Friday, 21 December 2012


Steele by name...

In the 58-year history of the BBC’s much loved Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) award, there have been only four cricketers to have received the main prize. All the first winner had to do was snare 19 wickets in a Test match, at a cost of 90 runs, while the two most recent were buccaneering batting-and-bowling behemoths, latter-day action heroes whose pinnacle came against the oldest cricketing enemy in the two most dramatic Ashes series of the modern era. The fourth recipient was also a player whose apogee came against Australia, but he was as similar to Ian Botham and ‘Freddie’ Flintoff as a bank clerk is to a boxer.

Silver-haired and bespectacled, David Steele was the most unlikely of all winners – “Test cricket has not enjoyed such a romantic story in years,” remarked Wisden – yet perhaps also the most cherished, the one whose success chimed most deeply with the British national psyche, our stoicism, defiance and perseverance, be that real or idealised. The Dunkirk Spirit in whites. He didn’t so much strike a blow for ordinariness as for the extraordinary in those considered ordinary, and at the time of his emergence there had been little in Steele’s modest career with Northamptonshire to suggest that he would take to Test cricket with such aplomb. 

That he got his opportunity at all owed much to fortuitous circumstance, as is always the case to one degree or another – the notion that you ‘control your own destiny,’ in cricket or in life, is a self-help manual myth (just ask Barry Richards and Mike Proctor). Geoffrey Boycott was in self-imposed exile from international cricket having taken umbrage at being passed over for the England captaincy in favour of Mike Denness. This – and Denness being summarily deposed after innings defeat in the first Test had followed a 4-1 pummelling in Australia that winter – created the space in the team, but a 33-year-old batsman averaging in the low thirties for “an unfashionable county” was a far from obvious choice. However, the new captain, Tony Greig, had a clever way of finding the sort of Steel(e) required to withstand Lillee and Thomson: “He went to see the umpires and they gave him a nod. Good move, that”. Their hunch would prove inspired. 

It wasn’t only on the cricket field that things were bleak. Having failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup as they would the one after, England’s football team were bungling their European Championship campaign. Inflation was at 24.2%, the highest since 1800. And the political climate was fraught, with the far-right National Front mobilising and the IRA active. From out of this desolation came an improbable figure to briefly and gloriously galvanise the country, walking straight out of his solid if unremarkable county career into the flaming roars of Lillee and Thomson. 

England team on Steele's debut. Back, L-R: Woolmer, Gooch, Old, P Lever,
Amiss, Steele, Wood. Front: Snow, Knott, Greig, Edrich, Underwood
Well, not quite straight. Famously, on debut at Lord’s, when Steele first “went to war”, his grand entrance was not so much gladiatorial as farcical, redolent of another character seen on the big stage for the first time that summer, Basil Fawlty: “I went down a flight of stairs too many and almost ended up out the back of the pavilion. When I got out there, Lillee called me ‘Groucho’.” But Steele was no comedy act and there would be no faux pas once out on the field. Gritty rather than pretty, he immediately “got stuck in” and would slowly turn the tide of the series, perhaps the national mood.

* * *

There are certain superficial parallels between Steele’s effect in 1975 and that of the Olympics this year, the latter offering a similar dollop of succour – for a city submerged by riots and looting twelve months previously and for a country paying the price for financial joyriding. Indeed, it’s debatable quite how much affection Steele’s famous “bank clerk who went to war” epithet would inspire in today’s economically straitened times, with government bailouts for banks and simmering rage at executive bonuses. Where all this provoked the short-lived Occupy movement, Steele, the very antithesis of recklessness – indeed, his parsimony earned him the nickname ‘Crime’: it doesn’t pay (also outdated, some would say) – decided he was going to do some occupation of his own: namely, of the crease, which was largely lacking in Boycott’s absence.

It is ironic that his opportunity arose in the manner it did, for Steele was “a big admirer of Boycott, the way he played. We’re similar people, from a mining background. We had a good discipline of the mind. And that’s what you need. I always felt I had a good temperament and north Staffordshire gave me that, no question.” At the heart of that upbringing was his uncle, Stan Crump, a Minor Counties stalwart of thirty years and pro in the North Staffordshire league when “it was in its heyday, before television. When there was a derby match, you couldn’t get in. It was marvellous.”

Practising come rain or snow with future county teammate Brian Crump on Stan, his dad’s back-garden concrete pitch, at the weekend the teenage Steele pitted his wits against the likes of Sonny Ramadhin (“a fantastic bowler, whether he threw it or not; a sort of early-day Muralitharan”), Roy Gilchrist (“mad as a March hare, but quick”) and West Indies captain, Frank Worrell (“wonderful man and marvellous player”). All the while he did a six-year apprenticeship as a printer, earning £14.50 a week, and played Minor Counties cricket for Staffordshire along with the likes of future England wicket-keeper Bob Taylor, and his captain, the former England leg-spinning all-rounder Jack Ikin, who popped his head round the Lord’s dressing room door after Steele’s debut innings half-century. “A lovely memory”.

His pay would rise to £21 per week when he came on the radar of the Northants secretary and recruiter-in-chief, Ken Turner, who “had never played cricket but he knew what being a cricketer was all about and had a knack of finding good cricketers. He said to Crumpy, ‘Who’s this chap Steele who’s getting all the runs for Staffordshire?’ Brian said, ‘It’s my cousin’. He said ‘Well you better get him down here’. And that’s how it went.”

Progress was steady, if unspectacular, until 1972 saw him miss out by twenty minutes on becoming the first batsmen to 1000 runs. By 1975, he says, “I was ready. I was at the top of my game”. His ascent was fortunate, in both sense of the word. “It was the benefit year. It all helped the revenue.” 

Steele on the attack at Headingley
After his 50 and 45 at Lord’s, Steele top-scored in each innings at Leeds (as he would do in six of his first eleven innings) before vandals protesting the imprisonment of George Davis caused the abandonment of the game, preventing an England team considered bedraggled two games earlier from the chance to force an Ashes decider at the Oval. Steele finished with 365 runs at 60 and, with no tour that winter, had to wait until the arrival of the West Indies for the resumption of his international career.

As has been wonderfully captured in the documentary Fire in Babylon, the tone of that encounter was set by a pre-series verbal salvo from the captain that did little to endear him to his own batsmen, let alone the opposition – a red rag that would become a white flag. “It was ridiculous, what [Greig] said. He said he ‘loved a challenge’ but the challenge was too much.”

The most gruesome act was played out on “a s--- wicket” at Old Trafford. “There were one or two who were twitching a bit, but we didn’t have fear. We were apprehensive of what was to come, but it wasn’t fear. Brian Close almost got battered to death, but he was an idiot. He said no bowler could hurt him and set out to prove it. He got more runs off the shoulders, chest and rib cage than he got off the bat. Brilliant bloke, Closey – 45, he was then. We don’t rush things in England, do we? We like our cricketers to mature.” 

These were grand tales to begin with, of course, but have been polished to perfection by years on the after dinner circuit, where he remains a popular speaker. His enduring love for the game drips from each sentence, whether reminiscing about bagging 8 for 1 as a fifteen-year-old or watching Pietersen’s hundred in India: “I loved the game. Still do. I think about it nearly every day.”

Indeed, when Steele reflects on his career the feelings are vividly alive, memory telescoping faraway emotions into a tangible present – not in angst, though, but warmly sighed over, a demonstration of that equanimity that served him so well as a batsman. For instance, he regrets not being able to deliver a Championship to a county still to win one (along with Somerset and Gloucestershire, one of three in that boat), particularly the near-miss of 1965. “We just wanted someone to draw with Worcestershire and we’d have won it. But Hampshire did a stupid declaration in a rain-affected three-day game and Worcester bowled them out for 31 and won the Championship. So that was a major disappointment.” 

And then there was his omission from the 1976-77 winter tour and the irritation at missing out on the overseas blazer. “They left me out against India, which wasn’t right. I got runs against all the quicks and as soon as the little diddlers came along I was left out. Out came the rabbits, the Fletchers and all these. Then they went and played the Centenary Test in Australia. I should have played that.” Even while alluding to “cliques, the old school tie,” there’s little genuine rancour. “I knew I couldn’t do much about it and moaning doesn’t do any good at all. I didn’t let them down. They let me down.”

Although he insists he would change nothing about his career, Steele’s life was itself irrevocably changed by those events. The carnivorous coup he pulled off with a local butcher – “lamb chops up to 50 runs, then steaks after that. Kept me going two years” – has entered cricketing folklore, while his exploits also prompted an unexpected call from John Moores, owner of Littlewoods pools and Everton FC. “He said he’d like to give me a donation for my benefit. I was busy with everything but he said it wasn’t going to be tuppence, and it wasn’t: it was four grand [almost £33,000 in today’s money]. There he was with his old ducks, his secretaries, all sixty, seventy, lovely man, old world, and he said ‘There we are mate; I’ve been watching you on that telly, you’ve done a grand job’. Before I went he said to his PR man, ‘Take him round the stores and let him take what he wants’. I thought, ‘Good god, it’s Christmas here. Santa Claus has come!’ And I did: took a shirt here, a suit, hats, you name it – went home with a bloody carful.”

* * *

In comparison with his on-field highlights – “walking out with the lion of England on, because that’s what you dreamed about, then kissing the cap when I got the hundred, thinking ‘this is the ultimate’” – the SPOTY award was merely “the icing on the cake”. And it was not an honour that surprised him – not from self-regard, of course, but because he saw a couple of “old muckers” from his club cricket days. “I said ‘What are you doing here?’ They said they’d won the Radio Times competition for saying why they thought their choice should get the prize. When I went through the door [into the studio], I suddenly twigged and thought, ‘If they’ve won it, I’ve won it’.” 

collecting SPOTY
And won it he had, edging out the hurdler Alan Pascoe and swimmer David Wilkie, although not without more mirth. “It was funny: when I arrived at Lord’s on my first day, one of the selectors was Len Hutton, and he called me ‘Derek’. Then when I got up to receive the prize, even the presenter got me name wrong. He also called me ‘Derek’.”

This Sunday, when the eyes of the nation will be treated to a pageant of sporting excellence in this most gilded of years, somewhere in the audience will be an unassuming “professional grandfather”, fond of a glass of white wine and a yarn, the latter doubtless flowing in proportion to the former. As he mingles with the great and good of British sport, attempts to lure him into saying something grandiose about his time in the spotlight will be met with as resolute a forward defence as he showed to Thommo and Lillee, Roberts and Holding. “We’d been down. People told me it was Churchillian. I don’t know… Somebody just came and got stuck in and gave them a bit of inspiration and that’s why the country got behind me”.

Steele will admit that a similar feelgood effect was achieved by the Olympics: “They were inspirational. Brilliant. It had been a miserable summer but suddenly we had three weeks of good weather and it was tremendous, really brought the country together.” As for the award itself, he “can see three or four winning the award: Jess Ennis, Mo Farah, Andy Murray. But I’m backing Wiggins. It was an incredible achievement to win the Tour de France.”

For English cricketers to show admiration for a yellow jersey is a rare thing, but the down-to-earth and determinedly normal Wiggins would indeed be a worthy addition to an illustrious list of great sportspeople – great people – including, among others, Bobby Moore, Jackie Stewart, Kelly Holmes, Henry Cooper, Torvill and Dean, Seb Coe, Steve Davis, Steve Redgrave and “just a bloke from Stoke who loves an oatcake,” David Stanley Steele. 

The original version of this piece was published by ESPNcricinfo 

Tuesday, 4 December 2012


I wrote a somewhat frivolous piece about cricket and food some months ago, pitched it to Cricinfo last week, and hey presto they decided to run it -- albeit not in the XIs section for which it was intended. Feel free to have a guess as to the other ten, given that the title they chose for it reveals the first one: Dodgy Prawns and Other Delights