Steve O’Keefe’s importance to Australia’s plans for the looming tour of India, and his own decidedly chequered injury history have been underlined by Cricket Australia’s decision to pull him out of the remainder of the Big Bash League so that he could prepare comprehensively for Test cricket.
Last year, O’Keefe was a key plank of Australian plans to face Sri Lanka away, but a hamstring strain ruled him out of the series midway through the first match in Pallekele. In his absence, neither Nathan Lyon nor Jon Holland made an impact, and both were subject to criticism by the captain Steven Smith and the coach Darren Lehmann for not matching up to the standards of Sri Lanka’s spinners.
A long history of soft tissue injuries, including a calf strain earlier this season, is a major point of concern for O’Keefe and also Australia’s planners. His withdrawal from the BBL will allow for him to undergo a Test-specific physical preparation, however the only matches available to him and other long-form players such as Matt Renshaw will be second XI and club fixtures.
“Post the Sri Lanka tour last year we have been in talks with Cricket NSW and Steve on the best way for him to prepare for the tour of India,” the head of team performance Pat Howard said. “After his recent injuries, which have caused him to miss Sheffield Shield matches this season, he has had a lot less red-ball match practice than other players that are likely to tour India and it is important he gets as much bowling in the format he is going to play.
“His focus will now be on Grade and Futures League cricket before likely being one of the first players to depart for Dubai in late January.”
During the SCG Test against Pakistan, O’Keefe showcased the qualities that Smith admires, namely his unfailing accuracy. A low arm action allows him to slide the ball through while attacking the stumps, with the odd delivery turning away from the right-handers for variation.
In the lead-up to the match the selectors assembled O’Keefe, Lyon and the West Australian left-arm spinner Ashton Agar for something of a camp, as they trained together in collaboration with the spin consultant John Davison. There have been calls from some quarters for the inclusion of a leg spinner on the tour – many have ben impressed by the work of Adam Zampa, while Shane Warne has been an advocate of Queensland’s Mitchell Swepson.
However O’Keefe’s preparation reinforces exactly how critical he is considered to be as part of Australia’s campaign.