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Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe: A tale of self-belief leading to success

Astute bowlers Nathan Lyon and Steve O'Keefe shed their underdog tag and showed that they could be match winners.

The spin duo helped the Aussies put up a fight against India

Not many had given Australia a chance against a resurgent Indian side in the recently concluded Border-Gavaskar Trophy. A few had even written them off long before the first ball of the series was bowled.

It wasn’t very surprising, though, considering their recent loss in Sri Lanka and the inexperience of their squad for this series. Moreover, the great run that India had this season aided the thought that the tour could go horribly wrong for the visitors.

But a combination of self-belief and fortitude can do wonders. That’s exactly what Australia showed. The thumping win by the Aussies in the series opener at Pune silenced all the critics and made it clear that this Australian side wasn’t to be taken lightly.

As the series progressed fans witnessed Australia give India a hard time in all the matches to produce, arguably, one of the most fiercely contested series in the modern era.

Though marred by the occasional banter and the ‘Reviewgate’ scandal, the four-match series produced cricket of high quality and entertained fans all around the world.

With every match, every session and every brief passage of play, the momentum kept shifting from one team to another. It is true that both the teams failed to capitalise on the gained momentum, but that just goes to show that neither of the teams were willing to give an inch to the other.

The Australians would, no doubt, be disappointed with the final result, particularly after the hard fought draw at Ranchi. Losing the series decider on a surface that most suited them would have left them hurting even more.

Extra Cover: Steve Smith, the captain, defeated; Steve Smith, the batsman, unscratched

But at the end of it all, they would also be mighty proud of their efforts. So they should be. In tough conditions, against quality opponents and with more than half their squad touring India for the first time, they posed challenges that no other touring country had this season.

Australia even threatened to win the series, until they ran into an inspired spell of bowling from the Indian pacers Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. If it wasn’t for that over ambitious pull shot by Aussie skipper Steve Smith that induced the collapse in the final match, things might have been different.

Matt Renshaw, Peter Handscomb, Shaun Marsh and Pat Cummins were all impressive for Australia. However, the spin duo of Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe were a class apart. The finger spinners troubled the Indian batsmen for most of the series with impeccable line and length. Except for KL Rahul and Pujara, all the batsmen found it hard to score off the spinners.

Australia v Pakistan - 3rd Test: Day 5 : News Photo
O’Keefe was a menace to the Indian batsmen throughout the series

Very rarely do the Aussies play two specialist spinners. And the fact that both these spinners featured in all the games shows the faith the Australian selectors have in their abilities. The spin twins showed what they were capable of over the course of the series, ending up with 19 wickets apiece to justify their selection.

The loss at Pune was especially surprising. With so much talk on how the Australian batsmen would face the two best Test bowlers, in their home conditions, it wasn’t expected that the touring spinners would haunt the Indian batsmen in the way that they did.

The Aussie tweakers were much better than their Indian counterparts in Pune. And with Indian batsmen unable to adapt quickly to the conditions, there wasn’t anything stopping the visitors from registering their first Test win in India since 2004.

The wrecker-in-chief, Steve O’Keefe figured out the way to bowl on a notorious Pune track and bagged 12 for 70, the best figures for a visiting spinner in India. His bowling partner, Nathan Lyon, actually bowled better than O’Keefe many felt, but the right armer was unlucky not to pick more wickets.

Nathan Lyon troubled the Indian batsmen throughout the series and ended an impressive series with 19 wickets

Lyon, though, didn’t want to be left behind. He quenched his thirst for wickets in the second Test at Bangalore by pocketing eight of them. The former pitch curator at Adelaide Oval, Lyon let the ball rip at the rate of knots, landing them in the perfect areas and the surface responded.

Unfortunately, though, Australia lost the game. But it was the result of extraordinary batting by KL Rahul, Pujara and Rahane. India had recognised the threat the Aussies possessed and were vigilant in their approach, trying to gather as many runs as they could in ones and twos.

It’s not easy restricting such gifted players in their home conditions, but the Lyon-O’Keefe combination did that very convincingly. Not once, but twice in a row.

Going by the numbers one could argue that the Aussie spinners weren’t as penetrative in the second half of the series. However, the track at Ranchi for the third Test wasn’t the most spin friendly wicket.

And in Dharamsala, when Lyon threatened to run through the Indian batting order once again, the in-form Jadeja joined forces with wicket-keeper batsman Saha to build a vital, and as it turned out to, series deciding, partnership for India.

In all, Lyon and O’Keefe bowled a whopping 337.3 overs together conceding less than 3 runs an over. It wasn’t just about the number of wickets that they shared, but also the discipline and skill they showcased. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that the Aussie spinners, along with the run machine Steve Smith, were the prime reasons Australia lost the series 2-1 and not 4-0.

Since 2000, Australia have toured India five times to contest the Border-Gavaskar trophy. With every series, they have tried different spinners hoping to put an end to the search for a quality tweaker. 

Border-Gavaskar Trophy: Comparing the performances of Australian spinners in India since 2000

Season

Name

Innings

Wickets

Average

2000-01

Shane Warne

6

10

32.52

Colin Miller

2

6

33.50

2004-05

Shane Warne

5

14

35.90

Nathan Hauritz

2

5

20.60

Michael Clarke

2

6

2.16

2008-09

Cameron White

8

5

68.40

Michael Clarke

7

2

128

Jason Crejza

2

12

29.83

2010-11

Nathan Hauritz

4

6

65

2012-13

Nathan Lyon

6

7

43.85

Xavier Doherty

3

4

1115.7

Glenn Maxwell

3

7

27.57

2016-17

Nathan Lyon

7

19

25.26

Steve O’Keefe

7

19

23.26


The likes of Jason Crejza, Nathan Hauritz and Xavier Doherty were successful at times but none of them could be the reliable bowler that Australia were looking for.

These numbers do tell a story. The off-spinners have put their skills to great use to become the most successful Australian bowling unit to have toured India.

The success of both Lyon and O’Keefe must have pleased the Aussie fans and they can now hope for more wins in the subcontinent. With age on their side – Lyon being 29 years old and O’Keefe, 32 –  the pair would look to replicate the heroics from this tour of India and bring laurels to Australian cricket in the time to come.

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