Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 1915

Allan Gibson Steel - A tribute

The death of Mr. AG Steel in the middle of the cricket season of 1914, came with the most painful suddenness. Few, if any, knew that he was ill, and as he was only in his 56th year there was every reason to expect many more years of life for him, but he died after only a few hours' illness at his house in London on the 15th day of June. Mr. Steel was captain of the Cambridge Eleven in 1880, President of the MCC in 1902, and for several years was a Barrister with a good practice in Liverpool, and was Recorder of Oldham from 1904 till his death.

Mr. Steel's cricket career dates from 1874, when he first got his place in the Marlborough Eleven. He was not much of a bowler in his first year; in fact against Rugby he only went on for a few overs in the second innings, but he carried out his bat for 41 in the first innings, a good performance for a boy not quite sixteen years old. In his second year he only made 1 and 16 against Rugby, but he took four wickets for 52 runs, and against Cheltenham he got six wickets for 30 runs. His first great year was 1876, when as captain he led Marlborough to a great victory by five wickets. Steel's own share in this match was six wickets for 28 runs in Rugby's first innings, which he followed up with an innings of 84; then in Rugby's second innings he got four wickets for 40, and when Marlborough went in, wanting 77 runs to win, Steel got 28 runs out of 32 made while he was batting. In 1877, with the assistance of C. P. Wilson as an all-round player and G. H. Alston as a wicketkeeper, Rugby were beaten by 196 runs, Steel taking twelve wickets for 59 runs and scoring 0 and 128. Steel as a cricketer was always full of confidence, so perhaps the story is true of his saying that it was hard luck for Rugby when he was dismissed without scoring in the first innings, as they would regret it when his second innings came, and it is probable that they did.

The late Mr. W. J. Ford, who was a master at Marlborough in Steel's time, and an excellent judge of the game, has left it on record that Steel was never a better bowler than during his last year at school. Mr. Ford describes his bowling, that his regular pace was slow, almost slow medium, so it was never easy to get out and take him on the full pitch, and considering he was perpetually breaking the ball both ways, in which respect he was practically the pioneer of slow bowlers, he kept his length with remarkable accuracy, over-pitching rather than under-pitching the ball. Mr. Ford adds that he never knew a bowler more difficult to drive than Steel, for among other gifts he could send a ball up at a great pace. This is remarkably high praise for any bowler, and, if what Mr. Ford says is true, Steel, in his last year at school, was a good enough bowler to play for England, and it is doubtful if this can be said of any other boy bowler in the history of the game.

His first season in first-class cricket was as a member of the celebrated Cambridge Eleven of 1878, which is generally reputed to have been the best University eleven ever seen: this may or may not be the case, but it is certain that no University eleven has ever been so successful either before or since, and the greatest all-round player in it was Steel. They played eight matches, including one against the Australians, and won them all. He headed the batting averages with an average of 37, and his bowling took 75 wickets in 282 overs at an average of 7 runs a wicket. In the whole season he was actually at the head of the bowling averages for All England, taking 164 wickets for an average of 9 runs per wicket. As may be gathered from Mr. Ford's criticism, Steel's bowling perhaps, owed its success to a certain trickiness, with the usual result that as batsmen found his tricks out, so did he become rather less effective. He certainly reached his high water mark in his first year at Cambridge and never afterwards was he quite so successful, though of course he was a very fine bowler for several years more, notably in 1879, 1880, and 1881.

In 1878, during the Cambridge season, the wickets were rather soft, and some of his performances were most startling. Against a rather weak Oxford Eleven, he got thirteen wickets for 73 runs; against MCC at Lord's he got fourteen wickets for 80 runs; and against Surrey ten wickets for 50 runs. Yorkshire had on more than one occasion to remember Steel, and at Cambridge he took thirteen wickets for 85 runs. It was said that on one occasion the famous Tom Emmett, when he found that Steel was playing for Lancashire against Yorkshire at Old Trafford, said to the Yorkshire eleven, Let's go home, lads, Steel's playing, and Yorkshire's beat! If this was said in 1878, Emmett's fears appear to have been justified, for Lancashire won by an innings and 26 runs, and Steel's bowling took fourteen wickets for 112 runs. He played for the Gentlemen in the great match against the Players at Lord's, and indeed for many years was one of the best players in this match.

It is often the case that if a cricketer develops as a batsman his bowling goes off. Steel was at the top of his bowling form in his last year at Marlborough and his first year at Cambridge. During his four years at Cambridge he was, however, one of the best bowlers in England, but after that there was a decline. But from 1878to 1881 inclusive he took 474 wickets at an average cost of just under 12 runs a wicket, and for a four years' record this has seldom been equalled by any bowler, professional or amateur. Steel was a bowler who possessed not only a power of varying his methods, but he did not mind being hit, and moreover he made a study of the subject, and his well-known chapter on bowling in the Badminton Library proved what a complete master he was of the art. In his whole career in first-class cricket he took 721 wickets for an average of 14 runs a wicket, but most of his bowling was done in his first five years, and he was never so good as in 1878.

As a batsman Steel was great in every sense of the word. He was a master of every kind of hit. The cut, drive, leg hit, and play off his legs all were alike to Steel, and in addition his driving was equally good on both sides of the wicket. He had not exactly an attractive style as he was short in stature, and he was a trifle short-sighted, and seemed to stoop a little to get a sight of the ball. But he hit at every ball that was off the wicket, and a great many that were straight, and master as he was of every hit he was a very fast scorer, and few cricketers were less troubled by nerves. Against Australia he played some fine innings, and when in Australia with Lord Darnley's Eleven, made 135 not out against Spofforth, Palmer, Boyle, and Midwinter. In all probability his best innings in Australia was one of 76 runs on a difficult wicket, out of a total of 156, against Victoria against the bowling of Palmer, Boyle and Midwinter. In eleven-a-side matches in this tour Steel headed the averages, and with Barlow got most wickets. His bowling against odds was a triumph, as his 125 wickets only cost four runs a wicket. In 1884 for England against Australia, Steel played a superb innings of 148 at Lord's with only one chance. I shall never forget a beautiful innings played in 1878 for Cambridge against the Australians at Lord's. Cambridge had won every match and were out for blood, and though A. P. Lucas could not play the University won by an innings and 72 runs. Alfred Lyttelton, on going in first, played a fine innings, and Steel was run out for 59. Among other batting gifts Steel was very quick-footed, not in the sense of habitually moving in front of the wicket-- Steel was never guilty of that--but in jumping out and smothering the ball at the pitch. Spofforth used to bowl a slowish ball every now and then, but Steel constantly was out of his ground and driving any ball that he could get at. In 1884 one of the strongest elevens Australia ever had were playing MCC at Lord's, and the Club on winning the toss made 481 of which W. G. Grace, Steel, Barnes, and T. C. O'Brien made 412. Steel's share was 134. W. G. Grace said of this innings that he should never forget the unceremonious way Steel treated the Australian bowling directly he went in, and Spofforth, Giffen, Palmer, an Cooper had an unenviable time of it.

For England against Australia, AG Steel played in thirteen matches, and twice he scored centuries; while for Gentlemen v. Players at Lord's he played in twelve matches. At the Oval in 1879 on a soft wicket Steel and A. H. Evans bowled all through both innings against a strong eleven of the Players, Steel's nine wickets costing just under five runs a wicket and Evans' ten just under seven. This feat in Gentlemen v. Players has for the Gentlemen been performed by Sir F. Bathurst and M. Kempson, AG Steel and A. H. Evans, S. M. J. Woods and F. S. Jackson.

AG Steel, as has been pointed out, was essentially a tricky bowler, and it is easy to imagine him as developing this side of cricket by a considerable amount of painstaking practice, but as a batsman it is impossible to conceive him as anything but a purely natural cricketer, wanting little practice, and quite capable of playing a fine innings after standing out of first-class or any cricket for weeks. In 1886 he only played twelve innings the whole season, but in the three matches he played for Lancashire his innings were 83, 55, 80 not out, 14, and it was sad for cricket that after seven seasons, from 1878 to 1884, he could only make casual appearances.

What a tower of strength he was for Cambridge may be imagined. His total batting average for all the four years he played was 32 runs per innings, and he got 198 wickets at an average cost of 10 runs. Against Oxford, and the University match is the match for all amateur cricketers, Steel had an average of 30 runs and his bowling took 38 wickets for 9 runs a wicket. *

It is interesting to compare Steel's bowling in the University match with that of Mr. A. H. Evans, who played for Oxford in the same four years. Evans was practically the only really good bowler Oxford had all the four years, and moreover the Cambridge batting was some way superior to that of Oxford, and Steel had some good bowling colleagues like P. H. Morton and A. F. J. Ford. Steel got thirty-eight wickets for an average of nine runs a wicket, and Evans thirty-six for an average of 13. Both were very fine performances, and considering the superior quality of the Cambridge batsmen Mr. Evans is entitled to an equal share of praise.

It may be truly said that in 1878 Steel's bowling was never really collared the whole season, and as he not only played for Cambridge, but in both Gentlemen and Players matches, and several matches for Lancashire, this is very high praise. I always say that the first batsman who ever really pulverized Steel's bowling was Mr. Frank Penn, who playing for MCC against Cambridge in 1879 at Lord's, made 134 in two hours and twenty-five minutes. This was an innings without a chance and was the talk of the season, but though defeated on this occasion this was the year when Steel and A. H. Evans ran through a strong side of Players at the Oval.

Enough has been said to show what a great cricketer AG Steel was. If his bowling went off after his first year at Cambridge, still he had a fine record for the whole of his career, but his bowling feats in 1878 were really so remarkable that his analysis is worth considering. Of course in those days visiting elevens to the Universities were not all strong in batting, but there was C. I. Thornton's Eleven with W. G. and G. F. Grace, Gilbert, Midwinter, and Thornton himself, and against this side Steel got eight wickets for 96 runs. There was Yorkshire, one of the leading counties, helpless against Steel, who took 13 wickets for 85 runs. The whole average of 75 wickets for 557 runs under any circumstances is marvellous, and though the season at Cambridge was on the whole in favour of the bowlers, it must be remembered that Fenner's was always a batsman's paradise. For Lancashire against Notts he took thirteen wickets for 72 runs, and his great feat against Yorkshire has already been attended to.

As a bat AG Steel was great because he had an infinite variety of hits, unbounded confidence, great quickness of feet, and considerable power in judgment of length. He was rather apt to be lbw, from a habit he had of following his bat in playing forward, but he was essentially a batsman by nature, and he did not seem to want to play himself in, but scored directly he went to the wicket. He was a rapid scorer and a difficult man to bowl maidens to. A characteristic innings he played was in 1880 against Shaw and Morley at Lord's for Cambridge against MCC At that time Shaw and Morley were nearly, if not quite, the two best bowlers in England, and Lord's was a favourite ground for both of them. But Steel, on going in first wicket down, made 51 runs out of 75, and it is safe to say that from the moment he went in he seemed to make this celebrated pair of bowlers mere practice bowlers. This was a quality Steel seemed to possess. Most batsmen have one or two bowlers whom they dislike, like the late C. J. Ottaway, who had the strongest defence of his day. But Ottaway once told me that he never felt happy when playing J. C. Shaw, no matter how long he had been batting. Many batsmen on going in first feel this as a rule against good slow bowlers, but Steel's great quickness of foot and power of jumping out to meet such bowling, a lost art in these days, seemed to put slow bowlers off their length, and very few batsmen had this gift. Steel was not a batsman who opened his shoulders and sent a ball over the ropes, but he was a fast scorer because he had such a number of shots in his locker and never left a ball alone unless it got up very high. He was a good field, though not a very safe catch, as he was a quick starter and smart anywhere near the wicket, and he was a good judge of the game. Taken altogether in his prime AG Steel as an all-round cricketer had good claims to be considered the best in England, always excepting W. G. Grace.

A speech of AG Steel's against changing the lbw rule when the subject was brought up some years ago before the members of the M.C.C., had a great deal to do in preventing the reform being carried by a sufficient majority. In his later years AG Steel completely changed his mind on this subject, and became a wholehearted supporter of the proposed alteration.

AG Steel as a man was always cheery and he never made an enemy. Nothing made him lose his temper, and many a young cricketer was helped by him, and there never existed anybody of whom he was jealous either among his professional brethren at the Bar or in the cricket field. In his later years his financial position was easy, and he gave up active work as a Barrister, but if he had stuck to it he might in Liverpool have made a good practice.

© Wisden Cricketers' Almanack