Steve O’Keefe is the first to admit he thought his BBL career was finished last summer, but a backflip from the Sydney Sixers spinner will see him play on in the 2022-23 season.
“It beats working for a living,” he quipped when asked by Wide World of Sports what prompted the change of heart.
Despite turning 38 just days before this summer’s BBL kicks off, the veteran is looking forward to his 12th season with the Sixers, having been a foundation player at the club.
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But it’s not a situation he envisaged himself in at the end of last summer, when he spoke openly about giving the game away, even suggesting that if a new contract was offered to him, he wouldn’t sign it.
“Being stuck in the bubble, when I wasn’t really expecting it, left me feeling frustrated and really I’d had enough. I completely understand why it happened, but every player is different and I wasn’t handling it very well, “O’Keefe explained.
“I value Christmas time and the New Year period, being able to socialize with my partner and the rest of my family and friends, and I was just over it, to be honest. It was a real stretch just to get through to the end of last summer.
“Now I’ve had the chance to step back, to remember the good times we’ve had over the years, and how enjoyable the BBL is when you can socialize and go out for a meal with your mates. I’d like to have at least one more year of that.
“You sound spoiled, but over Christmas you want to have fun, and instead you’re basically locked in your hotel room when we were in the bubble. I’m not someone who manages that well. It’s not anyone’s fault, and I understand why CA did it, but I was not enjoying the tournament at all last summer.”
Perhaps forgotten is that O’Keefe was once good enough to open the batting for the Sixers, indeed he and Moises Henriques combined for a match-winning first wicket partnership of 110 in the BBL01 final.
But given his first class career has ended, O’Keefe is conscious of the fact he can’t rely solely on his bowling to keep him in the Sixers’ side.
“My batting has definitely fallen by the wayside over the years, it seems like the ball is coming at me a whole lot quicker and I’m moving slower,” he conceded.
“It’s something I’m working on, I’m playing grade cricket for Manly.
“I still pride myself on my fielding, I know I’ve had some soft-tissue injuries in the past, but it’s something I’m aware of and the club is aware of and we’ll manage it.
“My main focus is bowling and fielding, I spend an equal amount on both, but I’m probably going to have to work a bit harder on my batting if I’m honest, because it’s not at the standard it was even three years ago.”
While O’Keefe has been a mainstay for the Sixers for more than a decade, he’s acutely aware that the day is not far away when he’ll have to make way for a younger spinner.
“I plan to be as fit as I can be heading into the season, but if I’m at the point where I’m not able to compete and be as good as my teammates, I’ll have no issue getting the tap on the shoulder from people I trust in (coach) Greg (Shipperd) and Moises,” he said.
“I’m also really pragmatic about my position in the team, if we’re not going well, and I’m not performing, you have to give that spot to someone else and let them learn the same things I’ve learned over the years.”
The Sixers have enjoyed consistent success throughout the history of the BBL, winning three times and playing in three other finals. Champions in BBL09 and BBL10, the team finished runners-up last season to the Scorchers.
O’Keefe has been a big part of that success, with 30 wickets in the last two seasons at an economy rate of less than seven per over.
“We’ve been really lucky to have great coaches and great management off the field through the years,” he noted.
“A lot of us have played cricket together and been mates for a long time, and that helps in any team if you’ve got that natural relationship.
“We’ve been blessed to have had Greg as coach for a long time, and each year he comes to the table with more knowledge and more insights, and for me that’s a massive drawcard to be able to play under him and learn from him .
“And if you’re looking for the one-percenter as to why we didn’t win last year, we lost (general manager) Jodie Hawkins from the business, she’d been an integral part of the club for a decade, she was such a massive part of the culture we have, and it felt like losing one of the family when she left.
“That sums up the feeling within the club. You just can’t take for granted the success this team has had, and where it’s come from.”
The cricket community continues to debate the best way forward for the BBL, which has lost some of the shine it had at its peak. That decline started before the pandemic, although COVID-19 has thrown an extra spanner into the works.
“It’s a big part of the summer. Why is that? Realistically it’s the only domestic platform that generates mass interest in the community, and we never had that before the BBL came along,” O’Keefe explained.
“I think T20 cricket is the way the game is going, if we look a few decades ahead it may overtake Test cricket as the number one format. I’m not necessarily endorsing that, but that’s how I see it.
“So Cricket Australia needs to work really hard to continue to evolve the BBL. I’m all for CA paying the best overseas players more money and I’d be open to privatizing the BBL clubs if I had more information as to how that would help grow the game.
“You can’t just rest on what it is now, CA has done such a great job during COVID-19 to get the product out there, but we have to make sure it remains one of the strongest competitions in the world.”
O’Keefe noted that more needs to be done to get crowds back to games, although he acknowledged balancing the needs of broadcasters and fans isn’t always straightforward.
“A big thing is the game drags on too long, if you turn up at 7:30pm you can’t be having people getting home at midnight, that’s just not viable when you’re talking about families with kids, even during school holidays ,” he said.
“I don’t know how we fix that, maybe start a bit earlier, find a way to speed up the game, even lose a couple of overs, although an 18-over game doesn’t have the same ring about it.
“They’re looking at bringing in DRS, but that’s just going to slow the game down even more.”
The Sixers kick off their BBL season on December 14 against the Strikers at Adelaide Oval, before a rematch with last season’s champions Perth at Optus Stadium three days later.
They’ll return to the SCG on December 22 to play the Hurricanes.
“I’ve gone from being really pessimistic about things at the end of last season, to really excited at the prospect of going round again,” O’Keefe said.
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