SCG Stephen: Stephen O’Keefe has a good record at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Photo: Morne de KlerkThere is a story about Steve O’Keefe that sums up the years of indifference to him, and can only leave you shaking your head.
It’s said to have occurred during one of the numerous junctures in the recent history of the Australian team when the NSW spinner was the best performed slow bowler at domestic level but couldn’t get even the slightest of look-in for the national side.
According to the tale, someone who had O’Keefe’s interests in mind was discussing his continued exclusion with a leading official. The jist was pretty simple. Why can’t this bloke get a start?
The official replied that as far as he knew, O’Keefe was not out of the frame, supposedly adding, “He’s in the best three right-arm spinners in the country,” he said.
O’Keefe, of course, is actually a left-arm finger spinner and on pure statistics the best one in the land for many a season now.
At 31, he may now finally be about to play his first Test on home soil – he’s only featured in one at all, against Pakistan in the UAE in 2014 – against the West Indies from Sunday.
How many more he might have already played had he not been confusingly snubbed earlier in his career is the issue.
It’s tough to argue against Nathan Lyon having been the No.1 spinner for Australia for the past four years given his emergence from the blue as a genuine world-class player.
But there have been other opportunities, for positions in squads and in teams where Australia has picked two spinners, where he could mount a very sound argument for being wrongly overlooked.
The most mystifying episode, admittedly more glaring in retrospect, is how he could not find his way in front of Xavier Doherty and/or Glenn Maxwell on Australia’s ultimately disastrous tour of India in 2013.
There were others, from Michael Beer at the SCG in 2011 to Ashton Agar in England in 2013, where Australia rolled through a production line of post-Shane Warne spin options that O’Keefe could claim to have been unfairly leapfrogged by.
Over time there have been a range of reasons available on the rumour mill. He just bowls darts, some said. He’s too chippy, was another explanation thrown out there. Yet another was a personality clash with an influential figure in the Australian set-up. The clash was very much true, but it being a reason for him being overlooked was only ever a theory.
Whether his cause was further harmed, too, by his occasional bucking of the old-school maxim that you don’t question selectors is unknown, too.
O’Keefe, though, was never going to be someone who was just going to suck it up quietly and without enquiry.
To see him at a suburban Sheffield Shield ground, a Bankstown Oval or an Allan Border Field where you can hear every word from the fence, gives an indication that he is anything but the silent, outfield type. He’s that guy in every team, shouting encouragement to teammates and clapping enthusiastically before just about every ball.
He once lived in Sydney’s eastern suburbs with Steve Smith, so the Australian captain knows as well as anyone just what kind of character he is.
Which is all, of course, really a side issue when it comes to the Sydney Test.
O’Keefe is in the squad and, according to coach Darren Lehmann likely to be in the XI on Sunday, because of his output with the arm, not the mouth.
He’s not a sharp turner of the ball but his straight approach, attacking the stumps, has now reaped him 191 wickets for NSW at less than 25 in the 10 years since his Shield debut. A career batting average of 28.8 is also not too shabby.
Despite a looming appearance at the SCG, though, he’s not counting his chickens yet.
“It’s so tough to get that second spinning opportunity. It’s been 10 years in Australia since we’ve played two spinners and those two spinners were Warne and MacGill,” O’Keefe told Fairfax Radio on Thursday. “It’s a bit of a feather in my cap that they’re considering two spinners given the depth that we have in quicks, given the wickets around Australia are generally more conducive to playing that extra guy who can bowl 140kmh.
“We’ll wait and see if the selectors go down that path with the two spinners but I’m feeling pretty confident.”
Whatever the case, with his selection against Pakistan, the cancelled tour of Bangladesh and now his presence in Sydney, it seems those picking the Australian teams realise what arm he bowls with and that he does it very well.
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