Nathan Lyon‘s outstanding displays this year have made him the best spin bowler in the world, and are all the more remarkable for the fact that he was “thrown under the bus” when the Australia team was not performing, his mentor John Davison has said.
Public criticism of Lyon from the captain Steven Smith and the coach Darren Lehmann, during last year’s tour of Sri Lanka and the home losses to South Africa that followed, had the spin bowler questioning his own place in the team. He came within a hair’s breadth of being dropped for the Adelaide Test against South Africa, only to be reprieved largely due to an injury to Steve O’Keefe.
Davison, who alongside Darren Berry has been a major influence on Lyon’s bowling over the past decade, said that it was no coincidence that Lyon’s best year in Test cricket had been accompanied by some better batting displays from Australia, providing the 30-year-old with more scoreboard heft around which he could weave his increasingly intricate spinner’s web.
“I think he’s been thrown under the bus a little bit, in terms of when we went through that little bad period 12 months ago as a team,” Davison said in Perth. “I think the fact the batters are scoring runs more consistently now helps out your spinner massively. I don’t think he was actually bowling as badly as his figures may have suggested back against South Africa and Sri Lanka, but the fact we’re putting the opposition under more pressure helps the bowlers massively.
“The fact his figures weren’t so flattering and in conditions where spinners were meant to flourish, but when you haven’t got runs on the board it makes it difficult to put the pressure on. Young Sri Lankan batters in conditions they’re really familiar with, that’s tough.
“The majority of his career he’s been battling for a steady position in the team, in general they’ve been looking for who is coming through rather than possibly backing him to the hilt. Over the last 12 months he’s grown in confidence on and off the ground, I’m sure you see it in the media that he’s a lot more confident within himself. As a 30-year-old spinner who’s in good shape, hopefully he can carry on a lot longer.”
As for how long Lyon can keep going, Davison said the keys would be staying both mentally fresh and physically fit to reach whatever milestones he aims for. “At that top end it all depends on how fresh you can stay,” Davison said. “We’ve had conversations about how he can keep adding to his game, and I think the biggest challenge after 30 is staying on the park. So there’s some challenges in that area too in terms of keeping yourself in good enough condition to compete at that top end.
“We’ve spoken a lot about developing a ball that hits the stumps, particularly to left-handers. He bowled a lot more of it in the Adelaide Test. He can just keep getting better and better, particularly now that he’s got such good control of that stock ball which is such an effective stock ball. In my opinion he’s the best spin bowler in the world, particularly for his record in Australia … he’s got three subcontinent spinners above him in the world rankings, but they’re playing over 50% of their matches in spin-friendly conditions.”
“The majority of his career he’s been battling for a steady position in the team, in general they’ve been looking for who is coming through rather than possibly backing him to the hilt.”
John Davison, Nathan Lyon’s mentor
There is very little doubt about Lyon being chosen for the WACA Test, despite its historical connection with pace bowling. “Nathan’s greatest attribute is the bounce that he gets, and there’s always a nice breeze to bowl into at the WACA, so it’s good shape in the air. I’d think he’d be one of the first picked,” Davison said. “His ICC ranking’s really high at the moment and he’s full of confidence, so he’s a good influence around the group as well, and someone who can bowl a lot of overs if needs be, I think he’s the man for the job.”
Davison also spoke sympathetically about England’s spin bowler Moeen Ali, who has struggled with a cut spinning finger against Australia’s aggressive batting line-up. In that he has mirrored the battles faced by Graeme Swann four years ago, when elbow problems were compounded by the hosts not allowing him to settle.
“Finger spinners in general struggle in Australian conditions, it’s a really tough place to bowl,” Davison said. “I think having the finger injury he’s had has made it difficult for him and he’s just missed his lengths a bit, but don’t discount how difficult it is with skin off your finger and trying to bowl at the top level, it’s a tough task.
“The biggest thing you’ve got to try and do is stay in the game for as long as possible, when you get the opportunity to get in a rhythm and bowl for lots of overs. I think Australian batsmen in general when they see the opportunity to go after a spinner they’ll really target that. It’s something Darren Lehmann definitely encourages our batters to do.”