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Match Analysis

O'Keefe chooses the big stage to defy beliefs

In the past, Steve O'Keefe has dismissed Kevin Pietersen, Virat Kohli, and many more in first-class cricket. Yet Australia have consistently found reasons not to pick him

Steve O'Keefe is thrilled after taking a wicket, India v Australia, 1st Test, Pune, 2nd day, February 24, 2017

Despite an impressive record in first-class cricket, Australia's selectors have often overlooked O'Keefe  •  AFP

"He doesn't spin it enough". "He's a white-ball bowler". "His best ball isn't anything special". "He's at best a second spinner who bats a little." "Consistent, but nothing special." "He needs to grow a foot taller and bowl a doosra".
Steve O'Keefe has heard this kind of talk his whole career. He made his debut in first-class cricket in 2005; he played his second game in 2009. In Australia's post-Warne era, O'Keefe didn't spin it enough, he wasn't a legspinner, and there was nothing x-factor about him. The poor guy was just superb at consistently bowling in the same spot and taking wickets at a lower rate than any other modern spinner.
So it looked like his best chance was to grow a foot taller, rip the ball sideways, be more dominant with the bat, and learn to bowl a doosra.
The problem was, he found the doosra too difficult, so he just stuck with what worked for him. When he took wickets, he often made the joke he had burgled a few.


When O'Keefe was named in the Australian touring squad to India, he made a big decision. Part of the Sydney Sixers, who were on their way to the finals of the Big Bash League, he decided - and Cricket Australia agreed - that he should be rested from the tournament. It was a big call at the time, and it became a bigger one when his team played in the Big Bash final.
But O'Keefe has been trying to break into the Australian team since his first international game in 2010 when he played a neutral T20I against Pakistan. To become the player he has always wanted to be, he needed to make this big call.
Those sacrifices seemed to be working when he played for Manly-Warringah against Campbelltown-Camden and took 9 for 54 off 29.5 overs, and also took the catch of the wicket he didn't take, in true Richard Hadlee style.
That wasn't the only thing O'Keefe did to prepare. The former teacher has worked with Muttiah Muralitharan and Terry Jenner (who said he bowled blancmanges). But, before this series, he also worked with Monty Panesar, talked to Rangana Herath and Daniel Vettori, before then having Cricket Australia hire Tamil Nadu allrounder Sridharan Sriram as a consultant for this series.
It was with Sriram who he bowled in the lunch session on day one. While others have been ignoring him or writing him off, he's been improving and readying himself.


Shane Warne was quite open on the cricket this morning; Steve O'Keefe wasn't his first choice. Mitchell Swepson, the young legspinner was. And even as his second choice, he had Ashton Agar. And really if he had the choice, it's doubtful Warne would have had O'Keefe as his third or fourth. At one stage, O'Keefe spun a ball, and Warne joked it must have hit a rock. In large part because he isn't one of Warne's boys. Not part of the suck-up club, not a legspinner or Victorian, O'Keefe is his own man.
When O'Keefe was picked, Warne said he was a "safety option", and also said, "I think O'Keefe is more of a white-ball specialist. I don't think he's a red-ball player. I know he bowls very economically, and he's a good cricketer but I think he's a lot better suited to white-ball cricket." This was what we now call an alternative fact.
O'Keefe has 225 wickets in first-class cricket at 23.81. His List A average is over 55. O'Keefe also has a better Shield bowling average than Warne's and, as of today, better figures in India. O'Keefe must have hit a lot of stones in his career.


When O'Keefe finally got his shot in Test cricket, it didn't go brilliantly; in the heat of Dubai, he bowled 57 overs taking 4 for 219 for the match. It was two years before his next Test, against West Indies in Sydney, and it was rained off.
When it comes to bad luck, O'Keefe has been a magnet. After destroying a Sri Lanka XI in a tour game, he then pulled his hamstring when, according to Steven Smith, he was looking like taking a wicket every over. At the start of this Australian summer, he received a finger injury. Before the Adelaide Test against South Africa, he injured his calf. And that doesn't even include his self-imposed alcohol ban after a drunken incident.
And so, for his first full tour, when it was quite clear he was going to be relied upon, he has to turn up in India. The Times of India ran a story about the mountain that Nathan Lyon and O'Keefe had to climb before this series. Since 2013, Indian spinners have taken 281 wickets at home, while the visiting spinners have 151. Ashwin, on his own, has 139.
O'Keefe might have taken six wickets against India A in 2015, including the wicket of Virat Kohli, but the odds were more stacked towards him adding to the list, or pile, that includes Brad Hogg, Gavin Robertson, Cameron White and Jason Krejza. Australian spinners with little experience sent to India to fail.


In 2010-11 in Hobart, England XI played Australia A. It was at the height of the 'Kevin Pietersen struggles against left-arm finger spin' era. And, in that game, Pietersen received a well-pitched ball around off stump, which straightened and bowled him. It was a handy ball. It wasn't flashy, just good, and Pietersen was all around it.
Because of that ball, and the thought about Pietersen against left-arm spin, Australia picked a left-arm finger spinner for the Gabba Test. They picked Xavier Doherty. O'Keefe had bowled the ball.
It seems that even when it is inspired by his own work, the Australian team has looked for reasons not to pick O'Keefe. His era has had players like Michael Beer, Doherty, Agar, and Glenn Maxwell, while O'Keefe has struggled for games with a vastly better record.
His first-class stats are remarkable from a distance, but not quite as pretty in close-up. In his career, he has taken more than 30 wickets in a Shield season only once. But that season, 2013-14, he was the Shield's leading wicket-taker with 41.
O'Keefe's biggest problem seems to have been that he doesn't bowl much at all. Lyon has had five summers where he has bowled more than 2000 balls, O'Keefe, due to injury and occasionally form, has never had a season where he bowled that many. The year he took 41 wickets was the only season he got close. What that means is that there has never been that huge pressure to pick him.
He has two ten-wicket hauls and eight five-wicket hauls in first-class, which is also splendid, and it's a far better haul record than Lyon has managed. But Lyon got there first. And Lyon has done it in Tests. So while O'Keefe has a first-class average of 14 less than Lyon's, he has never been seen as a potential replacement, just an occasional supplement. His good record is more a curiosity to cricket nuffies than anything of substantial weight.
It's rare anyone ever demands that O'Keefe is in the team; at most, he gets the question, "with his record, why doesn't he play more?" That he can bat - his first-class batting average is almost identical to Mitchell Marsh's - has never swayed anyone significantly. If O'Keefe had this record and was a legspinner, he'd be starring in dandruff ads and inking his first autobiography. Instead, he is a left-arm fingerspinner with five Tests at the age of 32.


When O'Keefe opened the bowling, there was concern from many that he was simply doing that job because Smith had seen Kohli do it with Ashwin. Australia were making a grave error, they thought, in not using Josh Hazlewood with the new ball. But Australia had a plan to scuff up one side of the ball early and O'Keefe was the perfect man to do that. When Hazlewood came on with the scuffed ball, he bowled superbly and made the first breakthrough.
Just before lunch, Lyon was bowling beautifully, ripping the ball, bowling quickly, and looking like he was about to take a big haul. But he was replaced by O'Keefe, who wasn't bowling well, who wasn't creating the chances that Lyon was. Even O'Keefe referred to his bowling before lunch as ordinary.
So before the lunch break ended, O'Keefe and Sriram went out on the field early to work on his bowling. His first two overs after the break were fine, but then he changed ends, bowling from the same end as Ravindra Jadeja. His figures at that point were 9-1-30-0.
Then his second ball back, KL Rahul ran down the track and tried to end him. Instead, he gave O'Keefe a wicket and himself an injury. It was a significant breakthrough, India were trying to dominate, and the game was about to lurch one way or another.
The next ball Ashwin drove towards mid-off for a single. Then a full ball that straightened, Ajinkya Rahane played across it and edged to second slip. Then a dot ball. Then a quick ball just outside off, just slightly straightened, and Saha got an edge. Four overs later, Jayant Yadav launched his front leg at a ball similar to Saha's, but it turned more, and he dragged his foot, and Wade took the bails off.
Later on, Jadeja would decide that O'Keefe had to go, buthe succeeded only in sending himself off the ground, after finding Mitchell Starc in the deep. Big Umesh also felt like he had to hit out, and took a huge swing at a ball to be caught at slip.
According to Anil Kumble, O'Keefe had been "steady, consistent and in the right areas".  And with that simplicity, O'Keefe had six for five from his last 25 balls after changing ends. O'Keefe hadn't spun it a long way, he wasn't suddenly taller, there was no doosra, he had a red ball in his hand and he was simply consistent.
It's just that today, it was special, and today, he burgled more than a few. And he did it on the biggest stage on which he's ever been allowed to play.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber