Sri Lankans have had an outsized influence on Nathan Lyon’s career, but there is one nugget of wisdom he has received on the island, delivered six years ago from the mouth of Rangana Herath, that sticks with him above all else.
“I had a conversation with him after the Test series,” Lyon said of the wily spinner who masterminded the 3-0 victory over the Aussies when they last toured Sri Lanka in 2016.
“I said, ‘What do you do that I don’t do?’ And he said, ‘I know that if I put the ball in one spot, you blokes will stuff up’. Those were his exact words.”
Lyon famously dismissed Kumar Sangakkara with his first ball in Test cricket in Galle in 2011 and worked extensively with Sri Lankan legend Muthiah Muralidaran through the early part of his international career.
More recently, he has tapped into the knowledge of former Sri Lanka opener and national coach Chandika Hathurusingha in his bid to help Australia conquer the sub-continent.
Yet, that blunt strategic summary from Herath, the plump five-foot-five left-armer who perplexed Australia with 28 wickets at 12.75 in 2016, might have had the biggest impact on his evolution as a bowler in Asia.
It was hardly rocket science but it was hugely instructive for Lyon who, up until the end of that watershed series on an island roughly the size of Tasmania that houses almost the same population as Australia, had taken 42 Test wickets at 42.57 on the subcontinent.
In four tours there since, including the Aussies’ Asian drought-breaking Test series win in Pakistan earlier this year, Lyon has 65 scalps at 26.44.
“That’s a pretty simple mindset,” said Lyon ahead of the two-Test campaign beginning in Galle on Wednesday. “(What) I took out of it was, the secret to everyone’s success is if you can challenge their defence for long periods of time, you’ll be able to create chances.
“That’s what (Herath) did extremely well. He challenged our defence for long periods of time, and he got the rewards.”
It followed on from his previous work with Muralidaran, who became Test cricket’s most prolific bowler with a record 800 victims and a bowling action that relied on irreplicable shoulder rotation and a double-jointed wrist.
Like most traditional off-spinners, Lyon had no hope of learning Muralidaran’s famed doosra, but nonetheless gleaned other insights during a week-long training camp with him at the Colombo SSC Grounds back in 2014.
“I trained with Murali, batted against Murali, bowled with Murali for two or three hours a day,” said Lyon, who then worked with him again in 2016 when he was a spin consultant with the Australians.
“So, it was pretty remarkable spending time with him here in Sri Lanka, probably the greatest Sri Lankan cricketer to ever play the game, definitely the greatest (Sri Lankan) bowler.
“Talking to Murali, it’s not about me trying to bowl like him, it’s more of a mindset thing. I think I’ve been able to really learn off so many people around the world, but Murali’s mindset was pretty unique.”
Muralidaran had recognised and admired Lyon’s stock off-break that had fast-tracked him from Adelaide Oval groundsman to Test cricketer within a year.
The 34-year-old remains a fierce defender of the importance of the over-spinning, dropping delivery that has made him an unlikely success in Tests in Australia, recognised as one of the hardest countries in which to bowl spin.
It has also formed the bedrock of his generous tuition of emerging finger spinners like Todd Murphy and Matthew Kuhnemann.
Yet, as he contemplates how he can lead Australia’s spin attack in Sri Lanka over the coming weeks and then in India next year, Lyon has cautiously accepted the need for variety in this part of the world, where home teams’ accomplished players of spin have sucked in countless visiting spinners with the lure of turning pitches and lower bounce, and then tamed them with heartbreaking ease.
“I still believe in spinning up the back of the ball and that’s (effective) no matter where it is,” Lyon said, “and that’s purely myself believing that my skill is good enough to perform wherever in the world.
“But what’s come to me on my terms – and this is purely me – is the ability and willingness to bowl ugly.
“That’s only me talking about my bowling and how I can be more effective over here. That’s something I’ll be trying to do, is look to bowl a little bit more ugly than what I’m used to.
“It’s different variations which don’t really work in Australia. That potentially might be round-arm, totally undercutting it, slight little wrist position (changes) – behind the ball, beside the ball, etc.
“That’s my terms of bowling ugly.”