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Team man Cameron Steel now out on his own

From getting the yips to bowling to Steven Smith in the nets, Surrey allrounder has taken long route to the top

Cameron Steel has enjoyed a prolific start to the season with the ball, Surrey vs Somerset, County Championship, Division One, The Oval, April 14, 2024

Cameron Steel has enjoyed a prolific start to the season with the ball  •  Surrey CCC/Getty Images

The County Championship is not won in April. But that does not mean its most surprising story cannot present itself this early.
Introducing Cameron Steel, the country's leading wicket-taker. The Surrey allrounder has 20 Division One dismissals at an average of 12.15 and an economy rate of 2.65. Not bad for a legspinner who has never previously registered double-figures in a season.
By his own admission, it is all a bit surreal, even if has been the culmination of graft and belief. "I've got to this point by staying pretty humble and doing what I need to do for the team, day in and day out," Steel says, before adding: "It's just nice to be playing and part of the team and contributing."
Those words are what you'd expect from a two-time winner of Surrey's Graham Kersey Team Player of the Year award. If he does the three-peat, Gareth Batty has promised he will punch him in the face - although the head coach's threat is rooted in affection
"That's his way of saying, 'I think you're a really good player - you need to look after yourself as well as look out for other people'," says Steel, now more au fait with Batty's love language in his fourth season at the club.
Steel is a genial type; at the end of last season, for instance, he went around the changing room hoovering up kit to pass on to the Surrey Cricket Foundation. Now, he is on a surer professional path.
His 5 for 25 in the opening fixture against Lancashire and 5 for 96 against Somerset - which came after 4 for 50 in the first innings - were his first five-wicket hauls. Six in the match against Kent helped Surrey notch their first win of the season.
A nomadic life that began in San Francisco before his parents moved to Somerset, where he attended Millfield school, then over to Perth, aged 13, before returning to the UK to attend Durham University, has been followed by a nomadic career.
Upon graduating - the first of his 59 first-class appearances came 10 years ago for Durham's UCCE - he moved up the road to Chester-le-Street as a top-order batter. That was partly because he was recovering from the yips, which hit him in 2016, when he was also released by Middlesex.
Steel had always been an allrounder; offies first, before some typical "ah just give it a go" Aussie encouragement from Scotch College coaches Mike Hirsch and Ted Wishart turned him to wristspin. When Steel temporarily lost that skill, he lost a piece of himself.
At Durham, he started back up from scratch. Jon Lewis and Paul Collingwood - coach and captain at the time - offered unwavering support. It helped, too, that the home pitches were seamer-friendly, meaning whenever Steel did get a bowl, there was no great expectation.
There was no moment when things clicked again. Keyhole surgery to shave down the joint in his right shoulder where the collarbone and shoulder blade meet, along with fixing a shoulder impingement, resulted in months off bowling. Those issues came about through hours upon hours of attempting to bowl himself out of the yips.
"I think it surprised a lot of people in the cricket world. They'd be like, 'hold on, he's been punted by Durham and he's been signed by the biggest club in the country!'"
Cameron Steel on joining Surrey
Rebuilding behind the scenes was set against undulating form with the bat. Two decent Championship seasons in 2017 and 2018 aside, he struggled for runs, and after a dire 2020 in which he averaged 4.40 across three matches, the writing was on the wall. With Scott Borthwick and Sean Dickson joining Durham the following season, and Cameron Bancroft signed as the overseas, Steel was deemed surplus to requirements. When he suggested his bowling could be utilised more, he was told it was too weak for professional cricket.
That winter of 2020-21, he returned to Perth and embarked on a career-saving stint at his club, Claremont Nedlands. With Covid-19 protocols restricting the size of training groups, Steel was part of a foursome that included coach Jim Allenby (formerly of Leicestershire, Glamorgan and Somerset), a certain Tim David on the cusp of global fame and Nick Hobson, who was contracted to Perth Scorchers. He went on to take 41 first grade wickets at 9.
Unbeknownst to him, Alec Stewart is a voracious grade cricket watcher. "He's ridiculous, isn't he?" laughs Steel, at the fact Surrey's outgoing director of cricket spends his winter nights watching static camera feeds from the other side of the world. Stewart inquired about Steel's availability for the 2021 campaign, only for the player to rebuff the most influential man in county cricket.
"I'd never met him, but he called my agent and said he'd like to have me on loan. But I also had Essex and Hampshire wanting me on loan.
"Surrey and Essex wanted me as a bowler, Hampshire wanted me as a back-up opener. I thought I was more likely to play at Hampshire, so went there."
Steel's Hampshire stint was mostly in the twos. But as fate would have it, two of his standout performances came against Surrey, with 134 in a red-ball friendly before taking 4 for 20 in a T20 at the Oval. Stewart returned, this time with a two-year deal. Steel accepted and brows furrowed.
"It was one of those ones where I think it surprised a lot of people in the cricket world," Steel says. "They'd be like, 'hold on, he's been punted by Durham and he's been signed by the biggest club in the country!'"
His first major contribution was 141 against Lancashire in April 2023, when he arrived at the crease with Surrey 164 for 5 in their first innings. The last month, however, is on a whole other plane.
Even with Dan Lawrence joining from Essex to offer another spin option, Steel knew he'd get a go early in the 2024 campaign with Will Jacks at the IPL and two rounds of the Kookaburra ball up first. Another productive winter, this time in Sydney for grade side East Dolphins, had him training with New South Wales and even testing himself against Steve Smith as a net bowler for Sydney Sixers.
"He hits a lot of balls so I bowled a lot of them," says Steel on his sessions with Smith. "Even bowling to him and experimenting with stuff myself knowing, 'yes he'll hit me for a few sixes but he might sky, miss or not pick a couple'. That made a difference to my confidence, to know there is a level and I'm not too far away from it."
Beyond becoming a mainstay in Surrey's T20 Blast plans and nabbing a Hundred gig, he wants international honours. There have been back-and-forth flirtations with the USA, but his sights are fixed elsewhere. "My aim remains the same - to play for England and play at as high a level as I can."
With Batty's guidance, and input from bowling coaches Jade Dernbach and Azhar Mahmood (who has since left to join Pakistan), each delivery has more vigour and belief behind it. All with renewed assurance in an idiosyncratic action forged by Steel himself.
"If I had a pound for every time a coach has asked me to use my front arm more... I wouldn't be driving my Toyota Auris."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo