‘What he’s done in the last little while has been phenomenal.’
At a time of mind-numbing headlines around the world, it’s no surprise the first-class retirement of Steve O’Keefe happened without much fanfare this last week.
O’Keefe had been a rare sight in the baggy green over the last few years, and Australian sport is currently wobbling under the financial uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, meaning people’s attention is understandably elsewhere. But it would be unfair not to take a moment to acknowledge this wily left-arm spinner’s considerable impact on Australian cricket over the last decade, especially the Sheffield Shield.
Since first walking out in the baggy blue in November 2005, O’Keefe took 224 wickets for New South Wales at an average of 25 runs a wicket. To put that into perspective, of the 19 spinners to take 200 or more Shield wickets, O’Keefe has the best bowling average since South Australian spinner Ashley Mallett, who retired in 1981.
The Malaysian-born left-armer also took 35 scalps for Australia in nine Tests, including a memorable 12 for 70 in a match against India in 2017. He was also a plucky lower-order batsman.
Despite never being a big turner of the ball, on spinning pitches on the Indian subcontinent O’Keefe was used as a key foil for Nathan Lyon, often doing just enough with the ball to make a batsman play the wrong line. As a limited-overs containment bowler, he always made scoring runs incredibly hard, and as a lower-order batsman he also showed plenty of fight.
He will still play on for the Sydney Sixers, but Blues management have said they are looking to renew their spinner stocks and won’t offer him a new contract for the coming season. Speaking to the media via a Zoom press conference last Monday, the 35-year-old admitted he was disappointed in the decision but said he respected it.
It’s a testament to O’Keefe’s resourcefulness that he lasted this long in one of Australia’s stronger domestic sides, especially because, for all his reliability with the ball in hand, O’Keefe was involved in a few unpleasant incidents off the field.
In August 2016 after returning from a Test tour to Sri Lanka he was fined by Cricket Australia after engaging in abusive behaviour at a Manly pub. Then, less than a year later, he made “highly inappropriate comments” at a New South Wales cricket awards night and was fined $20,000.
He played only one more Test for Australia after that incident, and with Australia’s tour of Bangladesh predictably postponed in recent days, O’Keefe’s chance of a final hurrah in the baggy green was always looking unlikely.
Of course it’s hard to know what an athlete is really like away from the game, but having heard him speak in a number of interviews, O’Keefe strikes me as being strong-willed, competitive and a bit of a larrikin, even within the team environment. That may not have gone down well with everyone.
Without in any way excusing his behaviour, it’s important to remember that not every athlete is going to be a charmer all the time. There are a few exceptions: people like Roger Federer or Alyssa Healy come to mind. We love those athletes a little more, perhaps, because they are successful and they seem to behave brilliantly on the public stage without any effort.
For the most part athletes are just ordinary people with a unique talent trying to get the absolute maximum out of themselves no matter what it takes. Despite his mistakes over the years, no-one can deny Steve O’Keefe was a wonderful example of that.
And he certainly had a sense of humour, never missing a chance for self-deprecation. Even in his retirement announcement O’Keefe made light of his inability to spin the ball, quipping, “I am indebted to the fans, who supported my left-arm inswingers against their better judgement”.