December 15, 2012

When a nation loved a 'bank clerk'

In 1975, surprise England pick David Steele defied the visiting Australians, captured the public imagination, and was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year

In the 58-year history of the BBC's much-loved Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) award, only four cricketers have ever collected the main prize. All Jim Laker had to do in 1956 was bag 19 wickets in a Test match against Australia, while the two most recent were latter-day action heroes, whose buccaneering peaks were reached in the two most dramatic Ashes series of the modern era. The fourth recipient was also a player whose apogee came against the oldest cricketing enemy, in 1975, but he was as similar to Ian Botham and Andrew 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, one whose success resonated most deeply with the British psyche, its stoicism, obduracy, pluck and perseverance, be that real or idealised. Steele epitomised "Dunkirk Spirit" in whites.

At the time of his improbable emergence, England were in disarray. Pummelled 4-1 in Australia in 1974-75, they lost the first Test of the return series by an innings, whereupon skipper Mike Denness was summarily sacked. Things were equally grim off the field, with inflation running at 24.2%, widespread redundancies, and growing social and political unrest.

Britain needed galvanising. The new England captain, Tony Greig, wanted someone to withstand the ferocity of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, to provide the sort of top-order doggedness missing since Geoffrey Boycott, overlooked for the captaincy in favour of Denness, had gone into self-imposed international exile. "Greigy went to see the umpires and they gave him a nod," remembers Steele. "Good move, that."

Others had seen little to suggest that the uncapped 33-year-old averaging in the low thirties would take to Test cricket with such aplomb. Yet the gloom started to lift as Steele - memorably dubbed "the bank clerk who went to war" - walked out of that unremarkable career with "unfashionable Northamptonshire" and straight into the crosshairs of Lillee and Thommo.

Well, not quite straight. Famously, on debut at Lord's, Steele's grand entrance was not so much gladiatorial as farcical, redolent of another quintessentially English character first seen on the big stage that summer, Basil Fawlty: "I went down a flight of stairs too many and almost ended up out the back of the pavilion. Then when I got out there, Lillee started calling me 'Groucho'."

But Steele was no comedy act, and there would be no faux pas out on the field. Gritty rather than pretty, he didn't so much strike a blow for ordinariness as for the extraordinary lurking within those considered ordinary, and with each over-my-dead-body block and defiant hook off his helmetless head he slowly turned the tide of the series, perhaps the national mood. "We'd been down. People told me it was Churchillian. I just came and got stuck in and gave them a bit of inspiration and that's why the country got behind me".

It is ironic that his opportunity arose in the manner it did, for Steele was a big admirer of Boycott. "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."

"People told me it was Churchillian. I just came and got stuck in and gave them a bit of inspiration, and that's why the country got behind me"

Taught the game by his uncle Stan, father of future county colleague Brian Crump, the teenage Steele played league cricket against such luminaries as Sonny Ramadhin, Roy Gilchrist and Frank Worrell, often in front of four-figure crowds. There were also five years of Minor Counties cricket for Staffordshire alongside the likes of Bob Taylor and Jack Ikin, both England players, before he joined Northants in 1963, having completed his printer's apprenticeship.

Progress was steady, if unspectacular, until 1972 saw him miss out by 20 minutes on being the first batsman that season to 1000 runs. By 1975 he was "ready, at the top of my game" and duly scored 365 runs in six innings as England, drawing the final three Tests, were denied a potential Ashes decider by vandals digging up the Headingley pitch.

With no winter tour to follow, Steele had to wait until the arrival of the West Indies in 1976 for the resumption of his international career. Greig's infamous "make them grovel" comment - a red rag that almost became a white flag - set the tone for a 3-0 series defeat, though Steele made a century at Trent Bridge and top-scored for the sixth time in 11 innings as England were shot out for 71 on "a shit wicket" at Old Trafford, where Brian Close "almost got battered to death".

Having survived this barrage with a Test average of 42 from eight games, Steele was then controversially omitted from the subsequent tour to India. "I got runs against all the quicks and as soon as the little diddlers came along, I was left out, which wasn't right," he says. While disappointed not to have the overseas blazer, he was philosophical about things. "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."

While he insists he would change nothing about his career, Steele's life was nevertheless changed irrevocably by that magical summer, also his benefit year. Aside from a famous deal with a local butcher - "lamb chops up to 50 runs, then steaks after that; kept me going two years" - there was a donation of £4000 (almost £33,000 in today's money) from Littlewoods and Liverpool FC owner John Moores. "Before I left he said to his PR man, 'Show 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."

These were grand yarns to begin with, of course, but they have been polished over years on the after-dinner speaking circuit, where the reason for his enduring popularity is straightforward: "I loved the game. Still do. I think about it nearly every day."

Compared with his cricketing 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 "icing on the cake", a reward he guessed was coming when he bumped into two old mates from the Potteries as he entered the television studio to become a household name. Almost, at least: "When I got up to receive the prize, the presenter got my name wrong. He called me 'Derek'." Just as had Len Hutton, then a selector, on Steele's first day at Lord's.

On Sunday, as the BBC looks back on a year of unprecedented sporting excellence, this unassuming "professional grandfather" will be there as always, and he acknowledges a parallel between the uplift he helped provide 37 years ago and the feel-good effect of the Olympics in similarly tough economic times. "They were inspirational," he says of the 2012 Games. "It had been a miserable summer but suddenly we had three weeks of good weather and it was brilliant, really brought the country together."

As for the award itself, he can see "three or four" winning it. "Jess Ennis, Mo Farah, Andy Murray. But I'm backing Bradley Wiggins. It was an incredible achievement to win the Tour de France."

For an English cricketer to show admiration for a yellow jersey is unusual indeed but the determinedly down-to-earth Wiggins would be a worthy addition to an illustrious list of great British sportspeople, including among others Bobby Moore, Sir Jackie Stewart, Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Steven Redgrave, and "just a bloke from Stoke who loves an oatcake", David Stanley Steele.

Scott Oliver tweets here