Amid the darkness that enshrouded Nathan Lyon immediately after Australia’s near-unfathomable Test loss at Headingley last August, a message from Steve Waugh provided some crucial light relief.
Lyon became a lightning rod for England’s bristling triumphalism when he fumbled a certain run-out in the final phase of that frantic Sunday afternoon in Leeds.
That agony was clearly evident when – as England’s hero Ben Stokes sealed an unthinkable win to level the Ashes series – Lyon collapsed to the ground and clasped his hands to his head, before teammates helped him to his feet.
However, as rival fans began the taunting that would follow Australia’s most successful off-spinner for the remainder of the tour – on and off the field – he was buoyed by a text that arrived on his phone from Waugh.
The former Test skipper had been part of Australia’s Ashes squad in the guise of team mentor, but had returned home prior to the third Test and was watching on television as Stokes carried England to their astonishing one-wicket win.
Sensing Lyon’s deep distress, Waugh recalled how similarly dark moments he witnessed during his career were later celebrated on the lucrative post-playing speakers’ circuit by those integrally involved.
Most notably, the missed catch by Shane Warne that cost Damien Fleming his second Test hat-trick which, over the years, has become the subject of a lengthy monologue in the swing bowler’s many public appearances.
And Dean Jones’ epic double-century during the Chennai tied Test that landed him in hospital with severe dehydration, but which is recounted almost ball-by-ball whenever Jones gets the chance.
“Steve Waugh sent me a message straight after,” Lyon told cricket.com.au of the fall-out from the Headingley loss.
“He just said ‘Oh well, think about the positive – you’re going to make a lot of money doing speaking gigs when you finish playing, you can put so much mayo on that story’.
“He found a way to break the ice, and made me look at it in a different way.
“It was one of those things. I could have been the quickest Australian sportsperson to go from villain to hero – in the space of about 3.2 seconds, which is about the time it took from me dropping the run-out to hitting Stokesy on the pad in front of middle stump.
“But that’s cricket, isn’t it.”
Lyon’s hurt was compounded by knowing he would have claimed Stokes’ wicket the ball after the muffed run-out, if only Australia had not wasted their last remaining DRS review in the speculative search for that decisive breakthrough.
But while the 74 that Stokes smashed from 46 balls in his 76-run 10th-wicket stand with Jack Leach remains as unforgettable as it was unprecedented, Australia’s response in the face of his sustained fury exposed shortcomings in both planning and execution.
It was the need to address those failures, as well as draw a line under the disappointment and start plotting a way forward, that led coach Justin Langer to compel the full squad to watch footage of the decisive final hour the following morning.
Lyon admits that having to relive pain that remained so raw was uncomfortable, but with the clarity of retrospect he believes it was vital to Australia winning the next Test which, in turn, ensured the Ashes were retained.
“Cricket’s always about learning and trying to get better, so I think it was important that we sat down and relived that moment as soon as possible rather than sitting on our own and dwelling on it,” Lyon said.
“It’s quite easy to go back to your hotel room and stew over the errors, but in my eyes the game should never have got that close. We should have closed that out earlier.
“But it was a good discussion, and we’re going to be a better cricket team for going through that.”
The intensity of the introspection contrasted starkly with the euphoria that greeted Australia’s 185-run win in the fourth Test at Old Trafford two weeks later.
Lyon snared two wickets on the final day of that match despite having ripped open the callous that forms on the top joint of his right index finger – the digit he uses to impart spin – while bowling during England’s first innings.
The 31-year-old has suffered that setback several times in his 91-Test career to date, most notably during Australia’s 2017 tour to India where he bowled almost 250 overs.
Restrictions imposed on strapping that bowlers can apply to their fingers means Lyon routinely mends the damage sustained through the wear and tear of his craft by applying surgical glue purchased from his local hardware store – “aisle seven, I think it is”.
But the pain and inconvenience he felt at Old Trafford vanished the moment giant TV screens confirmed Australia’s lbw shout against England’s final wicket, tailender Craig Overton, and scenes of celebration erupted.
“It was one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve been involved in, even though we knew it was out,” Lyon recalled of that minute or two the team waited while the third umpire prepared his verdict.
“I just remember that everyone was looking at the screen behind me, and I was facing the other way.
“As soon as it went red, if you look at the photos I’ve got Travis Head in my arms before he knew what was happening.
“Then to go back into the changeroom and have a beer with everyone in there, it was one of the best feelings in the rooms that I’ve been a part of.
“It is one of the biggest highlights of my career, when we were able to stand up there as a team and lift up the urn at The Oval (after the final Test).
“We were considered the most hated Australian side to go over to England in a long time, and they all let us know about it.
“But if I’d sat down before we went, and you told me we’d make the semi-final of the World Cup and then retain the Ashes, I would have signed on the dotted line there and then.
“My goal has always been to win/retain the Ashes over there, because people don’t realise how hard it is to win away from home these days.
“It is one helluva job.
“Since I got home, I’ve been able to sit down with my dad and mum, my brother and my partner and have a chat about it all, and it’s quite remarkable to think we’ve still got the urn and it’s ours until the next Ashes series at home.
“It was bloody special.”
Domain Test Series v Pakistan
Australia squad: TBC
Pakistan squad: Azhar Ali (c), Abid Ali, Asad Shafiq, Babar Azam, Haris Sohail, Imam-ul-Haq, Imran Khan Snr, Iftikhar Ahmed, Kashif Bhatti, Mohammad Abbas, Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Musa Khan, Naseem Shah, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Shan Masood, Yasir Shah.
Warm-up match: v Australia A, November 11-13, Perth Stadium (d/n)
Warm-up match: v Cricket Australia XI, November 15-16, WACA Ground
First Test: November 21-25, Gabba
Second Test: November 29 – December 3, Adelaide (d/n)