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Steve O’Keefe probably saw India tour as the last opportunity, says junior coach

Steve O’Keefe’s years of toil in Australian domestic cricket and his sense of urgency to make an impact made a difference.

cricket Updated: Feb 26, 2017 23:34 IST
Sanjjeev K Samyal
Australia cricket team players applaud Steve O'Keefe’s match-winning performance in the first Test against India cricket team in Pune.
Australia cricket team players applaud Steve O'Keefe’s match-winning performance in the first Test against India cricket team in Pune. (AFP)

Australia spinner Steve O’Keefe has outshone everyone in the opening Test in Pune, including the world’s top bowler, Ravichandran Ashwin, bowling the visitors to a stunning 333-run win inside three days in Pune.

However, as a junior cricketer Steve O’Keefewas not one who could be spotted easily in the crowd. In fact, former Australia left-arm spinner Murray Bennett, who coached him in his youth, saw him more as a batsman.

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“I did a fair bit of coaching with Steve when he was only a young man, when he was in the under-19s, and during his early days with the New South Wales state squad; when he was starting to develop as a spin bowler.

EARLY BATTING PROMISE

“From what I remember of him then, he had a good shape in his bowling and was a keen listener and learner, (but) at that stage he was a better batsman than a bowler. But over the years he had developed and his bowling is a stronger part of his game. He is a hard worker,” Bennett told Hindustan Times over the phone.

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“I have followed his career with interest, so I am delighted for the game that he had.”

BETTER THAN WARNE

Not many spinners come to India and dominate the Indian batsmen. The great Shane Warne will vouch for that.

For all his success, Warne cannot claim to have dominated a game in this manner in his three Test tours to India. And, after O’Keefe’s spectacular success in the series opener, the question being asked is whether the Australian selection process erred in spotting his talent.

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He is 32 and the Pune game was only his fifth Test -- coming in his fifth series.

In fact, it was only from the last season that the Australian selectors started treasuring O’Keefe’s skills. The years of grind in domestic cricket, having made his first-class debut in 2005, had finally started to pay off.

However, everything has changed. On Saturday, O’Keefe finished with a match haul of 12 for 70, the best by a visiting spinner in India.

GRABBING THE CHANCE

Putting things in perspective, Bennett, who is more known for his work as a specialist spin bowling coach with New South Wales, the spin centre of Australia, than his playing career, says rarely does Australia pick more than one spinner, and after Warne, the first-choice has been Nathan Lyon.

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“He is a good tribesman and has played the game a long time. He has some good success with New South Wales in recent seasons, (but) I think a lot of wickets in Australia are not spin-friendly these days.”

The result is not entirely unexpected. For this series, O’Keefe has worked with single-mindedness, sacrificing the lure of the Twenty20 Big Bash League to focus on the series, maintaining a disciplined approach by doing things like staying alcohol-free. And it has paid dividends.

“He probably saw this as the last opportunity to be successful in the Australian side,” observes Bennett.

BEAUTY TO VIRAT

“Nathan Lyon has established himself as the No1 spinner and Australia doesn’t play two spinners too often, so he would have thought it is his last chance. He would have seen it as a great opportunity to have some success and make some contribution at the Test level and I am very pleased for him that he has got his opportunity on the big stage in India.

“The delivery he got Virat Kohli out with was a beauty,” he said, referring to the India skipper having his off-stump knocked back while shouldering arms.

O’Keefe came into the Pune game as a virtual unknown. However, to be taken seriously, the challenge will be to build on this performance going ahead in the series.

“He is a pretty experienced player (at first-class level), (after Pune) he would believe in himself much more and he will be tougher now.

He has got a fair bit of strong self-belief and this game will help him throughout the series. He can use this as a platform for the rest of the series.”