The No. 1 Test side in the world, India, were widely considered as the ultimate favorite against the touring Australian side. They have been in an unbelievable run under the leadership of skipper Virat Kohli; a triumph in six consecutive Test series; they have been unbeatable in 20 Tests in a row on home soil. Be it South Africa, Sri Lanka, England or New Zealand, no side has matched up to India’s top-class standards recently in Tests. Meanwhile, Australia are on a nine-match losing streak in Asia and have not won a Test in India since 2004.
Indian spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja picked 28 and 26 wickets respectively in the previous series against England. Prior to that, the Black Caps toured India and again it was the pair that ran through the opponents with a total of 41 wickets. Australians have always struggled against the spinners and this weakness of theirs is not hidden anymore. When Captain Steven Smith won the toss on Day One in Pune and elected to bat, it was expected to watch the visitors succumb to Jadeja and Ashwin’s vicious spin.
What followed next came as a surprise when the likes of Matt Renshaw, David Warner, Smith and others comfortably played the spin and it was Indian fast bowlers who led India’s bowling charts. Although Australia managed to put up just 260 runs on the board, their perseverance on doctored Indian pitches was nothing but impressive.
However, the opponents had their best reserved for Day Two. Just when the Indians were recovering from the damage caused by Australia, who batted for 94.5 overs, they would face yet another shock in a short span of time. The kick in their teeth occurred in the form of a four-Test-experienced spinner Steve O’Keefe.
While the Indian batsmen had done their homework to play Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, and Nathan Lyon, O’Keefe happened to be out of syllabus.
The pacers have been Australia’s strengths in Test cricket, forever. Prior to the Indian series, Cricket Australia’s selectors were in a dilemma if they must stick to their traditional preparation or use a heavy spin strategy considering spin friendly pitches in the subcontinent. They decided to make a brave move and there came an inexperienced leg-spinner O’Keefe in the picture, despite massive criticism from their spin legend Shane Warne. The 47-year-old Warne earlier said O’Keefe’s best balls aren’t good enough to get batters out.
On Day two, after Starc and Hazlewood removed the crucial players, Virat Kohli, Murali Vijay and Cheteshwara Pujara, the Indian team was back into the game when KL Rahul and Ajinkya Rahane had settled well at the crease and had brought up a fifty-run stand for the fourth wicket. Meanwhile, Rahul and Rahane both being good players of spin, the duo of O’Keefe and Lyon was barely able to trouble the hosts with the ball.
Nevertheless, O’Keefe’s wait ended after 10 overs when he dismissed a set Rahul when the latter played an awful pull shot to get caught by Warner. O’Keefe would strike a ball later, thanks to a ripper taken by Peter Handscomb at slip. The spinner maintained his good line and length and that paid off when he bagged a third wicket in the over. Indian wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha got an outside edge and was caught by Smith at first slip.
The Indian collapse happened just a few minutes after lunch. It was the first time in the last couple months when Team India was on a receiving end of a Test match. After the three scalps in the over, O’Keefe bowled a maiden before bagging the fourth one by removing Jayant Yadav. India were 98 for 8 and the fact that Virat Kohli and Co touched the 100-mark was the only satisfying moment at that point in time for the hosts. O’Keefe seemed unplayable. He returned to bowl and grabbed his maiden five-for in his fifth Test. The spinner clutched five wickets in a span of 19 balls. It was not the first time a left-arm spinner had troubled the Indians in their own backyard.
O’Keefe’s 6 for 35 was the third best figures by a left-arm visiting spinner after Hedley Verity’s 7 for 49 in Chennai, 1933-34 and Michael Clarke’s 6 for 9 in Mumbai, 2004. An inexperienced O’Keefe has opened the Test wide open for Australia. His destructive spell meant Australia earned a decent lead of 155. At stumps on day 2, the visitors had a lead of 298 runs with six wickets remaining.
The job is not done yet. O’Keefe has to replicate this performance in the final innings to prove that the spell wasn’t a blinder and he deserves to become a regular spin partner of Lyon.