Stephen O'Keeve    AFP
Stephen O’Keefe is the 18th Test cricketer with an apostrophe in his surname AFP

Pallekele. Hot, sultry Pallekele. Angelo Mathews wins the toss. He does not hesitate to bat. He has Rangana Herath. He has Dilruwan Perera, the off-spinner. He has Lakshan Sandakan, a debutant Chinaman bowler, carefully hidden from the world till then. He needs runs on the board. Unfortunately, his openers are Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva, who have been given a rope so long that it may be used to hold a couple of planets together. That typically means 20 for 2, but this time Mathews has also lost Kusal Mendis. The score reads 18 for 3. Mathews walks out himself to join Dinesh Chandimal.

This is the partnership. Not for the first time in their careers the two men get together. Meanwhile, Steven Smith had replaced Mitchell Starc with an innocuous-looking left-arm spinner ahead of Nathan Lyon, his main spinner. The ball is still new. The spinner Stephen Norman John O Keefe tosses one up. Mathews lunges forward. He is beaten in flight. The ball turns. Mathews does not hold himself back, for he is too experienced for that, and drives it anyway. It is not the greatest of cover-drives, but Angelo has given it his all, and it finds the boundary. He gets crucial runs, but Mathews knows he has lost the first battle. He is beaten by the turn the next ball.

Mathews makes up his mind. He will defend. He defends even an over-pitched delivery. It is working. Two beautiful deliveries have pushed Mathews into a defensive mode. Mathews needs runs, he knows that, so he pulls Mitchell Starc for four. But it is O Keefe that concerns him, despite the fact that he plays Herath in the nets, despite this being Day One, despite this being a ground he knows like the back of his hand. No Lyon yet, for Smith backs O Keefe

Mathews is not confident anymore. He defends but does not middle. He tries to cut but the ball is too quick and there is no contact. Every dot ball builds up the pressure, for O Keefe bowls his dot balls at a pace bettered by perhaps only Ravindra Jadeja.

Chandimal hits two boundaries off Starc. O Keefe gives the ball air. It is slightly over-pitched. Mathews covers the turn and defends. O Keefe tosses it up again. Mathews stretches out again, but wait, where is the ball?

O Keefe has managed to make it dip. Mathews watches helplessly as he realises that he has been deceived in flight by a man playing only his fourth Test. He realises that he will never be able to reach the pitch of the ball. The ball takes off the moment after it pitches, takes the shoulder of the bat before Mathews can loosen his grip, and lobs to the captain who had kept O Keefe on.

O Keefe takes 2 for 32 in the innings. Lyon has 3 wickets in a 7-ball burst, so O Keefe is forgotten.

He is brought on again in the second innings. He takes an over to find his line, though that leg-before appeal against Mendis was rather close, for he had made that skid. Two balls into his next over Silva plays for the turn, but it was O Keefe s quicker delivery, and that is that.

O Keefe continues with his two-minute overs or perhaps three, in case there is a boundary. There is a massive appeal against Mendis, the man who is clearly taking the match away from Australia, but it has pitched a micrometre outside line.

Mendis on-drives Starc for four, beating O Keefe s chase. It is merely not another valiant effort, for O Keefe has pulled a hamstring. Two balls later he hobbles out, never to bowl in the series again, getting into will bat only if needed mode.

Australia are chasing 268. At 96 for 3, and later, at 139 for 4, it certainly looks feasible, but Herath and co. think otherwise. They slump to 157 for 8. O Keefe walks out to join Peter Nevill minutes after lunch.

They add four, a mere four, but here is the catch they bat for 178 balls. Nevill cannot run, and the runner is an extinct concept, so the only option they have is to dead-bat. And O Keefe blocks and blocks, keeping Herath at bay (something his more illustrious teammates have failed to do).

He sweeps the Chinaman bowler for four off the 22nd ball he faces, but that is about it: it takes Sri Lanka another 76 balls to dismiss him, and he does not score a single run during that phase. It is barely surprising, for he had an 80-ball 23 in the first innings as well and just like in the second outing, there was a solitary boundary.

The basic numbers do not tell you the story, for 3 for 74 and 27 runs do not win, or even save Tests. But delve a bit deeper and look at a few other parameters: O Keefe took out the biggest wicket in the first innings and was Australia s most economic bowler in the second. He actually averaged 25 in the Test and took a wicket every 5.2 overs.

And to round things off, only Adam Voges played more balls than him in the first innings, and only Nevill in the second.


O Keefe has played a solitary Test since then, earlier this year at Sydney. He took 1 for 50 and 3 for 53. These are his best innings and match figures, so he is probably in form.

This also means that O Keefe has never taken more than 3 wickets in an innings or 4 in a Test. However, O Keefe has also taken at least one wicket in every single of the 7 innings he has bowled in, and at least 3 wickets per Test.

It is a small sample, but O Keefe is consistent. He probably deserved more than 4 Tests in his 27-month career, but then, no other spinner has played 4 Tests alongside Lyon. O Keefe averages 32.78, slightly better than Lyon s 34.07. In the 4 Tests they have played together Lyon has averaged 45. Lyon has taken a wicket every 76 balls to O Keefe s 63.

Of course, the sample is too small. But then, one must remember that O Keefe has been a second-choice spinner, which means that track had to be spin-friendly (Dubai, Sydney, Pallekele, Sydney) for O Keefe to get the nod, but when he has played alongside Lyon, O Keefe has been more successful than his mate.

But then, is that not the kind of pitch India will prepare?

O Keefe also averages a remarkable 23.81 in domestic cricket, better than Shane Warne s 26.11 (I am serious).

Of course, O Keefe plays for New South Wales (NSW), and thus plays his home matches at Sydney, where the ball turns more than any other Test pitch in Australia but then, doesn t NSW s very own Stuart MacGill have 30.49 in First-Class cricket?

The threat

O Keefe experiments. That does not mean he likes to go for runs. He has worked hard on his loop, and can make the ball dip faster, leaving batsmen groping. He turns the ball on normal pitches, but can really make it spin and bounce on a turner.

On the other hand, he has the one that does not turn and comes in straight with the arm. He can vary his trajectory without revealing much, and once he gets into the groove he can get his overs done in two minutes. Most importantly, he is an excellent reader of batsmen, and his astuteness has helped him work out their weaknesses.

In other words, if he cannot dismiss them, he can change his role to tie batsmen down, allowing Starc and Hazlewood to go flat out in pursuit of wickets.

O Keefe has a mere 14 wickets, but then, Australia have rarely produced left-arm spinners. Ray Bright is (53 wickets at 41.13) the only one to have taken more than 50 Test wickets. Lindsay Kline took 34 wickets at 22.82 before disappearing, but he was a wrist-spinner, a breed that typically does better than finger-spinners in Australia. Even the much-respected Chuck Fleetwood-Smith (another Chinaman bowler) had 42 wickets, that too at a sub-par 37.38.

Tom Hogan was really not Test class, and for some reason Brad Hogg never got going at the highest level. If one takes them away, the last Australian left-arm spinner with a major impact was Bright, and before him er, nobody.

This means that he needed to be handled well. Monty Panesar showed in 2012-13 what quality left-arm spinners can do on Indian soil if they are handled properly.

There was also Ray Price, who knew Zimbabwe would never have upper hand, so he combined metronomic precision with inexhaustible stamina. He conceded a mere 2.29 runs an over and took 10 wickets at 31.40, and trapped Sachin Tendulkar leg-before in each innings at Delhi and actually gave Zimbabwe a glimmer of hope, however brief.

There was also Ashley Giles. Nasser Hussain s strategy to get Giles to bowl to a negative line outside leg to frustrate Tendulkar and co. drew some flak, but his 5 for 67 actually gave England a 116-run lead at Ahmedabad. In the next Test, at Bangalore, he got Tendulkar frustrated and got the great man stumped for the only time in his career.

There have been more. A little over a year back Dean Elgar had taken 4 for 22 on Day One at Mohali. At Kanpur in 2009-10, Herath bowled his heart out on a flat pitch to finish with 5 for 121 (to put things into perspective, Muttiah Muralitharan had 2 for 175 and Ajantha Mendis 2 for 162).

And in 2010-11, New Zealand, after conceding a 28-run lead at Ahmedabad, reduced India to 15 for 5 and later 65 for 6; and in the next Test, at Hyderabad, scored 350 and had India at 367 for 9. Then, out of nowhere, Harbhajan Singh smashed the only two hundreds of his Test career, and India took the series 1-0. Daniel Vettori, strangulating and enticing batsmen, controlling their mindset at will, finished the series with 14 wickets at 36.57. That does not sound much, but he bowled better than the other spinners Pragyan Ojha (12 wickets at 37.41) and Harbhajan (10 at 42). Vettori also captured 39 per cent of the wickets New Zealand took in that series.

So yes, there is reason to have high hopes.

The man

O Keefe was first picked for Test cricket when Nathan Hauritz was ruled out of the 2010 series against Pakistan (in England). The selectors chose a leg-spinner ahead of him. They had no idea that the man they picked would lead Australia in the upcoming tour of India. However, O Keefe played a T20I that tour, taking 3 for 29 on debut.

By this time O Keefe was 25. He had to wait another four years for a Test cap. By then he was already a star in NSW. The selectors marked him out early, and O Keefe even replaced Simon Katich as state captain in 2011-12, though he stood down after a season.

O Keefe also averages 29.54 with bat at First-Class level. He can play those long innings, for he has lasted 66 balls per dismissal (though somewhat curiously his first scoring shot in domestic cricket was a six).

In other words, he can do to the Indian bowlers what Jason Gillespie had done to them on numerous occasions, most famously at Chennai in 2004-05. He is not an outstanding batsman, but can think and apply himself sufficiently to bat out for those long hours.

With Starc and O Keefe two men with contrasting styles in the lower middle-order, India may not exactly find it easy to run through. Between them, the pair may make up for the fact that Australia do not have a world-class all-rounder.

The trivia

Before signing off, I guess it is only pertinent to mention three oddities of O Keefe: he is the second Test cricketer (after Lall Singh) born in Malaysia; he has played 4 Tests and 7 T20Is but no ODI; and he is the 18th Test cricketer with an apostrophe in his surname.