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The Spin | Cameron Steel takes roundabout route into the limelight with Surrey
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The Spin | Cameron Steel takes roundabout route into the limelight with Surrey

The Spin is, admittedly, late to the tale. We’re up in the scorer’s box at the Oval, two days on from Surrey’s County Championship victory over Kent, two days away from the visit of Hampshire to close April’s proceedings. Cameron Steel has already spoken to the Times and the Cricketer about his 20 wickets for the defending champions at 12.15 after three rounds, his leg-spin making him the leading wicket-taker in the country. After we’re done talking, a Cricinfo journalist will run through a set of similar questions for the 28-year-old.

Yes, in a county side consisting of England internationals, Indian Premier League starters and clutch overseas pros, Steel – a polite, unassuming all-rounder largely unknown beyond the shires – is the man to speak to at present. “I could never have expected the stats to be the way they are,” he says. “But I’ve felt as though it’s been a long time coming for my bowling to get to this point.”

It begins with multiple continental moves. Born in the United States to English parents, Steel spent his early years in Hampshire and Somerset before a family trip to Australia for the 2006-07 Ashes prompted a switch to Perth: “Mum and Dad just decided they loved it and wanted to move.” The love for batting was already there before the bowling developed in his teens and took him through Western Australia’s age-group sides. “I was sort of touted as the next big thing when it came to leggies,” he says. He then returned to England, representing Middlesex’s second XI while studying and playing first-class cricket at Durham University. But the move also saw his leg-break fall apart.

Attending nets at university, Steel lost control. “I’d been injured at the end of the season, just rocked up to the nets and thought, ‘I don’t know where this ball is gonna go’. And lo and behold, it was a double bouncer. That was sort of the first moment and then it progressively got worse.” Struggling with the yips, he overdid it in search of a solution. “It actually got to the point where I practised so much that I had to have a shoulder operation from the last three years of just bowling continuously in the nets. I basically, in 2016, was like, ‘I’m done, I’m never bowling again’.”

That was the same year he was let go by Middlesex, but Durham, against whom he had played as a student, took him in as a top-order batter. In his debut season, in 2017, he became the county’s youngest double-centurion, hitting 224 against Leicestershire, with his bowling kept alive under the captaincy of Paul Collingwood. “He called me the golden arm and always would just back me to take a wicket. That was huge for me to get back into bowling at that stage and to enjoy it again. I’ve got a lot to thank him for.” Steel’s identity remained a batter who bowled some handy spin, his aspirations of being an all-rounder limited to white-ball cricket: “I didn’t see myself so much as a red-ball bowler.”

New management came in at Durham, the runs fell away, and game time had to be found elsewhere after barren seasons in 2019 and 2020. “They said, ‘You’re not going to play or start next season’. And I said, ‘Well, what about my bowling?’ They were like, ‘We don’t see you bowling in professional cricket’.” Steel disagreed. “I knew my bowling was good. I’d worked seriously hard during Covid. And I saw myself very differently to how other people saw me. When it comes to cricket, I’m actually quite timid. So for me, looking back, that was quite bullish.”

A loan move to Hampshire in 2021 was followed by a permanent switch to Surrey later that summer, and Steel has been a fine squad member ever since. He can slide into the middle order when Will Jacks is either injured or off playing in the Indian Premier League; he is around to play the One-Day Cup while others enjoy the Hundred; he is the consummate pro who has won the county’s team player of the year award two years in a row.

The early weeks of this year, however, have seen him emerge into the limelight. A maiden first-class five-fer against Lancashire in which he swept up the tail was followed by nine wickets against Somerset, both matches contested with a familiar ball. “I’ve obviously grown up a little bit in Australia, played a lot of grade cricket bowling with the Kookaburra so I’m quite comfortable using it,” says Steel. “I maybe was a little bit apprehensive going into the first Dukes game to see if the dream would continue.” It did. A flat Canterbury pitch demanded overs from Steel, and he promptly replied with six wickets in the match against Kent.

An Oval seamer awaits after this interview, and Steel is required for only four overs, including a solitary wicket, against Hampshire in a comfortable Surrey win. But he remains the competition’s leading wicket-taker after four rounds, something clicking together for a guy who had previously never taken 10 in a Championship season. The leg-breaks aren’t flashy Shane Warne-esque side-spinners, but there’s energy on his way to the crease, a hint of misdirection through the air and, most crucially, confidence, a requisite for anyone trying to pull off the hardest skill in the game. “I reckon I’ve got one of the best wrong ’uns going,” he drops into conversation, as if he’s had the spider bite and suddenly woken up to his powers.

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Steel has never been selected to play for the country of his birth – “I made myself available at certain times and they haven’t picked me” – and the ambition, he says, is to represent England. “My aim is to play as high a level as I can: Test cricket, ODI cricket, all of it. T20s. Everything.” This tale of reinvention, already quite extraordinary, demands more.

Source: theguardian.com