Nathan Lyon has long carried the nickname ‘GOAT’ (Greatest of All-Time).
This was originally coined when he took over from Hugh Trumble as statistically the best off-spinner ever to play for Australia. Eight and a half years and 358 wickets later, the whole premise seems as irrelevant as it is obsolete.
Lyon today became only the eighth Australian, and second Australian spinner after the incomparable Shane Warne, to take 500 test wickets. It is a journey that began in the dust of a Sri Lankan turner 12 years ago, and no-one that knows Australian cricket would suggest that it is anywhere near over.
The first wicket
Nathan Lyon was thrown the ball for the 16th over of his maiden test match in Galle. An hour earlier, fellow debutant Trent Copeland, took a wicket with his second ball in Test cricket, but few seem to remember that now.
Lyon stuck to his method of bowling the best off-spinner that he could. Kumar Sangakkara had grafted his way through 39 balls, making 10. Ball number 40 was the first of over 31,000 that Lyon has bowled to this point in Test cricket.
The ball landed on a good length just outside the Sri Lankan champion’s off stump, and turned just enough to catch the outside edge of his bat. Captain Michael Clarke made no mistake low to his left, and Lyon became the third Australian to take a wicket with his first ball at the highest level.
Lyon did not rest on his laurels, taking the last four wickets of the Sri Lankan innings to finish with 5/34 as the hosts were dismissed for just 105. Only one player played in the match Lyon took his first test wicket, and the match in which he brought up 500.
That man? Usman Khawaja.
The 100th wicket
Lyon brought up triple figures on the third day of the 2013 Boxing Day test.
Australia had conceded a 51-run first innings lead to the touring Englishmen. Lyon had begun a hot, windy third day belting a breezy, unbeaten 18 in a 40-run last wicket stand with Brad Haddin.
England made 86 runs before their second wicket fell in their second innings, and looked to be in a strong position before Lyon ran through their middle order. It was to be Lyon’s first five-wicket haul on home turf, and it included his 100th test wicket as England lost their last five wickets for a mere six runs.
Stuart Broad looked to drive the third ball of his innings as Lyon flighted the ball slowly outside his off stump, but only succeeded in edging to Clarke at slip. Broad was scoreless, England’s plight pointless, and Chris Rogers and Shane Watson combined in a 136-run stand to see Australia home by eight wickets.
“It’s amazing, to be honest. It seemed a long way away when I started,” Lyon said at the time, although he had a long way to go yet…
The 200th wicket
Returning five years later to where it all began, Dhananjaya de Silva became wicket number 200 for Nathan Lyon.
Lyon had begun the match needing five wickets to traverse the 200 mark. Having taken three wickets in the Sri Lankan first innings, his second wicket of the second innings brought up the milestone. Coming in the evening session of the third day of the first test in Pallekele, de Silva lobbed a simple catch to Khawaja at mid-off.
De Silva had made 36 from 62 balls at the time, but the wicket came at the other end of one of the all-time great Sri Lankan innings. Kusal Mendis made an imperious 176 to turn an 86-run first innings deficit into a 106-run victory.
“I’ll look back on it at the end of this Test or at the end of the series and look at the achievement,” he said.
“It’s been a pretty good ride so far, so hopefully there are a few more (wickets) to come.”
The 300th wicket
Australia’s Cape Town encounter with South Africa in March 2018 was remembered for all the wrong reasons. The game later came to be known as ‘Sandpapergate’ led to lengthy suspensions for Cameron Bancroft, David Warner and captain Steven Smith.
Aidan Markram, A.B. de Villiers, Quinton de Kock and Vernon Philander all made half centuries on the fourth day, as South Africa took a 429-run lead into the match’s final innings.
The eighth wicket of the South African innings was Lyon’s 300th. It was peak Nathan Lyon, as Kagiso Rabada charged down the wicket in an attempt to hit the ball into the next town.
Instead, Lyon beat him in flight and the stand-in skipper neatly removed the bails to complete the dismissal. Sadly Lyon’s efforts were in vain, as the demoralised Australians were bowled out for 107 to lose by 322 runs.
“The way he’s been able to change and adapt and bowl the way he has to bowl for different conditions, it’s been fantastic the last year,” Steve Smith said.
“He deserves all the credit he’s getting at the moment.”
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The 400th wicket
Nathan Lyon took his 399th test wicket in January 2021. He had to wait another eleven months until December to take wicket 400, having bowled 208 balls in between.
It was a match in which England lost their first wicket to the first ball of the Test series. There was little fight in the England innings as they subsided before Australia’s pacemen for only 147, with Lyon returning figures of 0/21 from nine overs.
When England batted again, facing a deficit of 278 runs following a brilliant 152 from Travis Head, Dawid Malan and Joe Root showed some application in a 162-run stand. Once Malan had reached 82 however, Lyon struck to end the partnership.
Again the wicket came as the batsman advanced down the wicket. This time the left-handed Malan squeezed the ball between bat and pad, the ball settling into the safe hands of Marnus Labuschagne as Lyon had his milestone.
England’s innings ended with their tally at 297, meaning that Australia needed only 20 runs to win the first Test. This they achieved for the loss of just one wicket, and Australia went on to win four of the five Test matches in the series.
“It’s something that I’m very proud of, there’s no doubt about that,” Lyon said.
“There’s been some hard toil to get it, but it’s very rewarding, that’s for sure.”
The 500th wicket
Pat Cummins won the toss and chose to bat in the first match of the 2023/24 Test series against Pakistan, knowing that Nathan Lyon was just four wickets short of the 500-wicket milestone.
Lyon was forced to wait until David Warner had slammed 164 on the first day, and the destructive Mitchell Marsh bludgeoned 90 on the second to propel Australia to a total of 487. The off-spinner took three of the four wickets needed, but Travis Head removed the last Pakistan batsman to make Lyon wait further.
Australia set Pakistan to score 450 runs in the last innings for an unlikely victory. Wickets fell at a steady rate as the pacemen exploited a now bowler-friendly surface. They ran through a Pakistan batting line-up ill-equipped to cope with the bounce and movement that they were asked to counter.
Indeed, six wickets fell before Lyon hit the defensive pad of bowling all-rounder Faheem Ashram. The original decision was in the negative, but captain Cummins looked to the third umpire to review. After a lengthy wait, the decision was overturned, granting Lyon his 500th Test wicket.
Lyon has not lost sight of the gravity of what he has achieved.
“For only two Australians (Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath), to be over that 500 mark, it’s pretty remarkable.”