The two Davids

A refreshing appraisal of two latterday Test heroes by one of our younger contributors, Philip Wynn Owen

A refreshing appraisal of two latterday Test heroes by one of our younger contributors, Philip Wynn Owen

David Steele: obdurate, ageing mollusc © Getty Images
Perhaps no more interesting comparison can be made, among English players of the last few years, than that between two Davids - Gower and Steele. Both heroes, in their own way, their approach to batsmanship has proved so very different, apart from the obvious left-and right-handed contrast. Steele"s role was that of the obdurate, ageing mollusc, that fastens itself to a rock and has to be prised off. Gower is the little, silver fish, darting to and fro, flashing a myriad of colours about him, but constantly risking his brief life in an ocean of dangers.

David Steele played his first innings for England at Lord"s in a time of gravest crisis. He is peculiarly constructed for such crises - Gower is not. Grey-haired, hunched, angular, and peering through metal-rimmed spectacles, Steele proferred his front foot and fell on ball after ball with his bat and pad seemingly soldered together. Hammered into this deadening wall, the ball often fell like a spent artillery shell to the batsman"s feet. The image of a 'Grandad" defying the mighty Aussies was seen across the land. He did not attempt to 'score" most of his runs - they just rolled away from his solid, forward thrust.

Occasionally, one glimpsed the cricketer beneath, striving to emerge from under the shell of the grand old professional. Such moments occurred when he hooked with great skill and surprising reflexes, sometimes even when he had begun his seemingly irreversible forward march. He captured the nation"s imagination within weeks, for he personified true British values - rugged determination, hard work, the battle against unequal odds, the champion of British pride - a Churchill, or even a Palmerston, of the cricket field. As he faced each ball, from Lillee, Walker or Thomson, he was saying to himself -'Watch the ball. Watch the ball". A simple approach from a straightforward batsman.

Steele came from dour Northamptonshire via Staffordshire, unfashionable counties, seemingly made to produce a player who was to enrapture the very heart of England. David Gower learnt his cricket on the sundrenched fields of Kent. A carefree batsman from King"s School, Canterbury, he moved to Leicestershire to play first-class cricket. There, carefully protected and nurtured by Ray Illingworth, he was encouraged to continue playing his natural game, with the attacking batsmanship of Davison, Dudleston and company to encourage him. If Steele"s was the school-master"s approach to batting. Gower"s is that of the mischievous pupil.

David Gower: a lissom sprite © Getty Images
Facing the great master of spin - Bishan Bedi- for the first time in a Test, at Lord"s in 1979, Gower was careful and respectful at first, like the naughty little lad at the back of the formroom when confronted by a new teacher. He sized up the threat by stopping, in exemplary fashion, the first eleven balls beguilingly flighted towards him. Then, on the last ball of Bedi"s second over to him, he contemptuously swept a six into the Tavern.

When Steele was batting we had no real fun - our eyes, and his, were on the scoreboard or the clock. If Gower begins to disrupt a session with his fluent, carefree strokes, one enjoys them as a fantastic interlude in otherwise serious business, only afterwards realizing what an important effect he has had on the match as a whole. For while he is at the wicket, we are racing along with this lissom sprite, savouring each beautiful, seemingly effortless stroke. His secret lies in timing. As if with a feather, he glides the ball square to the boundary, or ushers it through the mid-on area for four.

Steele wore sweat-bands on each bare forearm. Gower"s sleeves are buttoned down and he seems forever cool - as if he has just discarded his jacket and tie to have a lunchtime knock at school. When he gets out stupidly - as is often the case - it seems so appropriate, since the concept of any ball being too good for him seems ridiculous. As he 'dollies up" a simple catch to mid-off, the hearts and minds of the spectators sink back to this earth. But young Gower does not seem to mind. He walks away quickly and seriously, yet with a spring in his step which seems to say: 'Never mind! I enjoyed it while I was there and it"s only a game, after all."

Some day, doubtless, David Gower will be a seasoned, senior English professional. But I will always have to remember him as the carefree 'boy-cricketer" of Canterbury - the lithe figure, with curly, blond locks, effortlessly gliding from one crease to the other with his quick, unflustered steps.