As he prepares for his third Test in Cape Town, Nathan Lyon cannot have more conflicting memories of any other venue in the game.
In 2011, he was playing the fourth match of his career when he top-scored at No. 11, amid Australia’s razing for 47 on an incomprehensible second day. In 2014, he had a ringside seat to Michael Clarke’s battering by Morne Morkel, David Warner’s twin centuries and Ryan Harris’ heroics in the final half-hour to secure the match and series for Australia.
This time around, the Australians are seeking to forge ahead in another seesaw encounter with South Africa, and Lyon is hopeful Steven Smith’s team will be able to emulate the feats of four years ago, rather than the ignominy of three years prior.
“It was one of the most exciting Test series, especially coming off the Ashes and the way we played at Centurion and then them bouncing back at PE,” Lyon said. “To come here and the way it planned out with Ryan Harris basically bowling with one leg and bowling Morne with about two overs to go was exceptional.
“They are the type of moments that you sit here and look back on your career and weigh them up as some of the best games you’ve been part of. They’re the ones you want to play, they’re the ones you do pre-season for, where you win on the last day, last hour and to see Ryno (Harris) do that after Pup (Clarke) scored his brilliant 100 and I think Davey (Warner) scored one [in each innings] as well, they’re the type of games and series you want to be a part of and games you want to put your hand up and be a part of.”
From the vantage point of 2018, it is difficult to picture exactly how young in the game Lyon truly was in 2011, for he was not only in his second Test series but less than a year into his first-class career, having been plucked from the Adelaide Oval ground staff to be part of South Australia’s Twenty20 squad, and from there playing in the Sheffield Shield and then with Australia A.
The whirlwind was rather reflected in the tumble of 23 wickets on day two of the Test, including the eye-popping scoreline of 21 for 9 in Australia’s second innings when Lyon walked to the middle. “You’ve got to be pretty good to top-score for your country,” he quipped. “I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum, obviously when you get bowled out for 47 it is not the best feeling, but we came back a couple of years later to win the way we did was exceptional.
“It happened pretty quick to be honest, I think I walked out to bat when we were 9 for 21 in the 11th over, I’m not usually padded up in the 11th over or trying to pad up in the ninth. It was a little bit different. It’s another story in my career, some days you have your day out and big Vernon Philander did that day.”
Usman Khawaja, another member of that squad, recalled the panic of the moment, even as it related to fetching batting gloves for members of the playing XI. “I remember that when we got South Africa out in that first innings and went to bat in that second innings, it was Pat Cummins and Trent Copeland who were doing 12th with me,” he told SEN Radio. “And I just said ‘boys, I did my gym session earlier in the day, go do your gym session now, I’ll take care of this, we’re batting. This’ll be easy.’
“At Cape Town, the Twelfthy sits right down the bottom and there are about 70 stairs to climb. Every time there was a wicket I would run up those stairs. A couple of times I ran up the stairs to get someone’s gloves and by the time that I got up there they were out so I had to put the stuff back down and grab the other kit. It really was unbelievable.
“It is always a good reminder to myself and I think to anyone that the game is never won and you can never get too far ahead of yourself. Even in my head I thought that we had a lead of about 200 and even if we got 150 that is game over; it is very hard to chase 350 in the last innings. And we were obviously 9 for 21. You never get ahead of yourself in this game and that very much reminded me of that.”
This week, Lyon will be hoping to play a part in generating a similar tumble of South Africa wickets, in a series where he has oscillated between rapid breakthroughs – Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla in his first over of the series, Elgar and AB de Villiers in the second innings at Port Elizabeth – and longer, more barren spells.
“I don’t know what he’s trying to do hitting me through square leg twice,” Lyon joked about his two caught-and-bowled dismissals of Elgar. “But it’s another good challenge you always have with different cricketers around the world. I bowled five balls and got him out twice but I also bowled 20 overs in the first innings and couldn’t get him out once, so it’s a challenging one but it’s a good challenge, it’s Test cricket.
“You’re bowling to the best batters in the world so it’s a great challenge whether left-hander or right-hander. I’ve enjoyed it because it’s different conditions to what we’re used to at home, we know they play some really good cricket, they beat us at home last time, their unit’s a strong side. I’ve enjoyed the challenge, if I challenge myself against the best players in the world I’m doing my job and pretty happy with it. So to come up against the likes of AB and Faf [du Plessis] and these guys and Hashim it’s the challenge you want.”
Undistracted by the Kagiso Rabada saga, Lyon said the Australian bowlers had taken some heart from the way they troubled the South Africa top order in their chase for a meagre 101 to win at St George’s Park. “If I’m being honest, if you give us another 100 runs it’s game on,” he said. “I know the bowling unit took a little bit out of that last innings. I know I took a little bit out of it.
“There are a couple of little things that we can hopefully put into play for a certain number of their top-order batsmen. PE was pretty disappointing but I think we played about 40%, if I’m being honest, and we got pretty close to them. The way I’m looking at it, if we play to our full strength, it should be a good result.”
More 2014 than 2011.