The sociable stumper – Somerset’s popular wicketkeeper topped 1,000 victims, led the county to third and took part in a notorious prank, says David Foot
Photograph: Dennis Oulds/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images
Somerset never had a better wicketkeeper. Harold Stephenson crouched, without a semblance of thespian movement or entreaty, for his 1,006 dismissals for his county. There was an exceptional record of 312 stumpings to go with 694 catches – plus many more in various other first-class matches. Few could keep comfortably to little Johnny Lawrence, as he tossed up into the clouds, interspersing his sly googlies with that varying, personalised range of trickery. But ‘Steve’ had no trouble; no one could ever remember his reflexes letting him down. And he knew the way to stand up for the more pacy seamers.
He came down from County Durham, where he had been a sheet-metal worker and league cricketer, staying from 1948-64. Although barely coached in the keeper’s arcane arts he rapidly proved himself a natural technician and as tidy as anyone in the country. Fellow stumpers acknowledged his worth but Godfrey Evans and other richly talented contemporaries blocked the Test recognition that he deserved, however fleetingly.
Stephenson was Somerset’s second professional captain, following Maurice Tremlett, and took charge for five years, during which he guided his county to third position in the table in 1963 – their joint best ever finish until 2001. His tactical style was pragmatically north country, like the accent, but socially he was a favourite. He liked his fellow pros, just as he liked a shared drink with them. His reaction was hardly surprising when, in his last summer as captain, the county chairman Bunty Longrigg, who came from another strand of society, approached him during the Bath festival. “It’s time to bring in an amateur or two – who are you going to leave out?”
Such an insensitive question caused Steve to bristle. His response was almost immediate. “If that’s what you’ve got in mind, then you can take over as captain.” They hardly exchanged another word. Stephenson, who had been suffering with back problems, knew that Somerset were discreetly looking for a successor. At the club’s annual dinner, when a tribute was expected to be paid to Steve’s fine record and length of service, the chairman snubbed him by saying nothing.
His batting should not be discounted. For a smallish man, he hurtled memorably, or recklessly, in pursuits of singles. His judgement at times comically let him down. Five times he scored 1,000 runs in a season and the crowds always took to him.
Steve had to be satisfied with a Commonwealth tour to India and Ceylon in 1950-51 and another with an international XI to India, Pakistan and Rhodesia in 1961-62. On the latter, in Salisbury, he was with Sonny Ramadhin who went off to get his hair cut. He soon returned, in tears. “The barber had refused to cut his hair because of his colour. It made me very upset.” Another vivid tour memory was of the ill-conceived kidnapping of Idris Begh, the self-important Pakistan umpire who had water poured over him. The diplomatic row was thunderous and almost led to the tour being called off. Steve was one of those involved in the prank; so were Brian Close, Donald Carr and Roy Swetman.
Stephenson died in a nursing home. His wife, Connie, had predeceased him. He leaves four grown-up children.
Harold William Stephenson was born on July 18, 1920 and died on April 23, 2008, aged 87.