VICTORIA’S CRICKETERS hoped for a happy christening of their new $40 million home at the Junction Oval, but they got a hostile reception from an opponent with a point to prove. Chief Writer RON REED reports:
LESS THAN AN HOUR into the Sheffield Shield match against NSW, curious spectators who had come for a look at the new pride of Victorian cricket – the refurbished Junction Oval in St Kilda – might have thought they had been transported to India, in the days when spin bowlers reigned supreme.
For here was left-arm tweaker Steve O’Keefe bowling with three slips, a silly mid-on and a silly mid-off – a field rarely if ever seen for a spinner — and four top-order wickets to his name. Another spinner, teenage debutant Param Uppal, had been quickly called on to replace former Test paceman Trent Copeland, while another senior paceman, Sean Abbott, hadn’t had a sniff and didn’t get one until the second session.
This was all long before lunch on the first day.
A few minutes after it, O’Keefe struck again, removing veteran Cameron White for 23, and completing the 13th five-wicket haul of his 75-match first-class career.
He expertly trundled away for most of the first session, all of the second and well into the third, finishing with career-best figures of 8-77 off 32.4 overs as the Bushrangers were dismissed for a disappointing 199. In reply, the Sydneysiders reached 4-65, fourteen wickets falling in an unusually difficult day for batsmen.
So O’Keefe was bowling hand grenades on a minefield, making him unplayable? Well, not necessarily. While Travis Dean, 6, Glenn Maxwell, 8, Will Pucovski, 2, and skipper Aaron Finch, 0, succumbed in quick succession, opener Marcus Harris merrily skipped down the track to O’Keefe and blasted him for sixes off successive deliveries to reach a rollicking half-century out of a team score of 2/66 at that point.
Harris certainly wasn’t finding the veteran of nine Tests unfathomable as he scored at a run a ball.
There didn’t seem to be anything particularly evil in the flat-looking track, although definitely more bounce and turn than Finch might have expected when he had no hesitation in batting after winning the toss, which was ceremonially performed by Premier Daniel Andrews.
It was just confirmation that O’Keefe, 33, despite a few well-publicised issues with his off-field behaviour, is both talented and experienced, with more than 250 first-class wickets, as well as a 12 wicket haul in a Test in India last year.
Despite that stellar performance and then a recall to the Test team in Bangladesh only a few months ago, he was overlooked for the second spinner’s spot – overtaken by Victoria’s Jon Holland — on the current tour of South Africa, and probably feels he has a point to prove and not a lot of time to prove it.
This is only his second Shield match after missing most of the Big Bash T20 tournament with an ankle injury sustained while playing for the Sydney Sixers against Perth Scorchers on New Year’s Day.
“Im pretty comfortable with where I’m at,’’ O’Keefe said.
“I know to get back into that team you’ve got to bowl well, and they’ve got great spinners there with Nathan Lyon the best in the world almost, plus John Holland deserves to be there.
“I’m realistic. I’ll try to keep doing well for NSW and see what happens.’’
Meanwhile, Harris steamed to his second century of the season, reaching 102 before the team had got to 150 and finishing with 109.
Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland and outgoing Victorian chief Tony Dodemaide and his successor, Andrew Ingleton, who were all on hand, had reason to be pleased with the look and feel of the occasion even though there were only a few hundred spectators.
In perfect cricket weather, a dozen or so beach-style umbrellas dotted around the grassy banks on the southern side and the old gum trees provided as much shade as necessary while the ancient Blackie-Ironmonger stand was pressed into service. A new electronic scoreboard has no replay facility. Old pushable sightscreens on wheels and a new white picket fence are throwbacks that add to the ambience. Parking is a problem – fees for what little there is in the surrounding parkland were recently increased – or will be if a crowd in the thousands ever arrives.
In some ways – notably the need to give an expensive kiss of life to the derelict Kevin Murray grandstand – the project is still a work in progress, but it seems certain to be a popular addition to the suite of elite sports venues for which the sports capital is justly proud.