WHEN Nathan Lyon boarded a flight to Colombo via Singapore in late August 2011 he was a virtual unknown. Since that foray into international cricket, and with a neat 50 Test wickets now 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 groundskeeping assistant, suspected it would in this second Test of wild contrasts. The picture 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 A.B. de Villiers and Francois du Plessis were producing late on Sunday afternoon.
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Aussies eye Test victory
After a strong showing at Adelaide Oval sees the Aussies dominate Proteas, a victory is on the horizon for the final day of the Test.
Given a formidable victory target of 430 runs, 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.
At stumps they were ambling along at a snail's pace, prodding or padding 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, 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, though, and that is where Lyon comes in.
At 25 and five days on Sunday he became the youngest off-spinner to acquire a half-century of Test scalps for Australia and, on a strip increasingly suiting him, will hope to pick up more 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 ''Jeff'', he appears more comfortable in his shoes by the day.
Lyon sat out the Perth Test last summer, as Clarke opted for four quicks against India, but he could well play at the WACA Ground in the series-determining match from Friday, particularly if vice-captain Shane Watson is deemed fit to add bowling support.
On Sunday, Lyon played a key role as South Africa, with four sessions to survive, slumped to 4-45 and in danger of being rolled in an afternoon. He took 2-15 in 15 overs, prompting Hashim Amla to edge to Clarke, who fumbled but completed the catch at slip, and then sending Jacques Rudolph on his way for a fourth time in four attempts in this series. Ashley Mallett predicted that Lyon might do a Daryll Cullinan on Rudolph and he was dead 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 the 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 here. It was also a big dent to their aspirations of a draw. When Peter Siddle bowled the other opener, Alviro Petersen, for 24, the foot was on the world No.1's throat.
Their advantage had been set up in the morning by Hussey's mature and important 54, Clarke's 38 and late-order mischief from James Pattinson, who is unable to bowl the rest of the summer but said farewell to the season with 29 not out with the bat, giving him an average of 71 for the match. Hilfenhaus's 18 from 19 was also nuisance value, and Clarke declared, at 8-267, just after poor leg-spinner Imran Tahir, with match figures of 0-260, clocked up the worst return by a bowler 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 a downcast Tahir. ''It's never good seeing a quality player have situations like that. But he's a very resilient person, he's a tough guy, he's got a lot of confidence in his ability.
''Obviously he's got some things to work on and some things to think about. But 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 and moves forward and improves as much as he possibly can.''