Remorseful O’Keefe digests whirlwind recall
Steve O’Keefe admits he thought his career was over after offensive behaviour towards another Australian cricketer at the New South Wales end of season awards night, but understands how he finds himself back in the Test squad in Bangladesh despite still being under suspension from playing for his state.
At the times of his punishment – A$20,000 and suspension from the domestic limited-overs tournament later this year – by the NSW chief executive Andrew Jones, losing his Cricket Australia contract and being omitted from the initial squad for Bangladesh, O’Keefe was all along reassured, both by NSW and the Australian selection chairman Trevor Hohns, that the ban did not apply to international duty, leaving the door ever so slightly ajar.
“I completely accept the punishment handed down from NSW to ban me from the [limited-overs] cup, it was Andrew Jones’ decision and he thought that was right and I respect his judgment call on it,” O’Keefe said. “What was communicated to me was that was where it was at, the one-day tournament and not anything else. I wasn’t in a position to even challenge it and I completely understand why I got it. But I’ve known from the outset that was the decision, and Cracker [Hohns] also reiterated to me that the door is not shut on you playing for Australia.”
Nevertheless, when a side strain to Josh Hazlewood re-opened discussion about O’Keefe among the selection panel, the 32-year-old left-arm spin bowler was among the last people expecting his phone to ring. “I was having a feed with a mate and saw the missed phone-call and was quite surprised to be honest,” O’Keefe said. “I originally got the message from [NSW state talent manager] David Freedman saying he had a message from Cracker [Hohns] and they’re still thinking of you and considering you. That was nice to know, then an hour after that I got a call from Cracker who filled me in with the good news.
“One thing I admire about Cracker even though it can be hard to hear sometimes is that he’s upfront and honest. They were going down a different path with some younger players, which I totally understand, who have played really well in that last Test. I didn’t know Josh was injured so was a bit surprised with that, that he was coming home and then replacing a fast bowler surprised me as well.”
Before the call, O’Keefe had watched the first Test match closely, noting the spin-friendly conditions but also the strides made by Ashton Agar, the younger man who had ostensibly replaced him in Australia’s plans. “After day two I sent Ashton a message and said ‘you looked right at home mate, the ball’s coming out beautifully and you were the most capable of our batters’,” O’Keefe said.
“Obviously you’d like to be there playing, but after I spoke to Cracker he gave me that honesty a couple of months ago about the direction of the team they were taking. It’s hard to hear at first but you accept that. I want to see a thriving team in four years’ time that goes over and wins in India. I do like to remind Steve [Smith] if I’m still playing at 36 I’ll be a chance. But as hard as it is to hear I completely understand.”
It is a little more than a year since O’Keefe first found himself in trouble, reported by police and fined A$10,000 for misbehaviour outside a Sydney pub when he returned home injured from the tour of Sri Lanka. That incident led to O’Keefe refocusing ahead of the India trip, for which he prepared diligently and reaped the consequent windfall of 12 wickets in the first Test in Pune, a stunning victory for Smith’s unfancied team.
However the second offence, amid a raft of drunk and disorderly behaviour at the awards night in April, left O’Keefe with very little goodwill left among cricket authorities, and he is still in the process of learning more about himself and behaving in a manner that will engender respect in the long-term.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the couple of stuff-ups that I’ve made,” O’Keefe said. “I regret it and I’m sorry for what happened. I’m thankful that Cricket NSW and Cricket Australia have provided me with a supportive structure to resolve some issues. At times a reason I haven’t spoken about it is that words can be cheap after stuffing up twice, the only thing that will show that [change] will be not three months later, it’ll be five years later when I’m settled and happy and long after the cricket lights have gone out that I’m a respected person in the community. Only time will fix that.
“It’s a bit of a personal journey and after three months I don’t want to go into too much detail. What I will say is I deserve the punishments I got and I completely understand why I got them. CNSW and CA have been extremely supportive in providing a structure which allows me to improve. After stuffing up twice in 12 months I’m not going to sit here and say everything’s chilled … I’ve got things I’ve got to work on, facing those issues that I haven’t done in the past. I’m working on it, and hopefully in five years I can sit down and have a coffee with you and give you the longer version.
“Yeah I did [think my career was over]. Originally I felt that when I stuffed up the first time, you’re very lucky you get second chances and I got that, and I faltered again and made some mistakes, which I completely regret, I’m extremely sorry for. I’m just fortunate I’ve got supportive people around me who as quick as they are to hand out punishment will be the same people there to support so that as an individual I’m on the right track, not just as a cricketer.”
Having arrived in Bangladesh, O’Keefe has reasoned that he must be a serious chance to play in the second Test in Chittagong as a third spin bowling option alongside Agar and Nathan Lyon. It is a task he has reconciled with his omission from the squad before the series began, on the basis that he was unable to bowl as consistently as India’s tweakers, who slowly reasserted their command of the field over three hard-fought matches after Pune.
“You don’t really need to be Einstein to work out why you’re here, having a look at that wicket and the overs the quicks bowled, it provides an opportunity to play an extra spinner if conditions dictate,” O’Keefe said. “If they don’t, Jackson Bird’s had more experience than anyone in this squad as a fast bowler and would do a great job. I’m sure he’s champing at the bit to have a crack. It’ll depend on conditions but I’m certainly preparing to play.
“I did drop off [in India], it’s a bit hard to maintain 6 for 35 in each innings, which I made clear to Cracker! But as a player, we went over there to win that series and we didn’t. When you don’t win you accept that fact that you leave the door open for someone else to come in and take your spot. It was an admirable effort, we fought well as a team, I think guys had really good individual standout moments, but we set the bar to win and we didn’t and I accept the fact my form wasn’t as good in the next three games or as consistent as say the Indian spinners were. That’s the yardstick, and that’s what we should be aiming for as a team.
“I know these moments for me will probably come around fleetingly, so I’m going to enjoy it. I’m excited to be back with the guys and I want to make a difference on the field and off the field with these guys in this group now. Playing or not playing, I want to make a difference.”
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig
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