WHEN Nathan Lyon boarded a flight to Colombo via Singapore in August of last year he was a virtual nobody. A little more than 18 months since that foray into international cricket, and with a neat 50 Test wickets in his collection, he can announce himself as a genuine match winner for Australia on his home track on Monday.
The Adelaide Oval strip is breaking up just as Lyon, its former assistant groundkeeper, suspected it would in this second Test of wild contrasts. The picture of Australia, via Michael Clarke, David Warner and Michael Hussey, hacking the South Africa attack apart on days one and two could not have been further removed from what AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis were up to on Sunday afternoon. Given a formidable 430 victory target the prefixed pair could hardly be blamed for setting their sights on grinding out a draw, even if it remains distant on the horizon with the Proteas resuming on the final day skating on thin ice at 4-77 and only Jacques Kallis, carrying a hamstring injury, to come before the tail.
As stumps they were ambling along at a pace that would hold up a snail. They prodded or padded up to everything directed at them as Clarke, saving his bullets for Monday, took the ball himself and handed it to other part-timers Rob Quiney, David Warner and even the extremely occasional Ricky Ponting.
Tedious, but with intent - to miraculously save an unwinnable match - de Villiers (12 from 101 balls) and du Plessis (19 from 74) put on 32 in 29 overs together and will set out to continue their obduracy as long as they can. They will surely be met with more stiff challenges than that thrown their way in their two-hour stand of stubbornness. And that is where Lyon comes in.
At 25 and five days he on Sunday became the youngest off-spinner to acquire a half-century of Test scalps for Australia and, on a strip increasingly suiting him, will fancy himself on Monday. He was pilloried for poor domestic form in the lead-up to this series, but improved in Brisbane and, via his stock off-break rather than his novelty alternative ball, he appears more comfortable by the day.
''He's copped a little bit of pressure here and there and he probably didn't start as well as he would have liked to in Shield cricket,'' said Australian fast bowler Peter Siddle.
''But I think the first two Tests he's shown how valuable he is to the side and this Test especially. He knows there is going to be a lot of work again tomorrow and I think he played that role well this afternoon. He stuck to his guns and he's going to have to hold up that end for most of the rest of this innings.''
On Sunday, Lyon was central as South Africa, with 4½ sessions to survive, slumped to 4-45. He took 2-15 in 15 overs, prompting Hashim Amla (17) to edge to Clarke, who fumbled but completed the catch at slip, and then sent Jacques Rudolph (three) on his way for a fourth time in four attempts. Ashley Mallett predicted that Lyon might do a Daryll Cullinan on the struggling Rudolph and he was right.
It was Ben Hilfenhaus, however, who gave Australia a crucial moral victory early in their bid to finish off South Africa. His removal of Proteas captain and first-innings century-maker Graeme Smith, caught for nought by Ponting facing his second ball, was a killer blow to any quixotic hopes South Africa had of winning.
They had all but been quashed anyway in the morning by Hussey (54), Clarke (38) and late-order mischief from James Pattinson, who is unable to bowl until next year because of a side strain but said farewell to the summer with 29 not out, giving him a batting average of 71 for the match. Hilfenhaus's 18 from 19 was also good nuisance value, and Clarke declared, at 8-267, just after poor leg-spinner Imran Tahir clocked up match figures of 0-260, the worst in Test history.
''Obviously there is going to have to be some sort of support for him because he's had a tough couple of days in Test cricket,'' Proteas assistant coach Russell Domingo said of Tahir. ''The players and the management will rally around him and try and make sure that he takes a lot of learning out of these couple of days.''
Morne Morkel was South Africa's best bowler for the Test with a total of eight wickets.
The story Stage is set for Lyon to complete his rise to the top first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.