oval