It’s not just batsmen that are enamoured of the number 6. It’s defined Steve O’Keefe’s cricket career. A veteran of 66 first-class games, going back more than 11 years, O’Keefe bowled his first nine overs in Pune for 30 runs. And no wickets. His next spell read 4.1-1-5-6. Six wickets in the space of 24 balls, and the middle, bottom and stuffing knocked out of India’s first innings.
Yet, another six-wicket haul in 2015 was just as important. Just over 18 months ago, Australia A and India A met in an unofficial Test at Chepauk in Chennai. The India A line-up included Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Karun Nair, Shreyas Iyer and Abhinav Mukund. O’Keefe took 2 for 30 and 4 for 88 as Australia A romped to a 10-wicket win. Those he dismissed included Kohli, Iyer (twice), Mukund and Naman Ojha. Those six wickets were a gentle reminder to the selectors of what he could do in helpful conditions.
“Just getting used to the Indian conditions, on and off the field, always helps, and playing against those classy guys and seeing how they go about their business, it just reenergises you when you go home and train hard,” said O’Keefe of his A team experience. “You know you can’t afford to bowl bad balls to these guys. And to knock them over, it generally has to be some good bowling. So it helped a lot.”
He took 14 wickets in those two games, and came into this series knowing that there wouldn’t be too many more chances. “I think the one thing is that you’ve just got to be comfortable in your own skin,” he said. “I know what I can do, I know what I’ve got and how to go about using what I’ve got. I think the important thing is that I’m well backed up by Steven Smith.
“I think he’s a brilliant captain. When you play under a captain who shows a lot of belief in you, it’s amazing what can happen. I’ve got a good coach who tapped me on the head in between sessions, and he’s not afraid to tell it to your face and tell it to you straight, which is excellent. I think Sri [Sridharan Sriram] is an excellent spin-bowling coach. I’ve worked with him a couple times now and he’s really impressive, so that’s really helped me.”
During the lunch interval, Sriram took O’Keefe out on to the field to suggest a few changes. “When I bowled my first six overs, I think I went probably back to my comfort zone, which is what I bowl in Australia,” he said. “I was trying to bowl quick, it was too full. It was ordinary bowling the first six overs. I’d been working in the nets with some other variations, just changing the seam angle and arm angle. You probably don’t notice it, but for me it made all the difference.”
He also changed ends, switching to the end from where Ravindra Jadeja did most of his bowling. Nothing though could have prepared him for what followed once KL Rahul skied one to long-off. “It’s amazing how things can quickly change over here,” he said. “I was none of 30 off nine, probably didn’t bowl very well at all in my first six overs. And then, it all just happened really quickly, and I guess that’s the sort of wicket it is. We played and missed at a lot of balls and fortunately for us, they nicked ’em and we caught ’em.
“It hasn’t really sunk it yet. I think it will if it contributes to a win. Right now, we’ll enjoy that we had a good day, but that’s all it is. We all know how good this Indian team is, how well they can bat. Even in spinning conditions, they are exceptional players. They’re all match winners, so we have our work cut out for us. We are 300 ahead, let’s get more and let’s create ten chances tomorrow and hold on to them.”
O’Keefe on Kohli’s dismissal to Starc “I think my expression says it all when you look at the footage. I think I was more excited than Starcy. I was running around and the wheels were spinning, only because you know how good he is. Regardless of the conditions, this guy is an out-and-out star. We’ve got to be on our game in the next innings. To knock him over for a duck is great fortune for us, and we’re going to have to do that consistently over the next four Tests.”
Simon Katich, who is here doing commentary for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, spoke of how such a surface had given Australia their best chance. “If you don’t win the toss, it’s hard work to catch up,” he said. O’Keefe wasn’t complaining. “It’s always nice to see a spinning wicket,” he said. “You don’t get to see it too often back in Australia.
“But in saying that, you know in seeing a wicket like that, there’s going to be a lot of onus and you’re going to have to carry a lot of workload. The heavy lifting has to be done by spinners on that wicket. We’re just fortunate we’ve got Mitchell Starc and (Josh) Hazlewood, two of the best bowlers in the world, who can back you up. And their time will come for sure, whether the ball’s reversing or moving sideways.”
O’Keefe’s tour of Sri Lanka in 2016 lasted just one innings – in which he took 2 for 32, including Angelo Mathews – before a torn hamstring meant he had to fly back home. “Going to Sri Lanka, that was my big opportunity, but I messed that one up,” he said. “To be honest, I always thought the Indian tour was there, but it was almost unreachable. So to be given this opportunity … I’ve been trying to make the most of it.
“I’ve prepared for it back home by giving away some of the BBL cricket. We know this is a big tournament for us a group. So it means a lot to do well, but we’re only into day three of a four-Test series. So we’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves.”
His preparation also included a couple of days with Monty Panesar in Brisbane, which he says helped him build a bit of belief. But the main influence has been Sriram, once a highly rated left-arm spinner before he finished up as a batsman with 32 first-class centuries.
“I’ve worked with him in Chennai in the A series,” said O’Keefe. “I come off the field, I get to speak with him. He’s a local, so he knows the conditions. I get to spend lunchtime bowling with him. And he understands how to bowl in these conditions. How the batters are thinking. He has been the biggest help, along with the other coaching staff.”
The six wickets were not O’Keefe’s only highlight on the second day. There was also his celebration when Kohli was dismissed. “I think my expression says it all when you look at the footage,” he said with a grin. “I think I was more excited than Starcy. I was running around and the wheels were spinning, only because you know how good he is. Regardless of the conditions, this guy is an out-and-out star. We’ve got to be on our game in the next innings. To knock him over for a duck is great fortune for us, and we’re going to have to do that consistently over the next four Tests.”
If they do it on day three, you can be certain that Australia and O’Keefe will be celebrating a famous Test victory.