The riddle of Steve O’Keefe

Paul Potter Roar Guru

By Paul Potter, Paul Potter is a Roar Guru

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43 Have your say

    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.

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    The Crowd Says (43)

    • January 10th 2017 @ 9:12am
      Basil said | January 10th 2017 @ 9:12am | ! Report

      You miss the point….Warne said that he’s a white ball specialist, so that makes him a white ball specialist.

      • January 10th 2017 @ 3:00pm
        Paul Potter said | January 10th 2017 @ 3:00pm | ! Report

        Credibility through repetition eh? Not the worst way of putting it.

        • January 10th 2017 @ 3:07pm
          Paul Potter said | January 10th 2017 @ 3:07pm | ! Report

          Through repetition of that particular argument I mean.

    • January 10th 2017 @ 9:36am
      Aransan said | January 10th 2017 @ 9:36am | ! Report

      I don’t have a problem with SOK being recognised as Australia’s second best spinner, then there is no need to undermine Lyon. I will accept that SOK could be Australia’s safest option on the sub-continent as Lyon needs some bounce in the pitches.

      • January 10th 2017 @ 2:59pm
        Paul Potter said | January 10th 2017 @ 2:59pm | ! Report

        Both Lyon and O’Keefe encourage good selection policy. Considering the merry-go-round after Warne’s retirement, it is certainly not something to be taken for granted.

      • January 10th 2017 @ 5:21pm
        twodogs said | January 10th 2017 @ 5:21pm | ! Report

        Actually he is Australia’s best spinner based on figures, with a handy batting average also.
        There’s only one problem in comparing these two – Lyon has the luxury of 56? more tests to choose from. I’m sure SOK would leave Lyon in his wake if the test cricket sample size was closer to parity, for based on 1st class figures SOK’S bowling average is ten better. Yes, that is TEN better. One has got to ask – WTF are the selectors missing?

        • January 10th 2017 @ 9:45pm
          Paul Potter said | January 10th 2017 @ 9:45pm | ! Report

          We don’t know anything for a fact. For example, it could prove that Australian batsmen have an unusually major problem at facing left-arm orthodox. But yes, if SOK bowls better than Lyon in India (and Bangladesh), then he deserves to switch places with Lyon in the pecking order. But the selectors haven’t screwed up by having faith in Lyon. He hasn’t done them too badly thus far.

          • January 10th 2017 @ 11:14pm
            twodogs said | January 10th 2017 @ 11:14pm | ! Report

            True Pottsy. But geez, the crowds bought a few wickets for him lately.?

            • January 11th 2017 @ 3:30pm
              Paul Potter said | January 11th 2017 @ 3:30pm | ! Report

              Maybe, but he’s still had to bowl the ball.

          • January 13th 2017 @ 10:49am
            Armchair Expert said | January 13th 2017 @ 10:49am | ! Report

            If SOK ends up overtaking Lyon as the Australian spinner after this tour and ends up with a test bowling average under 30 and a batting average over 25, it will pretty much mean the selectors have screwed up for the last 6 years and plenty of people will end up with egg on their face.

            • January 13th 2017 @ 11:21am
              Aransan said | January 13th 2017 @ 11:21am | ! Report

              You can’t say the selectors have screwed up when they have selected a bowler who has taken over 200 test wickets. If SOK is as good as his supporters say he is then he should have an excellent tour of the sub-continent but that won’t necessarily make him Australia’s best spinner in other conditions. I wish him the best but his body will need to stand up and he will need to take wickets apart from his bowling average.

              • January 13th 2017 @ 11:50am
                Paul Potter said | January 13th 2017 @ 11:50am | ! Report

                Agree with much of this. One thing I would say is that how we define excellent is dependent on other people – for example, he could provide plenty of catching opportunities, but if those catches are not taken, the opportunities he caused would not be shown on the scorecard.

                “he will need to take wickets apart from his bowling average.”

                Don’t quite understand this. How do you decouple wickets from a bowling average? Isn’t that impossible?

              • January 13th 2017 @ 1:14pm
                Aransan said | January 13th 2017 @ 1:14pm | ! Report

                For a bowler, his average is taken to be the number of runs scored against him by the number of wickets he has taken. Two other averages are runs per over (which I believe SOK excels at) and strike rate (balls per wicket). In the last test the statistics that were important on the last day were wickets taken and strike rate — the team was able to sacrifice runs scored against them in order to take wickets. In normal conditions I believe Lyon will be more successful as an attacking bowler than SOK and Smith obviously thought the same way in bowling Lyon more than SOK.

              • January 13th 2017 @ 1:19pm
                Paul Potter said | January 13th 2017 @ 1:19pm | ! Report

                Fair enough. I thought you meant something strange I’d never heard of – must have misread your initial comment – sorry about that. I get the feeling Smith perceives them the same way you say he does.

            • January 13th 2017 @ 11:47am
              Paul Potter said | January 13th 2017 @ 11:47am | ! Report

              The only way you can believe that is by extrapolating from that success that he would have been as successful earlier based on Sheffield Shield cricket. It is a hypothetical and, given the lower standard of Shield cricket compared to international cricket, not an overly compelling one.

    • January 10th 2017 @ 9:47am
      bearfax said | January 10th 2017 @ 9:47am | ! Report

      I love the criticism of O’Keefe. The put downs. The claims he bores batsmen to death. That he doesnt really spin the ball. Then I look at his first class averages, not just this year but consistently for the past 5 years. I look at his efforts in test cricket opposite the much loved and adored Lyon. And I laugh. As I’ve always said. Perceptions are a poor way of determining the value of a player. Look at the results. That tells you the players value.

      • January 10th 2017 @ 10:24am
        jameswm said | January 10th 2017 @ 10:24am | ! Report

        I remember a captain I had playing grade. I was an accurate medium pacer who could move the ball, but my stock delivery was an inswinger. I’d try some variation and the skipper would just tell me, “bore them to sleep”. Put the same ball in the same spot. Some will swing more, Some will hold up on the seam.

        Same for SOK. Some hit the smooth part of the ball and skid on. Some grip a bit. He varies his speed and bowls slower to tail enders. The length is usually good.

        This is my gripe with Lyon. He gets terrific drop and loop, and therefore often good bounce. However he is too often too full (and too fast), and played easily. As a spinner, length is the most important thing, and I dare say even more so in India.

        • January 10th 2017 @ 3:07pm
          Paul Potter said | January 10th 2017 @ 3:07pm | ! Report

          A similarity between Herath and SOK in that way, although obviously the former is a better bowler. As for Lyon, by the end of the last Indian tour, he had found that length. The trick is to start on that length from the first Test. He will probably go around the wicket more as well considering the greater turn on offer.

          • January 10th 2017 @ 9:48pm
            bearfax said | January 10th 2017 @ 9:48pm | ! Report

            I think Pottsy the claim that Hereath is a better bowler than SOK is merely your perception. We dont really know. Remember Hereath plays most of his cricket in a spin friendly environment on the sub continent yet his test average is only 28.12 and first class average 24.94. At this stage in an area that is far less friendly to spin SOK averages 23.68 which are superior figures to even Warne and Benaud. He is bringing his test average down every test now and is down to 32.78. Judging who is the better spin bowler will only be evidenced by their results after many tests being played, not by perceptions

            • January 10th 2017 @ 9:59pm
              Paul Potter said | January 10th 2017 @ 9:59pm | ! Report

              You mention one variable – the conditions – but don’t forget the quality of the batsmen goes up as well. SOK hasn’t had the chance to prove just how good he can be in Test cricket over a long period of time yet, rightly or wrongly, so you’re right when you point out our lack of knowledge hinders us from making a definite judgement.

              It will be an interesting comparison by the end of their careers. Who knows how far Herath would have come in the Australian system? We can only guess.

              • January 11th 2017 @ 9:30am
                bearfax said | January 11th 2017 @ 9:30am | ! Report

                We will have to be patient. India could possibly be O’Keefe’s watershed series. You say you wonder what Herath would have been like in the Australian system. Who knows but then spin is more suited on the sub continent as we well know, and he does have the master spin bowler Murlitheran on tap, unlike O’Keefe, who Warne seems to dislike.

                The other question that should be asked is what O’Keefe’s test record would have been like if the selectors had they given him a chance 5 years ago. He’s easily been the most effective spin bowler in this country for that period but I suspect personality issues rather than talent determined selection…a very immature attitude if that was the case. Given his first class averages compared to other spin bowlers in this country now and in the past, would we be revering him as one of our great spin bowlers. Lots of ‘what ifs’ in this story.

              • January 13th 2017 @ 1:21pm
                Paul Potter said | January 13th 2017 @ 1:21pm | ! Report

                Hope not, in regards to why O’Keefe hasn’t been picked before. There are players in every generation who are unlucky.

      • January 10th 2017 @ 3:05pm
        Paul Potter said | January 10th 2017 @ 3:05pm | ! Report

        Stats alone don’t tell you everything, but they certainly shouldn’t be disregarded altogether because of a feeling. What I admire about SOK is what you get day in, day out, and then he looks to keep improving.

        In a different way SOK gets me to laugh. Whenever I call our left-arm offie that in club cricket, we always have a laugh while he strains to inform us how he’s different. The power of a perception!

        • January 10th 2017 @ 9:38pm
          bearfax said | January 10th 2017 @ 9:38pm | ! Report

          Pottsy, you are quite right. Stats dont tell everything. But in the end the game is about results, and how you achieve those is what is important. Perceptions can deceive. What looks good doesnt necessarily result in success. Stats are the only effective way of assessing a players worth in the end. To assess by any other means is far more likely to be flawed.

          • January 10th 2017 @ 9:47pm
            Paul Potter said | January 10th 2017 @ 9:47pm | ! Report

            To adopt that well known saying, trust but verify. Trust in the statistics, but verify that there’s no major problem through as much video as you can find. But agree strongly with your post otherwise. Gut feels are fraught with danger.

      • January 10th 2017 @ 5:08pm
        twodogs said | January 10th 2017 @ 5:08pm | ! Report

        Hi Bear, SOK has first class credentials many a fast bowler would dream of. If sok was a leggie he’d be 1st in with his figures, and we wouldn’t be talking about the GOAT because he would’ve still been a greenkeeper. But somewhere between Lyons argument and Okeefes, lies the truth and India may well tell it.
        One thing is certain – Lyon loves and thrives on crowd support and he won’t get it over there, while okeefe probably doesn’t give a shite because he has barely had a crowd watch him in shield anyway. Good fortune for both. May the best man prosper.

    • January 10th 2017 @ 4:50pm
      matth said | January 10th 2017 @ 4:50pm | ! Report

      Interestingly, One Glenn McGrath was often accused of being boring and nothing special, but he just suffocated batsmen due to his accuracy. Remember you only have to move the ball half a bat width to get an edge.

      • January 10th 2017 @ 9:33pm
        Paul Potter said | January 10th 2017 @ 9:33pm | ! Report

        Quite right. You can only make the most of your strengths, not the strengths other people wish you have.

    • January 10th 2017 @ 5:25pm
      Adrian said | January 10th 2017 @ 5:25pm | ! Report

      I am not sure which of Lyon or O’Keefe is a better option for India, but I know that we should pick both and let them fight it out. We probably shouldn’t play both in the same test XI, given how well India play spin, but both should play. Lyon for his test experience and knowing that when he sucks he really sucks, and O’Keefe for his overall first class experience and knowing how to get a wicket in the most unfavourable of conditions. I’d probably lean towards O’Keefe, because he looks more likely to get well-set batsmen out who know how to play spin, and because I remember all too well all of the times when Lyon played in a test match and didn’t bowl, or went for heaps and either didn’t take a wicket or took a token tailender. But the funny thing about Lyon is that every time he has stunk so badly he should be dropped, somehow suddenly he comes back. Just a few weeks ago he should have been dropped, and would have been if not for O’Keefe’s untimely injury, yet since then he’s actually been good again, or at least not terrible. What we do know, though, is that we shouldn’t be taking anyone other than these two, no Zampa, Swepson, Maxwell or especially Agar, and not weird selections like Turner or Fawad Ahmed either. But in Lyon and O’Keefe I am quietly confident that we have the right two, and leave it up to form and hunches as to which one plays in which test.

      • January 10th 2017 @ 9:37pm
        Paul Potter said | January 10th 2017 @ 9:37pm | ! Report

        I reckon they’ll both play together, and the call on who will be the sole spinner will have revealed itself by the time they make it back to Australia. One thing I will say about your criticism of Lyon getting out a “token tailender” is that Michael Clarke was sick of the roulette wheel of spinners post-Warne, wanted to stick with the same one, and wanted to build up Lyon’s confidence to achieve that end. You still have to get rid of the tail.

        • January 13th 2017 @ 11:10am
          Armchair Expert said | January 13th 2017 @ 11:10am | ! Report

          Clarke and co also rated Doherty and Beer better than SOK, which turned out the be 2 of the biggest selection screwups in Australian cricket history.

          • January 13th 2017 @ 12:11pm
            Paul Potter said | January 13th 2017 @ 12:11pm | ! Report

            In Australian cricket history? Crikey! That’s a big call.

            The post-Warne spinners are collectively one of the most sobering selection tales in Australian cricket history, and hopefully the lessons are remembered when Australia has to replace a great spinner again. Picking out two spinners and one captain in particular is to see only part of the story.

    • January 11th 2017 @ 1:31am
      jarijari said | January 11th 2017 @ 1:31am | ! Report

      Interesting figures, Pottsy. Only guessing, but his poor form in domestic one-dayers may be partly due to bowling on Sydney pitches in the spring that don’t seem conducive to turn, like Drummoyne and North Sydney. Do think he’s a better chance than Lyon of getting wickets in India. How many is the salient question.

      • January 11th 2017 @ 10:34am
        Paul Potter said | January 11th 2017 @ 10:34am | ! Report

        Interesting though Jarijari. I hadn’t really thought about how O’Keefe’s figures might have got that way, having been focused on the other side of the equation. But you’re right, it isn’t an easy task for spinners in the current Matador Cup at times.

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