STEPHEN O’KEEFE is closing in on 200 days since his last beer. His last ‘cold one’ had landed him in big trouble last August when he was embroiled in a boozy spat at Manly’s Steyne Hotel where he allegedly even abused a few policemen. He was not only fined $10,000 for his actions by Cricket Australia and sent to counselling; O’Keefe also received a final ultimatum to shape in or ship out from chief selector Rod Marsh.
It was a difficult time for him, who’d just returned prematurely from a much-awaited maiden tour to the subcontinent after injuring himself in Sri Lanka. His career was at the crossroads. He immediately decided to go cold turkey for the rest of the summer and as time wore on even stopped counting the days.
On Friday, the 32–year-old relatively unknown left-arm spinner serving a self-imposed alcohol ban lifted Aussie spirits on a dry—owing to it being Mahashivratri—day and a drier pitch in Pune. Playing in only his fourth Test, he ran through the Indians in a mere 25 balls, finishing with 6/35, including three wickets in a single over and a spell which read 4.1-1-5-6. Along the way, he didn’t just surprise the Indians but a majority of them back home, including Shane Warne, who was incidentally in the commentary box at the MCA Stadium. Warne has repeatedly questioned the inclusion of O’Keefe in the Test squad in the past saying that he hopes to see him actually spin the ball rather than stick to bowling flat and defensively. He’d also called O’Keefe the ‘weakest’ of the Aussie bowlers even on Friday on Star Sports a few minutes before the spinner commenced his demolition job.
But it’s a perception issue that O’Keefe has had to deal with pretty much throughout his career. To an extent it’s not misplaced considering that he does indeed thrive on being a nagging presence with the ball rather than trying to deceive or trick the batsmen out. In the past he’s had to deal with much harsher and more scathing reviews about his bowling from Terry Jenner, the man who discovered Warne.
He had even likened his stint at the academy under Jenner to the movie Whiplash, recalling Jenner having never been impressed with anything he bowled and rather looking at it with disgust. Though he was affected by the constant rebuttals early on, they soon turned into ‘white noise’ for O’Keefe as he then chose to instead stick to his own strengths and be comfortable in his own skin. It’s a line he would repeat on Friday following his awe-inspiring performance. The irony though is that O’Keefe, who has completed a dozen years of first-class cricket, has still remained the most successful spinner in the Sheffield Shield over the last few seasons averaging in the mid-twenties, which these days is a rarity for a spinner Down Under. His Test chances were far and few in between with his long-standing sparring partner Nathan Lyon having established himself as a premier spinner.
And as O’Keefe revealed here, there were fears that his change might have come and gone for good to the subcontinent, especially after the injury in Sri Lanka. “I always though Indian tour was there, but it was almost unreachable,” he said.
There’s also some trivia attached with O’Keefe’s Test career as he is the first-ever Malaysian-born cricketer to don the Baggy Green. He spent the first four years of his life there owing to his father being in the Air Force. His mother, Jann, therefore had to take over the responsibility of young Stephen and his cricket once the family moved to Australia sans the father. And she did so by working all night as a nurse but still never fail to chauffeur her son to the cricket ground during the day. O’Keefe even recalled some of those rides in an interview to The Guardian recently.
“She used to work as a night duty Nurse in the emergency department before driving me 65 kilometres from Richmond to the SCG for under 17s training,” O’Keefe says. “Our blue Ford Laser didn’t have air conditioning, and I’d be kicking the back seat blaming her for my terrible net. She’d had zero sleep and had probably dealt with drunks all night, and I was worried about being dehydrated. She made incredible sacrifices for me,” he had said.
O’Keefe, however, had spoken to cricket.com.au recently about his own experiences of chauffeuring a certain cricketer around Sydney a few years ago. Someone he unfortunately didn’t get the opportunity to bowl. “About six years ago when Virat Kohli was at the academy and a no-name, I used to drive him around so that he could ASICS shoes. So since I looked after him a bit there, I’m sure he owns a shoe factory now, so hopefully I could get a pair of shoes from him,” he’d said.
O’Keefe might have proven a lot of people wrong here, but he’s not looking too far ahead yet and was even humble enough to call himself “lucky”. To put things in perspective, the last Australian left-arm spinner to take six wickets in an innings in India was Michael C0larke in his very first series. And that was on a dubious wicket at the Wankhede Stadium a dozen years ago. O’Keefe has a long way to go before he can actually cement his place for good in this Australian team. O’Keefe had said not long back that he wasn’t sure when he would have his next beer. Today wouldn’t be a bad day for it.