Friday 15 December 2017 / 03:22 PM

O’KEEFE: FROM AFTERTHOUGHT TO NATIONAL HERO

Several days after Australia’s most unexpected Test evisceration of a shell-shocked India, the enormity of the achievement still seems unfathomable. Most astoundingly, the superlative performance by spinner Stephen O’Keefe feels like a pipedream.

Ever since Australia wrapped the Test inside three days, I’ve had numerous friends, particularly in India, repeatedly ask essentially a rehash of the same question: How did O’Keefe do that?

Honestly, I still don’t have too many clear cut answers but have tried to bask in the greatest Australian bowling performance – which is backed up by his mesmerising figures – I’ve seen since I started following cricket more than 20 years ago.

No one could see this coming. O’Keefe, the perceived innocuous spinner, was inevitably going to be treated like a bowling machine by the belligerent Indian batsmen, particularly the mighty Virat Kohli who has doubled as a cricket superhero in recent times.

But it was O’Keefe, the overlooked 32-year-old, who spearheaded Australia to a famous victory which rivals any in the nation’s proud cricket history. Somehow, with the Test lasting a mere three days, it was the supposedly staid O’Keefe making the red ball behave like a grenade. The vaunted Indian batsmen, acknowledged masters of the turning ball, had no answer for the left-armer who baffled through guile and accuracy rather than prodigious spin.

O’Keefe finished with the astounding figures of 12/70, the greatest Test figures by an overseas spinner in India. To say he produced a knock off of Shane Warne is to underplay his wizardry; O’Keefe surpassed even Warne’s greatest ever figures.

The New South Welshman shone on a pitch which turned wickedly but, conversely, O’Keefe spun the ball less prodigiously than his Indian counterparts and spin comrade Nathan Lyon, who is usually a mild turner of the ball.

In a strange quirk, O’Keefe’s lack of innate wicked turn proved a blessing. The other spinners repeatedly produced unplayable deliveries which proved just that – batsmen were unable to get near the ball. Conversely, O’Keefe was getting just enough assistance from the pitch to complement his highly accurate bowling, his best characteristic.

Truth be told, few people in Australia thought O’Keefe was capable of conjuring this type of match-winning performance. His perception was of being a stabilising presence rather than game-breaker. He could bowl flat and defensively but apparently unable to grab a game by the throat. O’Keefe, an experienced campaigner, could do a lot of things well but was not deemed capable of breaking apart a batting line-up.

O’Keefe was often overlooked as Australian selectors went in other directions and were tempted by sleeker options, particularly those considered the ‘new Warne’ – usually a flamboyant spinner with blonde flowing locks. Despite a stellar First-Class average, hovering around the low-mid 20s, O’Keefe didn’t make his Test debut until Australia’s ill-fated tour of the UAE in late 2014, where the Pakistani batsmen ran rampant.

It appeared O’Keefe’s journeyman career was destined to lead nowhere. He had the misfortunate of playing in the SCG Test in 2016 against the West Indies, which was the most rain affected Test in Australia for decades. After starring early, O’Keefe broke down in the first Test in Sri Lanka several months later. When he returned to Australia, O’Keefe was embroiled in controversy after being involved in a liquor fuelled quarrel in a Sydney bar.

Undoubtedly, he had reached a delicate juncture of a Test career which had never shifted out of first gear. He received a hefty fine, was given a severe rebuke from Australian cricket chiefs and, wisely, swore off the booze.

Six months later, O’Keefe is an unexpected national hero having guided Australia to their best Test win in two decades. If this was a Hollywood script, it would seem too clichéd.  Now, all eyes will be on him to see if he can replicate his stunning achievements in Pune. O’Keefe faces a new set of challenges and pressure; it will be intriguing to see how he responds.

Whatever happens, Stephen O’Keefe will never be an afterthought again.

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About the author

Tristan Lavalette

Tristan is a freelance journalist based in Perth. He has written for The Guardian, ESPN and Yahoo Sports. Previously he was a newspaper journalist for almost a decade.

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