Interviews InterviewsRSS FeedFeeds

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

Scott Oliver

December 15, 2012

Comments: 9 | Text size: A | A

David Steele batting against Australia, Lord's, July 1975
David Steele's defiance of Australia in 1975 was enough to win him the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award © Getty Images
Enlarge
Related Links
Players/Officials: David Steele

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

RSS Feeds: Scott Oliver

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by hampshirehog142 on (December 16, 2012, 16:33 GMT)

I was 15 in 1975 and I remember what great character he showed. Would you have David Steele or Ian Bell in your middle order- there's only one you could rely on when life gets tough.

Posted by FredBoycott on (December 16, 2012, 15:27 GMT)

Proper batsman and exponent of the #digin

One of the best.

Posted by Long-Leg on (December 16, 2012, 14:20 GMT)

I wasn't very old at the time (9 years old) but I remember him well. I remember our batsmen getting a pummelling at the hands of Lilley and Thommo and then this "bank clerk" came to the wicket and stood up to them. I think his name helped. Steele by name and Steely by nature. He as much as anyone stirred my love for the game and taught me the virtue of grit and determination. I have followed English cricket ever since.

Posted by   on (December 15, 2012, 23:29 GMT)

Yes, I remember him. He was awesome! He did not look like he could even bat but he defied the WI bowlers. Very courageous guy, you can forget some of the greats but if you saw him bat, you will never forget him. As a WI fan, I take my hat off to Steele.

Posted by CricketChat on (December 15, 2012, 15:36 GMT)

Yes, David was a gritty batsman who stood up to challenge well. Unfortunately, he was done in by Eng selectors. He should have played lot more matches than he did.

Posted by ranpath on (December 15, 2012, 9:01 GMT)

I myself also thought that he was quite old because of the grey hair. But he was amazing the way that he stood up to the WI quicks who at that time had started to become the thing that most batsmen feared. Well done David. Young players today should learn from your example.

Posted by dunger.bob on (December 15, 2012, 8:39 GMT)

I thought he was blonde due to black and white TV in 1975. It wasn't until I saw a colour photo in a magazine I realised he was grey haired. .. bloody nuisance of a batsman and a poster boy for what you can do with a moderate amount of talent but heaps of grit and guts. .. a real cinderella story for a short time and the kind of sports personality I like the best. .. Good on you David, sounds like you enjoyed yourself while you were there.

Posted by   on (December 15, 2012, 5:30 GMT)

Steele is Steel I recollect hearing BBC commentary of his adventure. Rare Breed.

Posted by Baddabing on (December 15, 2012, 5:05 GMT)

One of the most difficult batsmen to dismiss that has ever played Test cricket, those 6 innings in his debut series spanned an incredible 19 hours at the crease over many a late winter night on Australian TV, it seemed hard to believe he was only 33 the grey hair made him look much older

Comments have now been closed for this article

FeedbackTop
Email Feedback Print
Share
E-mail
Feedback
Print
Scott OliverClose

    The choking problem

Martin Crowe: If they are to live up to their potential in next year's World Cup at home, New Zealand need to look within

    Impressing Viv and Greg

Five Firsts: Former Pakistan batsman Haroon Rasheed on the compliments he received, and his admiration for Gavaskar

    Still plenty of ifs for Butt

Rob Steen: Salman Butt insists players should refrain from "wrongdoing" but that shouldn't gain him back the trust of those he duped

Outside the Grace Gate

Shot Selection: You think MCC members have it easy when it comes to watching a Test at Lord's? Think again

The weary middle age of cricket

Dave Hawksworth: On the field the action is youthful and thrilling, but off it, there's soul-crushing self-interest, with each board trying to outdo the other in incompetence

News | Features Last 7 days

UAE all set to host lavish welcoming party

The controversy surrounding the IPL has done little to deter fans in UAE from flocking the stadiums, as they gear up to watch the Indian stars in action for the first time since 2006

Attention on Yuvraj, Gambhir in IPL 2014

ESPNcricinfo picks five players for whom this IPL is of bigger significance

India: cricket's Brazil

It's difficult to beat a huge talent base exposed to good facilities, and possessed of a long history of competing as a nation

Fifty for the pantheon

What if you had to narrow all of cricket greatness down to 50 names?

'I love to take batsmen on'

Wahab Riaz, the Pakistan left-arm quick, on the pain of missing out on a ten-for, and his love for numbers and batting

News | Features Last 7 days