London: If, as many anticipate, offspinner Nathan Lyon returns to the Australia side for the third Ashes Test against England this week it would be just the latest unlikely chapter in a career which already has the flavour of a tale of the unexpected.
A return looked highly improbable just two weeks ago when his shock replacement as spinner for the first Ashes Test, Ashton Agar, was setting the cricket world alight with his sparkling debut Test innings of 98 in the Nottingham sunshine.
Just two wickets over the first two Test defeats, though, means teenager Agar could be dropped for the Old Trafford match, which Australia must win to keep alive their hopes of winning back the Ashes.
The Australian pace attack has got rid of the English top order pretty cheaply in all four innings in the series so far, but have felt the absence of a quality spinner to drive home the advantage and provide them with some much-needed rest.
Even if Australia's selectors could hardly have done more this year to demotivate and demoralise Lyon, captain Michael Clarke knows he will be able to rely on the 25-year-old to give his all if selected.
That is not only because Lyon has already been dropped this year but also because of a team ethic that had him front and centre among his applauding team mates when Agar was smashing the England bowlers around Trent Bridge. Lyon was not considered when Australia were looking for a spinner to replace the dumped Nathan Hauritz during the last Ashes series in 2010 because at the time he was a groundsman at Adelaide Oval and had not yet played first class cricket.
"It's a massive turnaround," he told Reuters in Sydney before departing for England. I still pinch myself, I remember sitting on the roller watching the Australian boys go out there and before the Test I was actually doing the net bowling."
It was only three months after that Test that Lyon made his first class debut after impressing in Australia's domestic Big Bash Twenty20 tournament.
He did not have to wait long for his Test debut, which came on the tour of Sri Lanka the following August and he took the wicket of Kumar Sangakkara with his very first ball on his way to 5-34 on debut. By the end of 2012, Lyon was firmly established as Australia's number one spinner and back at the Adelaide Oval dismissing Sachin Tendulkar in his 10th Test match.
KING OF SPIN
Unassuming and physically unprepossessing, Lyon is pretty much the antithesis of Shane Warne, the player to whom every Australian spin bowler will be compared.
"It's big shoes to fill and I don't think anyone ever will Shane was very talented, the King of Spin," he said.
"Having said that, it's a different era and different conditions now. I'm just worried about what I can do for the team. I'm confident in my own skill set, I've played 22 Tests now and I definitely know what it takes to win a Test match."
In those 22 Tests, Lyon's looping off-spin has earned him 76 wickets at an average of 33.18. It has not been all smooth progress, however, and there was a hint of disappointments to come when he failed to do better than 3-49 with South Africa batting to save the Test in the fourth innings in Adelaide last year. The Proteas went on to clinch the series with a crushing 309-run victory in Perth and the Australians were left ruing a missed chance to topple the top-ranked Test side.
Despite frequently expressed confidence in his abilities, the actions of the selectors spoke otherwise in March and Lyon was stunningly dropped for the second Test on a spin-friendly track at Hyderabad.
"It was a tough tour, I learned a lot about myself on and off the field," Lyon recalled. "I went through a lot, but I'm really happy with how I bounced back. I worked hard in the nets in the game I had off and was lucky enough to take a couple of wickets in the last Test."
Nine wickets were not enough to save Australia from a 4-0 series defeat at the hands of India but did earn Lyon a place as the only spinner in the initial Ashes squad. Cricket Australia were, however, working frantically behind the scenes to get the law changed so Pakistan-born Fawad Ahmad would qualify in time but in the end it was teenager Agar who delayed Lyon's Ashes debut.
Few expect Australia to be singing their victory song at Old Trafford over the next week but if they are, Lyon will be leading the Baggy Green choir.
Michael "Mr Cricket" Hussey handed him the duties upon his retirement earlier this year - a decision Lyon modestly struggles to explain.
"I'm not sure why, I'm certain it wasn't for my singing ability," he laughed.
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