Allan Steel © Getty Images
Allan Steel © Getty Images

Had there been no WG Grace, Alan Gibson ‘AG’ Steel, born September 24, 1858, would probably have been rated England’s best cricketer during the early days of Test cricket. Indeed, Steel had 7,000 runs at 29.41 and 789 wickets at 14.78 at First-Class level (he bowled medium-pace, off-spin, and leg-spin); from 13 Tests he scored 600 runs at 35.29 and claimed 29 wickets at 20.86. Abhishek Mukherjee lists 18 facts about an English captain and a champion batsman.

Even if AG Steel had done nothing else, he would have been remembered as an amateur who bowled — especially in the heat of Australia. It was a rarity, something one saw only Steel and CT Studd practise in the early days of Test cricket.

But Steel was special. He was a master of front-foot batting and a leg-spinner who could turn the ball by the proverbial mile, though he also bowled off-breaks and medium-pace.

1.  It runs in the family

The AG Steel brethren remain one of the finest Lancashire had produced. There were seven of them, five of whom played cricket at competitive level. Douglas ‘DQ’, the second, played for Lancashire (he also won Cambridge blues in football and rugby). Allan was the second. Harold ‘HB’ and Ernest ‘EE’, the fourth and fifth brothers, also played for Lancashire. Frederick Liddell ‘FL’, the eldest, played for Liverpool, but not First-Class cricket.

AG’s son Allan ‘AI’ Steel played for Middlesex before he died in World War I, three years after AG’s death.

2.  Francis Thompson’s ode

Francis Thompson has immortalised Lancashire cricket as well as the Steel brothers in his Sons, who have sucked stern nature forth:

The batting Steels, DG, HB,
Dost thou forget? And him, AG,
Bat superb, of slows the prince,
Father of all slow bowlers since?

3.  EV Lucas‘s ode

There is another poem that finds a reference to Steel and the humongous turn he obtained off the pitch. The poem, written by EV Lucas, is probably a take on John Nyren’s Young Cricketer’s Tutor:

Could we but see how Small withstands
The three-foot break of Steel,
If Silver Billy’s ‘wondrous hands’
Survive with Briggs or Peel!
If Mann, with all his pluck of yore,
Can keep the leather rolling,
And, at a crisis, notch a score,
When Woods and Hearne are bowling!

4.  The extra L

AG was born Alan Gibson Steel, but somewhere down the line the extra L got added to his first name, making it Allan. His son was called Allan at birth.

5.  Early days

AG’s father Joseph Steel was a ship-owner. He went to Marlborough College (where he led in cricket) and Trinity Hall College, Cambridge University, where he won a blue in cricket for all four years as well as rackets.

6.  Legal matters

A barrister at Inner Temple in 1883, AG practised in Liverpool. He went on to become a King’s Council (1901) and Recorder of Oldham (1903) — a position he held till his death in 1914. He was also named MCC President in 1902.

7.  Author

When The Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes series came out (a series of books covering all sports and pastime), Steel wrote the bowling section for the cricket volume. RH Lyttelton, First-Class cricketer and nephew of Alfred Lyttelton, was a co-author.

Note: The Badminton Library refers to MCC as Parliament of Cricket. It also calls cricket ‘Our National Game’

8.  A few firsts

Steel slammed 135* at SCG in 1882-83. A year-and-a-half later, he bettered it with 148 at Lord’s. In the process Steel became the first cricketer to score 2 Test hundreds; he was also the first cricketer to score hundreds in both Australia and England.

Note: Later that summer Percy McDonnell became the second to both feats.

9.  The first Lord

The 148 by Steel in 1884, mentioned above, was also the first Test hundred at Lord’s. Arthur Shrewsbury would score the second hundred (164) in 1886. Steel’s name, thus, resides at the top of the Lord’s honours boards.

10.  The Gibson bias

Whenever journalist-broadcaster Alan Gibson made an all-time World XI, AG was definitely a part of it — for the simple reason that AG’s full name was Allan Gibson Steel (Alan at birth, as mentioned above).

11.  When Murdoch turned sub

In the 1884 Lord’s Test (where Steel scored his second hundred), Billy Murdoch (captain of Australia) fielded as substitute for England. He caught Tup Scott off Steel. It was also the first catch as a substitute in Test cricket.

12.  Oh captain, my captain!

Steel was not a regular captain, but when he did lead sides, there was no stopping him. Few have led their sides to as many different victories in keenly contested matches at every level. Steel led Marlbrough School to wins over Rugby School (1876 and 1877); Cambridge over Oxford (1880); Gentlemen over Players (1888); Lancashire over Yorkshire (1886); and England over Australia (Ashes whitewash, 1886).

13.  Prejudices

Being a barrister, Steel was able to earn a living on his own, and thus played for Gentlemen. Unfortunately, his opinion on The Players was rather harsh: “The more cricket gets into the hands of professional players, the worse it will be for the game and its reputation.”

14.  Frustration

As one youth after another went to the Second Boer War, it affected cricket significantly. The fact that cricket lost some of her best talents to the war was unacceptable to him. He wrote in 1900: “At the moment of writing one hears noting but War! War! War! What number of gallant young soldier cricketers have gone to the front?”

15.  Studd’s efforts

The speech of certain DL Moody was responsible for the changed mindset of Studd, cricketer-turned-missionary. Studd took both Ivo Bligh (captain of the 1882-83 Ashes series) and Steel with him. Moody had a profound influence on both Bligh and Steel.

16.  Graceful jealousy

Many rate Steel an equal to WG Grace as an all-rounder. The Doctor himself was a big fan of Steel. He wrote in Classic Guide to Cricket: “I have never envied a county the possession of any cricketer so much as I envied Lancashire the possession of Mr AG Steel.” WG was never one to dish out compliments easily!

The feeling was mutual. Steel wrote of Grace: “Other men keep their right foot pretty steady, but WG moves it during the actual stroke, and that is what I have always envied in him.”

17.  The bat-ball balance

Steel was of the opinion that the sport was biased towards the batsman, and took steps to rectify this. He made a cricket bat that was an inch narrower than usual, which would allow the bowlers to get wickets at more regular intervals.

In their co-authored The Memorial Biography of Dr WG Grace, Lord Hawke, Lord Harris, and Sir Douglas Home wrote: “To me it seemed a revolution which would have altered the game, like asking a sportsman to shoot with a toy gun or a billiard player to use a cue a foot too short or too long.”

18.  Immortalised by the urn

Like several other of his teammates from the victorious 1882-83 series (the first Ashes), Steel’s name was etched on the urn. The oft-quoted poem on the side of the urn reads:

When Ivo goes back with the urn, the urn;
Studds, Steel, Read and Tylecote return, return;
The welkin will ring loud,
The great crowd will feel proud,
Seeing Barlow and Bates with the urn, the urn;
And the rest coming home with the urn.

The side was led by Bligh. It is probably not a coincidence that AG named his son Allan Ivo Steel.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor of CricketCountry and CricLife. He tweets at @ovshake42.)