India vs Australia, 1st Test: Steve O'Keefe has gone from backup to lead spinner for visitors with Pune six-for
O'Keefe was merely expected to perform a holding role on this tour but in the space of a few short overs he turned himself into Australia's most potent weapon.
On a nightmarish second day of the first Test for India in Pune the much vaunted batting line up of the home side was torn apart by the most unlikeliest of foes - four-Test rookie Steve O'Keefe.
Left-arm spinner O'Keefe was selected in Australia's squad to provide support to number one spinner Nathan Lyon and fast bowlers Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc, but no one expected the New South Welshman to become the chief destroyer of batsmen lauded for their ability to play the turning ball.
Using a helpful surface to great effect O'Keefe sparked an almighty collapse in which India lost their last seven wickets for just 11 runs. His first wicket – that of KL Rahul, caught at long off by David Warner for 64 – was the start of a scarcely believable spell of six for five. After an uninspiring opening spell from the pavilion end in which he shared the new ball with Starc, O'Keefe managed to set the game up for Australia when he was brought back from the Hill end.
India will sit back and wonder how they managed to implode against an opponent who they would not have deemed much of a threat when looking at the make-up of the tourist's bowling attack. While the pitch was offering considerable turn for all the spinners, credit must be given to O'Keefe for his nagging accuracy and just enough turn, which undid the Indians in much the same manner that Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann did in 2012.
Back in that series against England – India's last series defeat on home soil – Swann and Panesar outbowled their Indian counterparts on turning surfaces similar to the one dished up in Pune. The England spin duo managed to find the right pace to bowl at on those surfaces and O'Keefe seems to have learnt the lessons from fellow left-armer Panesar - now Australia's spin bowling consultant - to inflict similar carnage on the home side.
While Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja turned the ball past the outside edge with regularity in Australia's first innings, they failed to maintain the same accuracy and pressure as O'Keefe. The Indian spinners were left with exasperated expressions as they constantly beat the edge, almost turning the ball too far. O'Keefe, however, managed to bowl with enough guile and turn to deceive the batsmen in flight and length, and spun the ball just enough to claim the edge and take six wickets.
Day two in Pune was the greatest day in Steve O'Keefe's short Test career and it could also be the day that makes him as a Test cricketer. The 32-year-old was merely expected to perform a holding role on this tour but in the space of a few short overs he turned himself into Australia's most potent weapon.
O'Keefe has long been a leading performer in first class cricket with 225 wickets at 23.81 in generally unhelpful Australian conditions, although his home ground is the Sydney Cricket Ground, Australia's most spin-friendly surface.
Through the sheer weight of first class performances he has managed to force himself into Australia's Test squad as Lyon's backup, before taking on the starring role with his heroics in Pune. The left-arm tweaker made his Test debut against Pakistan in 2014, but with Australia rarely playing more than one spinner, opportunities have been limited.
Things got worse for O'Keefe when he was sent home injured after Australia's first Test loss to Sri Lanka in Pallekele in September 2016. Upon returning home to Australia O'Keefe was involved in a drunken argument with security outside a Manly pub and reprimanded by police and Cricket Australia. O'Keefe was fined $10,000 for his poor behaviour and required to undergo some counselling as part of his punishment.
Despite these setbacks and hurdles O'Keefe continued to be the best spinner in Australian domestic cricket and earned himself a spot in the touring party for the Border-Gavaskar series and both he and his teammates will be glad he did that as he has put Australia on the track to record their first win in India for over a decade.
Virat Kohli and the Indian team management would no doubt have done their homework on the Australian bowling attack. They spoke before the series about respecting their opponents even in conditions that would be alien to them. Most would have expected the main threat to come from Starc's pace and reverse swing, Hazlewood's accuracy and swing, or Lyon's turn and bounce, but it was the little-known O'Keefe who shocked everyone with a spell of high class spin bowling.
Before this Test India may not have known much about O'Keefe, but after Friday's spell he has ensured that he won't be forgotten in a hurry and shown he will pose a major threat throughout the series if the pitches continue to offer assistance to the spinners.
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