The riddle of Steve O’Keefe

Paul Potter Roar Guru

By , Paul Potter is a Roar Guru

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    Are there two Steve O’Keefes?

    The reason I ask is that every time I’ve seen Steve O’Keefe with a white ball in his left hand, he hasn’t been as effective as when he has a red ball.

    In first-class cricket, he has 222 wickets at 23.68, with an economy rate of 2.52 and a strike rate of 56.2.

    If there was a leg-spinner in this country with similar numbers, there would be no need to praise him to the skies because his most uncritical supporters would probably demand that the skies praise him!

    Meanwhile, in List A cricket, O’Keefe has 29 wickets at 55.89, with an economy rate of 4.88.

    His more impressive record in T20 cricket is born out by the fact he has represented Australia in that format, but the last time he did that was in October 2011.

    But still there is a perception problem with his method when it comes to red-ball cricket. This is what Spiro Zavos said yesterday: “Maddinson is a slingy, non-spinning left-armer in the Steve O’Keefe manner. You would play O’Keefe if you wanted someone to bowl with this method.”

    Now, there’s someone from India who uses that very method successfully in India, but I just can’t think of his name. J-J-J-something? I’m sure it’ll come to me.

    Should India successfully reproduce the attack Carlos Braithwaite launched on O’Keefe in his first home Test on a much larger scale, a rethink may prove necessary.

    But in the meantime, the words “safe” and “accurate” should not be considered credible arguments against O’Keefe. For starters, they’re more appealing than “dangerous” and “inaccurate”.

    Second, the argument that O’Keefe is a “safety” option might be more convincing if that is how he has been used in his Test career.

    He has never been persisted with, and his body let him down in Sri Lanka just it looked like he would receive that curtesy from the selectors.

    O’Keefe is not a glorified Nic Maddinson.

    To portray him as such is to reduce him to a caricature without noting the substantial differences in accuracy and wicket-taking ability. But there’s a deeper question well worth looking at.

    Why do we rate the players that we rate?

    I believe the power of television plays an even bigger role in that than what we may imagine.

    To explain why, I first want to quote another authority – Sir Donald Bradman. Here Bradman outlines his ‘Ideal Eleven’ in The Art of Cricket:
    “Two recognised opening batsmen of whom one shall be a left-hander; three other batsmen of whom one at least should be a left-hander; one all-rounder; one wicket-keeper who is also a good bat; one fast bowler to open with the wind; one fast or medium-pace to open into the wind; one right-hand off-spinner; one left-hand orthodox first-finger spinner.”

    Now, you can argue with the theory. As the rest of the chapter shows, Bradman was more concerned with the idea. Unless an all-rounder is worth their place on at least one discipline alone, it is hard to justify their place in the team.

    Bradman acknowledged that a leg-spinner instead of a left-hand orthodox spinner was fine.

    By changing the starting premise however, we can acknowledge the equal value of every type of the four types of spinners: right-arm leg-spin, right-arm off-spin, left-arm orthodox and left-arm chinaman.

    We are less likely to demand that a left-arm orthodox spin bowler closer to the image of a right-arm wrist spin bowler than a right-arm off-spinner.

    This is where television comes into it, specifically the role it plays in how we rate cricketers.

    Look through the players of World Series Cricket and you’ll find pace and more pace.

    Ashley Mallett and Lance Gibbs hardly made it onto the park, and while Ray Bright and Derek Underwood often played, no one could seriously claim they were the stars of the show.

    Shane Warne bowled leg-spin with all the aggression of a fast bowler. I’ll get you and I’ll embarrass you, he told an opponent through his bowling.

    To say that he was televisual is like saying that chap Tchaikovsky was good at music; it’s an understatement.

    Australia’s love affair with leg-spin obviously goes much further back than Shane Warne. But television reinforced something that was already there, from every conceivable angle at every conceivable speed.

    By the time I watched my first overseas Ashes series in 2005, the influence of television on how I rated cricketers was already having a massive influence on me even though I didn’t realise it.

    Ashley Giles was boring. Surely, England had someone better than him?

    If Freddy Flintoff could have only been picked as a bowler in Test cricket, England would have been best served with a four-man pace attack, considering the quality of Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard, Simon Jones and Flintoff during that series.

    But Flintoff was a genuine all-rounder by the 2005 Ashes. England’s decision to show faith in Giles and pick five bowlers was handsomely rewarded at Trent Bridge, when Simon Jones went down with an injury.

    Though Giles was the most expensive of the bowlers, he took the crucial wickets of Justin Langer and Shane Warne as England’s remaining bowlers managed to keep Australia to a tiny, if scary, lead.

    England had gone with the best they had, and were rewarded for it.

    The loyalty to Giles was taken too far when he was picked ahead of Monty Panesar for the first two Tests of the next Ashes series, but at least that loyalty wasn’t based on how good Giles looked.

    When South Africa finally broke Australia’s unbeaten home run, their spinner was Paul Harris.

    Harris only took ten wickets, but eight of them were well-set top seven batsmen.

    Everyone’s attention may have been turned on South Africa’s quicks, but while the likes of Dale Steyn smashed the Australians to the carpet, it was Harris who kept sneakily pulling the rug from underneath the feet of Australia’s batsmen as they tried to get back up.

    Since Australia last won a Test in India, South Africa has won two Tests in India, and Harris was in the team for both. He wasn’t the difference – both innings wins were built on the back of massive runs and Steyn.

    But South Africa only learnt how to win in India after first learning how not to lose.

    They learnt how not to lose in Kanpur in 2004, where their team included Robin Petersen, a very similar bowler to Harris.

    While they lost the Test immediately after Kanpur, their respectable record in the tours that followed (prior to their most recent one) point to the value of the Kanpur experience.

    There’s only one Steve O’Keefe. Like or lump his style of bowling, but he’s proven himself to be Australia’s second best spinner.

    He might even help Australia learn how not to lose in India.