It’s a daunting prospect, but Nathan Lyon’s days in the Australian Test team are numbered.
The veteran off-spinner, who recently celebrated his 35th birthday, is entering the twilight of his Test career. The late Shane Warne retired at 37, as did Stuart MacGill. Graeme Swann was 34 when he called it quits.
Modern sports science allows athletes to compete deep into their thirties, but there are only two active Test cricketers aged over 37 – Zimbabwe’s Craig Ervine and England’s James Anderson.
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Lyon’s retirement is an approaching inevitability, and his departure would leave a gaping hole in Australia’s Test XI. How do you replace a cricketer with nearly 500 Test wickets to his name?
Of course, Australian cricket was confronted with this same dilemma 16 years ago when Warne wrapped up his international career. The King of Spin’s retirement kick-started a six-year selection farce, where a plethora of spin options were trialled and abandoned before eventually settling on Lyon in 2013.
MacGill, who served as Warne’s subsidiary for most of his international career, was finally the country’s first-choice tweaker, but the injury-prone twirler only played four Tests before announcing his retirement in 2008.
Brad Hogg, a white-ball specialist with two World Cup titles to his name, featured in three Tests during the 2007/08 Border-Gavaskar Trophy, retiring from international cricket a couple of months later. Australia had suddenly lost its three most experienced spinners within 18 months, prompting a revolving door of candidates.
Beau Casson played one Test in the West Indies in 2008 before falling out of favour ahead of that year’s India tour, where all-rounder Cameron White served as the primary spinner. Jason Krejza claimed 12 wickets in a remarkable Test debut at Nagpur, but only made one more appearance in Australian whites before disappearing into the abyss.
Bryce McGain made his Test debut in South Africa at 36 years of age, finishing the Cape Town Test with match figures of 0-149, leaking 8.27 runs per over, never to return.
Australia eventually settled on off-spinner Nathan Hauritz, who played 16 Tests for Australia between 2009 and 2010 before an underwhelming tour of India, following which he was discarded.
Things quickly became farcical. A baby-faced Steve Smith, dubbed a Warne replica, made his Test debut at Lord’s in July 2010, playing two Tests as the strike leg-spinner before reinventing himself as a batter, thank goodness.
Tasmania’s Xavier Doherty, who had put together a handle of decent performances in white-ball cricket, played two Tests during the 2010/11 Ashes before Australia axed him for the unknown Michael Beer, who received his baggy green in Sydney. Doherty and Beer weren’t completely forgotten, however, making brief appearances in India and the West Indies respectively over the following 18 months.
Lyon was the tenth cab off the rank, taking a five-wicket haul in Sri Lanka in 2011 to briefly cement his place as Australia’s premier tweaker, only to be dropped ahead of the 2013 Ashes series for a teenage Ashton Agar, who famously scored 98 on Test debut at Trent Bridge.
But Agar’s heroics with the bat wasn‘t enough to appease selectors, who backflipped and reinstated Lyon for the third Test at Old Trafford. The off-spinner has since played 94 consecutive Tests for Australia, missing none.
Twelve different spinners in 69 Tests; it was an emotional rollercoaster for all involved. Players rarely got a chance to prove their worth, given one or two matches before another bowler caught the attention of national selectors.
With Lyon approaching the last phase of his Test career it begs the question – can Australia avoid a repeat of this post-Warne spin fiasco?
AUSTRALIA A TOURS THE ‘PRIORITY’
Cricket Australia has already set in motion a plan to ensure the country‘s spin stocks are strong when Lyon eventually hangs up the boots.
Todd Murphy and Matt Kuhnemann, for example, have not been thrown in the deep end in India; they are well-accustomed to the subcontinent conditions courtesy of CA initiatives over the last 12 months.
Both spinners took part in last year’s Australia A tour against Sri Lanka; Murphy snared 4-52 from 19 overs in Hambantota, with Kuhnemann claiming two wickets before earning a surprise ODI call-up.
Australia A tours are essential to developing the next generation of Test stars, and Murphy’s success in Nagpur is the proof in the pudding.
“You get to experience different conditions around the world to best prepare someone like (Murphy) to take Nathan’s spot when he finishes up or retires,” White told foxsports.com.au.
“If he was to get injured or break a finger batting, they’re got a replacement who can come in and do a job straight away.
“It’s a bit of a priority for Cricket Australia, those Australia A tours, which I think the players really enjoy, and there’s a fair few of them on the schedule going forward.”
Murphy, Kuhnemann and New South Wales leg-spinner Sangha were flown to the MRF Academy in Chennai last year, joining a group of emerging batters to further refine their craft in the subcontinent’s unique conditions. The Asian escapade undoubtedly paid dividends for Murphy.
“That was an awesome opportunity, just to get over there and experience the different conditions was massive for me,” Murphy told foxsports.com.au earlier this summer.
“It‘s going to be more beneficial when I do get to go back there, being able to call upon the experiences I’ve had … just finding ways to get the ball doing different things over there was probably what I took out of it the most.”
It’s worth acknowledging that if Lyon had sustained an injury three years ago, Australia was not equipped to call upon a primed replacement.
None of the Sheffield Shield’s 20 leading wicket-takers during the 2019/20 season were spinners because Australia’s seam-friendly, drop-in pitches did not entice state teams to select them. Subsequently, the country’s best spin bowlers spent most of the summer running drinks or toiling on green decks that offered little to no support.
“A spinner should play every single game, no matter what the conditions are,” Warne told foxsports.com.au in 2020.
“The states want to win so badly that sometimes they leave out a spinner, rather than thinking long-term … at the moment, they only pick them when the conditions suit.
“We have some good spinners in Australia, but they’re not getting the opportunities.”
Queensland leggie Mitchell Swepson, recently considered Australia’s second-choice Test spinner, has been sidelines for multiple Sheffield Shield matches throughout his career because the wickets favoured pace bowling.
“It’s unfortunate – at the start of the year, I couldn’t give (Swepson) the ball as often because we were playing on raging green tops,” Queensland captain Usman Khawaja said recently.
“It’s really hard, even for me as a captain, to get (Swepson) into the game when the ball is hooping around corners and you’re playing on really green decks.
“I feel for spinners in Australia, and we need to be careful here because we have an absolute genius in Nathan Lyon … but who’s coming after him?
“Unless we have spinners playing day in and day out, getting involved in those match scenarios across the country, we’re going to suffer … just like we suffered when Warnie left.”
Following his retirement from first-class cricket in 2020, New South Wales spinner Steve O’Keefe warned Australia would struggle in the subcontinent if the Sheffield Shield could not replicate India’s spin-friendly decks.
Sheffield Shield pitches have been considerably more balanced over the last couple of years; the Blues selected two strike spinners for recent first-class matches at the SCG, while Victoria has also dabbled with twin tweakers, permitting Murphy to accompany veteran Jon Holland this summer.
“The wickets have been drier,” O’Keefe told foxsports.com.au earlier this summer.
“Wickets have been more (spin) friendly. In some cases, pitches have spun on day one.
“If we’re being honest and going away and wanting to play and win in the subcontinent, we need to accept the fact it’s going to spin on day one and be prepared for that. I think (Sheffield Shield) pitches are starting to reflect that.”
The Sheffield Shield is designed to prepare Australia’s best athletes for the challenges of Test cricket, but the competition still has flaws. Kuhnemann, who earlier this week was rushed into Australia’s Test squad, has only made two appearances for the Bulls this summer. Queensland can’t justify playing him alongside Swepson on Brisbane’s green decks.
Between 2016 and 2020, Cricket Australia experimented with using the Duke ball in the second half of the Sheffield Shield season following the Big Bash League break.
The change was designed to help players adapt to England’s swinging conditions, but it negatively impacted Australia’s spin stocks. During the 2019/20 Sheffield Shield season, spin bowlers accounted for less than 15 per cent of overs bowled with the Duke ball and less than 10 per cent of wickets.
There was no incentive for state sides to pick spinners with the swinging Duke hooping around corners.
“We went through a stage there where we used to Duke ball, and that was for half the season, and you needed a scalpel to get the ball out of the hands for the quicks,” O’Keefe said.
“It swung all game … you’d have to fight and beg to try and get one spinner in.”
CA scrapped the Duke ball experiment in 2020 following consultation with states and players; head of operations Peter Roach acknowledged its detrimental effect on spin bowling.
“Nathan Lyon is not 21 years old, and who‘s going to be next? That’s the challenge we’ve got,” Roach told cricket.com.au.
“There have been some examples of states not selecting spinners for games in February and March, which is when we‘d usually expect spin to be playing a greater part. Historically as the weather gets better and the pitches get drier, the spinners should be bowling more and more as the season goes on. But we weren’t seeing that. If they’re not bowling, they’re not going to get wickets.”
THE ZAMPA DILEMMA
The growing popularity of white-ball cricket and domestic T20 tournaments has also been detrimental for multi-format spinners vying for Test selection. Adam Zampa, an exceptional white-ball cricketer, has only played two first-class matches in the last three years due to international commitments.
And there’s no reprieve in sight for the New South Welshman, who is expected to miss upcoming first-class matches due to Australia’s ODI tour of India. He also won’t feature in the first half of next season’s Sheffield Shield, which clashes with the World Cup.
Zampa, who recently voiced his desire to play Test cricket, arguably should be in India with the Australian squad, but national selectors were understandably reluctant to pick a bowler with six red-ball wickets to his name since 2019.
“There’s still a lot to weigh up in my cricketing future,” Zampa told NewsCorp on Tuesday.
“I’m known as a predominantly white-ball cricketer, and there are two World Cups coming up which are at the forefront of my mind.
“In terms of the baggy green and Test cricket, the dream is still alive and I’m sure it always will be. I’ll take the opportunity to play four-day cricket where I can, but as I said, white-ball cricket will be my main priority for the next little while.”
SO WHO’S NEXT?
Who will take on the mantle of Australia’s premier Test spinner when Lyon steps aside? After claiming seven wickets on debut last week, Murphy has, needless to say, emerged as the leading candidate.
Ten months ago, Murphy was a fringe state cricketer with one first-class match to his name, struggling to crack into Victoria’s starting XI – but after a breakout summer in the Sheffield Shield, the spectacled 22-year-old was touted as Lyon’s heir apparent.
“He‘s as good an off-spinner as I’ve seen since Nathan Lyon,” O’Keefe said.
“The ball comes out of his hand beautifully, he‘s been working on his variations. He’s going to be a star for the Sixers going forward, and also for the Australian cricket team when the time comes.
“Every year, he just seems to get a little bit better and add to that pile of new skills.”
Murphy has taken 36 first-class wickets at 23.75 since making his maiden Sheffield Shield appearance in April 2021, with an impressive economy rate of 2.62. He even outclassed Lyon in Nagpur last week.
The other young tweaker turning heads in the Sheffield Shield in Sangha, who claimed 4-56 in Hambantota during last year’s Australia A tour of Sri Lanka.
The leg-spinner earned his maiden national call-up in early 2021, named in Australia’s squad for a T20 tour of New Zealand at just 19. He made his first-class debut for New South Wales later that year, ending the 2021/22 Sheffield Shield season with 17 wickets at 32.17.
“He’s a competitor – he goes out there and competes, even with the bat in his hand, he competes from ball one. He doesn’t give the opposition a sniff,” Blues captain Kurtis Patterson said earlier this summer.
“I have no doubt … he’ll play a lot of cricket for Australia if he keeps on the trajectory he’s on.”
Unfortunately, a lower back stress injury sidelined Sangha for the entire 2022/23 summer; he hasn’t played a professional cricket match since August. If the stars had aligned, the 21-year-old was every chance of boarding that plane to India.
Although Kuhnemann is yet to earn the coveted baggy green, his recent Test call-up suggests he’s been earmarked as a long-term prospect.
The crafty left-armer took 25 wickets at 31.88 in seven Sheffield Shield matches last summer – no spinner across the competition claimed more scalps during the 2021/22 season.
The 26-year-old snared 4-78 against South Africa during a warm-up match at Brisbane’s Allan Border Field earlier this summer, rolling through the Proteas top order.
Kuhnemann also potentially has a future in Australia’s white-ball team; he played four ODIs in Sri Lanka last year, taking six wickets at 31.83.
Swepson and Ashton Agar are also on the fringe of Test selection, but both will be approaching their mid-thirties when Lyon’s expected to retire. Time is not on their side.
Of course, many of Australia’s modern greats flourished in Test cricket after their 30th birthday, including but not limited to Michael Hussey, Chris Rogers and Ryan Harris, but the lure of youth has repeatedly proven too tempting for national selectors to ignore.
“The spin stocks in Australia have never been stronger,” O’Keefe said.
“The simple fact that I can sit here and rattle off ten names that have all got five-fas, who are all doing well for their states and at some stage played a match-winning role or been the hero is very rare.
“We don’t have to pluck someone from obscurity, we don’t have to pick a player that we like on potential.”
Lyon has earned the right to step away from Test cricket on his own terms when he deems appropriate, and when that day comes, Australia hopefully won’t need a six-year game of musical chairs to find his replacement.
“I feel like we’re in a really good place for back-up spinners for Nath,” Cummins told foxsports.com.au earlier this month.
“It still feels like each summer Nath’s getting better and better, so I don’t think he’s going anywhere anytime soon, but we do feel really well placed.”