In the January of 2020 the world was a different place. The Australian men’s Test team had burned through a home summer against Pakistan and New Zealand – double centuries, triple centuries, innings victories, the works. Nathan Lyon, Australia’s off-spinner, finished it in style in the Sydney Test. Five wickets in the first innings, five in the second, 10 for 113 in the match, 27 for the season, and up to 390 in his career. Just around the corner lay 400, that huge milestone that at the time had only been passed by 15 players.

Then of course the world was turned upside down. Australia’s next Test engagement against Bangladesh was cancelled, a place where Lyon took 22 wickets in two matches on his previous visit. Not in any overseas T20 leagues, he spent the winter cooling his heels. He played three Sheffield Shield matches towards the end of the year with plenty of overs returning nine wickets for 392 runs. Then it was into a series against India, the specialists against spin.

Abruptly, the charge to 390 stalled. In Adelaide he got one in the first innings and didn’t get to bowl in the second, as the fast bowlers tore through India for 36 runs. In Melbourne he cleaned up the tail for 3 for 72, but featured less than three overs second time around as India strolled a small chase to win. Sydney was where things really came apart: 31 fruitless overs in the first innings, even as India made a modest score, then 41 overs in the fourth innings, bowling through the final day but striking only twice, allowing India to escape with a draw.

That meant 396 wickets coming into the series finale in Brisbane. One more in the first innings, tricking the opener Rohit Sharma in flight. Then once more the fourth innings, a big lead, an expected victory, and the tables being turned, India making 329 to win. Lyon got a slip catch and a chop-on, 31 overs for two wickets, a series loss, and a career tally of 399.

The year to follow panned out like the one before. Australia cited the pandemic in cancelling three Tests in South Africa, not Lyon’s happiest hunting ground but another opportunity lost. No other tours were scheduled in its place. Another winter of sitting around, sorting the button box by colour and size, watching macrame tutorials on YouTube. It’s not as though Lyon had spent a lot of actual Test matches with 399 hanging over him, but he had spent nearly two years.

So the number was there when the Ashes began in Brisbane – not quite a monkey on the back, but perhaps a lemur on the shoulder. It grew more simian on the first day – a day for the fast bowlers, yes, with cloud cover and English wickets tumbling in the gloom, but also a sufficiently limp batting performance that a spinner bowling nine overs would expect to pick up at least one frazzled shot to a catcher. No such luck. None for 21.

Nathan Lyon
Nathan Lyon applauded from the field after reaching 400 Test wickets. Photograph: Chris Hyde/Getty Images

As the third innings unfolded, the monkey started combing through the stubble on Lyon’s head for snacks. The first two wickets fell, but not to the spinner. He was brought on to target Dawid Malan, turning the ball sharply across the left-hander but never taking the edge. Then Malan settled in for the rest of the day with Joe Root.

The pair cut and pulled Lyon when he dropped short, came down the wicket to drive him, swept him off a length. He was bowling faster, flatter, than his best. Marnus Labuschagne’s part-time spin came on. Lyon finished the day with no wicket for 69, having bowled 24 overs. Well after the fact, the television cameras realised that a ball that had bounced back to the bowler off Malan’s pad had also hit the batter’s glove on the way. It would have been wicket 400, but there was barely an appeal.

And so onto day four. The partnership up to 162, in the fourth over of the morning. The flight was there, the loop, some turn. An inside edge into Malan’s ankle, a deflection to the catcher under the batter’s nose. Monkey returned to the wild, ball held aloft to the crowd from among the white-clad throng. Just because numbers are arbitrary doesn’t mean they don’t mean anything.

From there, things quickly broke Lyon’s way. Ollie Pope charged and swiped towards cover only to get an edge to slip. England were still behind Australia’s first innings on runs. Lyon had a break as the visitors kept sliding. He returned for Ollie Robinson to play a reverse sweep to backward point, then for Mark Wood to miss a straight ball aimed at his stumps. The stagnation of 399 had quickly given way to 403, Lyon now one of 17 in that club having been preceded to it by his Indian peer Ravichandran Ashwin.

With four Tests to go, it is time to start towards the next number. For a spin bowler having just turned 34, the ambitions on that front need not be modest. The last two years may have been dry, but in Brisbane, the rains can come suddenly and fast.

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