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Warner staggering, Lyon galloping; different tales for two veterans

John Townsend

David Warner is 36, Australia’s second most successful opener but staggering towards the century of matches that should be achieved at the MCG this month but may not go much beyond the milestone.

Nathan Lyon is 35, Australia’s second most successful spinner and galloping towards a series of landmarks that place him in the rarest territory. Lyon has played 112 Tests, the last 90 consecutively over nearly a decade, and next year should approach 500 career wickets and 100 consecutive matches.

It is a mark of Lyon’s durability and excellence that no specialist Test bowler has ever come close to his longevity and only one player – West Indian champion Garry Sobers who did not miss a Test for 17 years – surpassed it while also carrying a significant bowling load. Lyon has taken 450 wickets so passing Glenn McGrath’s mark of 563 wickets is a legitimate goal.

And while Shane Warne’s 708 is the Everest for all Australians, the 46 Tests scheduled over the next five years before Lyon turns 40 provides opportunities for the off-spinner to get close to the bowler probably the greatest in the game’s history.

While Warner is fading, with the next month probably confirming whether his plight is terminal or just the natural decline of a once-outstanding player who may still have another shot or two in his quiver, Lyon has rarely been more influential.

The finish line may be within sight for two of Australia’s oldest players but Warner is stumbling like an exhausted marathon runner while the lean and hungry Lyon has not even reached the bell lap nor his longest stride.

So, what is it that makes Lyon such an anomaly?

The craft of off-spinning is the most contradictory in cricket.

It is the easiest skill to demonstrate as evidenced by the lowest grades in club cricket where the least competent bowlers twist their fingers over the ball in a semblance of an off-break. And it requires the most basic of abilities – that of landing enough deliveries on a decent line and length – for a bowler to remain in the attack.

Yet the simplicity of the action means that more players attempt to bowl offies than pursue any other skill. Landing a ball is one thing but doing it six times in a row, multiplied by a dozen or 20 overs in a spell, over two or three spells, while being beset by batting assaults or defensive barricades, fielding lapses, captaincy and umpiring foibles, physical, mental and temperamental challenges, provides the sternest test in the game.

Anyone can do it; only the most elite can do it sufficiently well to keep all challengers at bay for a decade.

To be the best of them means that Lyon is a superior player to literally millions of other cricketers.

He is a bowling machine who pegs a handkerchief on a good length about 115 out of 120 attempts spread over three hours or so.

Darts champion Eric Bristow used to replicate that level of excellence but the Crafty Cockney did it indoors over 2.37m - not outdoors over 20 – and never had the dart coming back at him at 130kmh a moment after he let it go.

Lyon has also changed and developed as his career has progressed.

Forever vulnerable and apprehensive about losing his place – how many athletes in the modern era, for example, would refuse to attend the birth of their child because of concerns that voluntary absence from a Test match might count against them at the selection table? – Lyon’s name is actually printed on the selection sheet before the meeting.

He is a lock as a spinner.

Mitch Swepson, Jon Holland, Ashton Agar, Steve Smith, Steve O’Keefe, Glenn Maxwell, Xavier Doherty and Michael Beer have all come and gone from the team in Lyon’s time without weakening his tenure one iota. Their issues – whether fitness, accuracy, impact or balance - have probably strengthened his claims.

It was not always so.

Former selection chairman John Inverarity would become increasingly frustrated that Lyon’s run-up, technique and tempo would change from day to day, sometimes hour to hour, while his tendency to bowl at leg stump to minimise runs rather than pay a higher price for his wickets was equally exasperating.

Yet Lyon bowled superbly to the West Indies in the past two weeks by aiming well outside off-stump in a bid to create classic offie wickets – bowled through the gate, caught behind and at slip, LBW or caught and bowled.

His reward was 12 cheap wickets and a reputation enhanced.

He is at the peak of his considerable powers and is giving no sign that his career has a finish line. Not so David Warner.



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