Steve O’Keefe is a far better spin option than leggie Mitchell Swepson, who is a chance to debut for Australia tomorrow in the third Test against New Zealand.
Swepson has had a good start to this Sheffield Shield season with 12 wickets at 27. Yet in the three years prior to that the Queenslander averaged 40 in first-class cricket and conceded a whopping four runs per over.
While Swepson has shown improvement in this Shield campaign, it is a small sample size which is less relevant than the three years of poor form that preceded it.
Bowling leg spin in the Shield is a heinously difficult task, which is why there have been so few even mildly successful wrist spinners in Australian domestic cricket in the 25 years I’ve followed it. Yet that pales in comparison to the challenge of bowling wrist spin at Test level.
Of the top 30 Test wicket-takers in the past decade there were nine finger spinners and only one wrist spinner – Pakistan’s Yasir Shah. Yasir is a vastly superior leggie to Swepson, yet even he has found Test cricket to be hard work.
While he dominates at home in the UAE, Yasir has averaged a hefty 38 on the road. His nightmare venue has been Australia, where he has been obliterated, averaging 89 from his five Tests.
The extreme difficulty of bowling wrist spin in Tests is underlined by the fact that every major Test nation bar Pakistan uses a finger spinner as their first-choice option. That’s because against elite Test batsmen spinners must be ceaselessly accurate. The precision required to build pressure against these high-quality strokemakers is very, very rare among wrist spinners.
Even mediocre finger spinners tend to be more accurate than good wrist spinners. And nowhere is precision more important for Test spinners than in Asia, which is where Australia tour next.
Swepson’s inclusion in the squad for the third Test against New Zealand suggests he’s the frontrunner to partner Lyon in Australia’s next Test series in Bangladesh, where the Aussies will almost certainly play two spinners.
With Bangladesh superstar Shakib Al Hasan to miss that contest, it is a golden chance for Australia to win their first series in Asia since 2011. But Bangladesh will remain dangerous, so for Australia to triumph they first and foremost will need to nail their selections.
As I stated above, in Asia being accurate is the single most important attribute for a spinner. Whereas in Australia spinners need to rip the ball hard to earn deceptive flight, sharp bounce and generous turn to be effective, in Asia the pitch does a lot more of the work.
The sharper turn and natural variation offered by Asian pitches means spinners don’t have to get heavy revolutions on the ball; they just need to hit the right area over and over again, with slight adjustments in pace and trajectory, and let the pitch play tricks. This is why Indian Ravi Jadeja and retired Sri Lankan Rangana Herath are so hugely successful in Asia despite struggling elsewhere.
Neither of those men possess challenging variations and neither gives the ball a big rip. Their strength is their ability to land the ball on a 50-cent piece at will while tinkering with their release points and flight. On Asian pitches they can bowl two identical balls but one turns and the other skids on straight. The batsman in this case has no ability to predict how these deliveries will behave.
By landing a massive volume of balls in the right area bowlers like Jadeja, Herath, Shakib and Ravi Ashwin maximise the advantage offered by this natural variation, whereas leg spinners spray the ball around the pitch too much to capitalise on that.
This is why Swepson is not nearly as appealing an option to play in Bangladesh as veteran O’Keefe, who was also the obvious choice to be in the squad for the SCG, his home ground. The 35-year-old is in hot form, with 14 wickets at 18 so far this Shield season.
Crucially O’Keefe has significant experience in Asia, having taken 28 wickets at 30 from his seven Tests there. With a very similar bowling style to Herath, he is tailor-made for Asian conditions. The New South Welshman doesn’t rip the ball or boast befuddling variations; he is just relentlessly accurate.
There is a popular narrative that O’Keefe’s Test career was ended by his offensive behaviour at the NSW Cricket awards night in April 2017. Yet he played for Australia in Bangladesh just five months later. If Cricket Australia were happy to pick him then, it makes no sense that he is not still Australia’s second-choice spinner.
Not only has he been excellent in his brief Test career, but O’Keefe also boasts a vastly superior Shield record than Swepson. The leggie has taken 95 wickets at 37 in the Shield compared to O’Keefe’s 208 wickets at 25. O’Keefe is more experienced, is better suited to bowling in Asia and has the superior short-term and long-term Shield form.
So why exactly is Swepson in Australia’s Test squad ahead of O’Keefe?