O'Keefe wants radical change as Australia eye its 'Everest'
Recently-retired spinner calls for changes to pitch preparation at Shield level to encourage Australian spinners ahead of their Test tour of India in 2022
6 April 2020, 05:28 PM AEST
If Australia is to achieve the Test ambition outlined by men's team coach Justin Langer and win a series in India then "urgent" changes must be made to the way pitches are prepared and spin bowlers are employed in first-class cricket here.
That's the view of recently retired bowler Steve O'Keefe, who has suggested that in addition to scheduling more Marsh Sheffield Shield matches at regional venues (on lower, slower pitches), curators might consider scarifying pitches and reducing in-game maintenance measures to increase the threat posed by spinners.
O'Keefe, who played nine Tests for Australia and famously bowled his team to victory over India at Pune in 2017, noted the recent focus on swing and seam bowling and the introduction of the Dukes ball was rightly done to heighten Australia's chances of achieving Ashes success in the UK.
But with Australia scheduled to play a four-Test series in India in 2022 – a year before the next programmed Ashes campaign in the UK – O'Keefe believes the focus must now shift to better preparing batters and spin bowlers for conditions that likely await on the subcontinent.
From the moment he was installed as men's team coach in 2018, Langer has identified winning a Test series in India as the holy grail of his tenure and likened it to "scaling Everest" given Australia have triumphed only once there (in 2004) over the past 50 years.
O'Keefe, who yesterday announced his retirement from first-class cricket after being told he would not be offered a contract with New South Wales next summer, claimed Australia boasts significant depths of spin-bowling talent despite fears aired last year by former Test great, Shane Warne.
However, he indicated that the preoccupation with seam bowlers and well-grassed pitches that was initially driven by a need to improve batters' capabilities against the moving ball had marginalised spinners to the point they often played little or no role in Shield fixtures.
"We promote the Dukes ball and the swinging ball in the game at the moment," O'Keefe said of Australia's domestic first-class competition.
"You could pick four quicks and if you had to pick an allrounder you could pick a medium pacer, and you'd still do well - you would win with no spinner.
"If we really want to challenge India, which is the final frontier and win a series in India, and four or five other Test nations to beat them in their conditions, we're going to have to start promoting it at home.
"I want to see guys like (leg spinner Mitchell) Swepson and (left-arm spinner Ashton) Agar really push Nathan Lyon in that Australian team.
"Nathan is obviously next level, but we've really got to start looking forward to the next generation and I think we can promote it more at home, particularly at Shield level.
"If we want to get good at beating teams on the subcontinent and the final frontier (India), we need to keep improving on that.
"It's become really stagnant."
In addition to introducing an Australian-made version of England's Dukes ball into Shield cricket to better replicate batting conditions faced in the UK, Cricket Australia overhauled the competition's bonus points structure and pitch preparation to try and promote a greater prevalence of spin bowling.
But as O'Keefe noted, he finished the truncated 2019-20 Shield summer as the most successful spin bowler with 16 wickets at an average of 22.25 from his five matches, with the top 20 places among leading wicket-takers filled by swing and seam bowlers.
With Australia's scheduled two-Test tour to Bangladesh in June unlikely to proceed due to the current global coronavirus pandemic, the men's team's next big challenge against spin is not expected to come until 2022.
In that year, under the ICC's current Future Tours Program, they will play Tests matches against Pakistan and Afghanistan (all likely in the UAE) as well as the four-match series in India plus two Tests in Sri Lanka, where they were humiliated 0-3 by the home team's spinners in 2016.
To try and better prepare batters and bowlers for conditions they can expect to face in Asia, O'Keefe believes radical measures need to be considered including the scarifying of pitches to make them more spin-friendly in the early stages of first-class matches.
He said the practice, in which the surface is raked for 1.5 metres beyond the popping crease at either end of the pitch, is used at some county grounds in England and allows for an even cover of grass between the scarified sections that would continue to benefit swing and seam bowlers.
"We can keep the integrity (of pitches) while scarifying up to one and half metres on wickets, and still make it an even contest for the quicks," O'Keefe said.
"You could also experiment with not sweeping the foot holes and not sweeping the creases, to keep a bit more of that damaged soil and (loose) dirt out there because it helps spinners and it helps batters become better at playing spin.
"If you want to win overseas and in those conditions, spinners are the ones who have got to win you games.
"You've got to have people who are mentally resilient, mentally tough and have the skills to get the ball in the fourth over and be told 'here you go, win us the match'.
"There are times when you see (Test) teams fall apart in the first session of a game because it's an off-spinner coming on and bowling with a new ball, and they've never seen that before in Australia.
"It is a matter of urgency, it needs to be done.
"If we're going to win over there (Asia) let's make sure we encourage these guys.
"Let's make sure when we pick Shield teams there's two spinners, not half a spinner or an allrounder.
"Let's make sure it’s your best two spinners and make batters also face spin in the first session of a game and put pressure on them to be able to get through it.
"Spinners are not being encouraged enough to be given the ball in the first 10 overs and told to win a game of cricket, plus the conditions haven't allowed them to express themselves.
"My issue is not so much with the talent we've got, because it's there - it's with the conditions.
"If JL (Langer) is going to call it (winning in India) the Everest, then how do you prepare for Everest … is it just by doing what we do now in Australian cricket?
"I think we've got to turn the wheel on that pretty quickly, and hope that with the talent we've got they can get it done."