Denis Compton, born May 23, 1918, was one of the greatest batsmen of England whose career might have traced even higher paths if he had not been hampered by a near-crippling knee injury. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the knight in shining armour of English cricket who brightened up the drab post-War days of the country with his breath-taking batting.
It was a land of pessimism and frugality. The War was won, but the embers smouldered as constant reminder of years of madness and mayhem. The order of the day was pale, parsimonious existence; the mood morose and melancholy; the conquering nation remained pessimistic and joyless. In 1946, the year of his death, John Maynard Keynes reminded his countrymen, “We are a poor nation and must learn to live accordingly.”
And against this bleak backdrop dazzled Denis Compton — dashing, debonair, handsome. His flashing blade kindled sparks of life into a sombre nation.
The War had intervened when he had been a youth with promise of untold greatness, barely 21 years of age. The best part of his twenties, the prime of a batsman blessed with his majestic daring, quickness of hands, eyes and feet, were given up to serve the British Lion.
Now, as the nation trudged out of the desolate years, their souls still blackened by the singeing fires of atrocities, this gallant knight of English batsmanship traced the zenith of his lofty career. Crowds flocked to the grounds, dull of eyes, shabby of attire, solemn of bearing, ears still ringing from gunfire; and were transformed into a clapping, cheering, joyous multitude revelling in the batting of this one man.
In the four summers that followed in England, and two tours to Australia in 1946-47 and South Africa in 1948-49, Compton raked in 14,641 runs with 60 centuries in all First-Class matches for Middlesex and England, runs gathered through inspiration of pure genius, a heady mix of excellence and improvisation. In the 28 Tests that took place during that period, he piled up 2664 runs at 61.95 with 11 hundreds.
His blade glinted as runs flowed, and shredded the bowling with rapier like flashes. Often he performed the magic with a willow borrowed from a teammate. Compton was notorious for leaving his equipment behind. In the 1955 Test against South Africa, he arrived at Old Trafford without his kit, borrowed an antique piece from the museum and scored 158 and 71.
It did not seem he was in a hurry to make up for the lost years because of the War. Even during the War, this remarkable man had managed to live life to the brimful, with cricket and adventure, mixed for good measure with football. During the years of conflict, he had managed to earn 14 England caps in football and had also turned out in 17 First-Class games in India. At the same time, as a Sergeant-Major he had managed to get his men fit to win against the Japanese.
No, while he indeed played to win as is the way of any professional, it seemed much more likely that he was eager to bring happiness and light into the drab lives of the post-War populace. “The strain of long years of anxiety and affliction passed from all heads and shoulders at the sight of Compton in full sail, sending the ball here, there, and everywhere, each stroke a flick of delight, a propulsion of happy, sane, healthy life. There were no rations in an innings by Compton,” wrote Neville Cardus. And it was no flight of Cardusian fancy.
The Hair and the Knee
EW Swanton, much more rooted to the ground in his analysis, remarked of a young Compton, “What marked his batting from the first was a sense of enjoyment in it all, of risks taken and bowlers teased, that at once communicated itself to the crowd. Yet, while it was the liberties he sometimes took which were written and talked about, when the need arose his defence could be as orthodox as anyone’s.”
On the cricket ground, his attention was often divided between the action at hand and the horse he had backed in the nearby course. The passion for the courses was shared with his great pal — Keith Miller. And when he could take time off cricket, he turned out for Arsenal — and was considered good enough to get back his position as a winger after the War.
And then, even as the Brylcreem sleeked hair of the country’s heartthrob adorned thousands of billboards, another part of his body became the focal topic of national discussion.
In the spring of 1950, Compton played in the Cup final against Liverpool with his knee heavily bandaged. In the first half, he hobbled around, his performance shoddy. Before the second, a mammoth slug of whiskey was poured down his throat by Alex James. Compton played beautifully. As a winger his talent and opportunism competed with his batting skills. Arsenal won and Compton was a hero. And he would never walk without pain again.
The knee had been a bother for a long, long time, first damaged in a collision with Charlton goalkeeper Sid Hobbins in 1938. Now, it fell to bits.
For the next few years, the man who brought joy to thousands played through pain. Movement was limited, the freedom of batting expression constrained. Operation followed operation till his knee-cap was removed. It now rests in a tin in the museum of Lord’s — according to Compton “a revolting thing —looks as if rats have been nipping at it. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to look at it.”
People still look at it with awe. Because Compton returned to bat for England even after he no longer had it. Considering the years of War and the problems with the knee, it is remarkable that Compton ended with 5807 runs in 78 Tests at 50.07 with 17 hundreds.
The Knight at the wicket
Compton stood at the crease a flamboyant figure — the risk-taker, yet not reckless. His bearing was loose-limbed, accentuated by the broadness of the shoulders. His deportment was eloquent in style, and every movement was lavishly touched by grace.
He had all the strokes in the book and many beyond it. He cut with a flash, lofted with élan, and drove on both sides of the wicket — but curiously avoided the straight drive. His speciality was perhaps the sweep, of which there were plenty of variations, each effective and many risky. Balls from the middle stump would be dispatched with a cross bat with the sureness of a forward defensive push. Against fastest bowlers, he was audacious, relishing a challenge. He often stood outside the crease, making them bowl the length he desired, daring them to pitch short and happily hooking bumpers. His many duels with Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall have gone down as tales of legend. And finally, he was the master of improvisation. Having slipped and fallen flat in the middle of a stroke, he once essayed a one-handed late cut to the boundary at the last moment.
The one shortcoming in the art of his batting has also gone down as folklore. Compton was atrocious when it came to running between the wickets. Trevor Bailey recounted ‘a call for a run from Compton should be treated as no more than a basis for negotiation.’ This same quote has also been attributed to Bill Edrich, his great friend and partner at the batting crease for Middlesex and England. Yet, his running has seemed to have got increasingly worse after his retirement and death with each retelling. His brother Leslie Compton played over 250 matches for Arsenal and two for England as a centre half, and 274 games for Middlesex as a wicketkeeper. The two had trained in both the sports together. In Leslie’s benefit match in 1955, our hero managed to run him out before he had faced a ball.
Compton also bowled left-arm spinners, mostly back-of-the-hand Chinaman. He considered it a parlour trick in his arsenal, but did take five wickets in an innings in Capetown during the 1948-49 tour. And in that famous Leeds Test of 1948, he might have won the match for England had Arthur Morris and Don Bradman both not been missed off his bowling. He captured 622 wickets in all, 25 of them in Tests.
As a fielder he was good when he was not thinking about horses. As his one-time captain JJ Warr observed — Compton took 415 catches in the course of his career ‘when he was looking’.
The Bus to Lord’s
Born in Hendon, Compton remembered his childhood as “both poorish and happy.” Brother Leslie and he played against the lamp-posts in Alexandra Road and soon made both made their marks in school sports.
Compton always knew that Bus 13 went to Lord’s. By the time he was 12, he was batting on the hallowed turf, making 88 for North London Schools against South London Schools. Two years later he made 114 for the Elementary Schools at that very ground. The innings was watched attentively by Sir Pelham Warner.
Down the years, the maverick Compton did not quite enjoy the best of relationships with Warner, the keeper of cricket’s traditions. However, years later, the Compton Stand at Lord’s stares across the ground at the Warner Stand.
Compton played for Middlesex for the first time in 1936 as a 18-year-old. It was the Whitsun match against Sussex, and scored 14 batting at number eleven. He was involved in an important last-wicket partnership with Gubby Allen that gave Middlesex first-innings points before umpire Bill Bestwick gave Compton lbw because he was desperate for a pee.
Soon, he was batting with confidence against Harold Larwood. There is the charming story of young Compton driving a fast bowler for two consecutive fours. At the other end was skipper Walter Robbins. “You know what to look out for now, don’t you?” Robbins asked. Compton didn’t. Robbins warned him of a bouncer. Compton replied, “If he does (bounce), I shall hook him.” The next ball disappeared into the Mound Stand.
By the end of the season, Warner called him the best young batsman since Walter Hammond was a boy. However, even as he grew older and older, till the day he retired just shy of 40, Compton’s style of run-making did not undergo much modification. It was only the knee that hampered it.
Once the summer was over, Compton made his debut for Arsenal and scored the opening goal as a left winger. Football fans celebrated the new star as well. And as Wisden noted, Compton’s progress in both the games was checked only by the Germans.
Before that however, he had already played eight Tests of sublime promise and two hundreds. He was 19 when he made his debut against New Zealand at The Oval and made 65, before being run out from a ball deflected to the stumps by the bowler. In spite of the fables about his poor running, Compton was run out on only two more occasions in 131 Test innings.
The next summer saw England unleash two phenomenal young batsmen at the Australians at Trent Bridge. Both Len Hutton and Denis Compton got hundreds, and would form a study in exceptional contrast and brilliance across the next two decades. Two weeks after the Nottingham ton, Compton showed the world that he was not all style — there was a solid core of substance around which the excellence was crafted. He had just turned 20 and on a pitch drenched by rain, bringing with it all the vagaries of uncovered wickets, he saved England with a mature innings of 76 not out.
The War Years
Compton did not tour South Africa preferring his football season. In distant Durban, the timeless Test finally brought Bill Edrich to the fore. England now had Hutton at the top with Compton and Edrich in the middle, with old Hammond still going strong. A glimpse of possible youthful dominance flitted by when Hutton and Compton added 248 in two hours and 20 minutes at Lord’s against the West Indies. But then Hitler invaded Poland.
Compton spent his first few War years as a special constable and then a member of the Royal Artillery. He managed to play football and was talked about as the best left winger of England. Perhaps Ian Botham is the only one to have come remotely close to Compton’s dual brilliance in cricket and football.
In 1944 he was posted in India and cemented a life-long friendship with Keith Miller. While there, he scored a century for East Zone against the Australian Services — interrupted by rioters when he was in the nineties. It gave rise to the famed line, “Mr. Compton, you very good player, but the game must stop”. Then there was that remarkable match of the War era, when Compton scored 249 for Holkar against Bombay in the extraordinary Ranji Trophy final of 1944-45. With 867 to win, and egged on by the promise of a reward of Rs 100 for ever run after his century, Compton batted on and on and on. When the last wicket fell at 492, Compton was still there on 249 not out. By then, the nobleman who had promised the reward had vanished, leaving a note that he had been called to Calcutta on urgent business.
Days in the Sun
When cricket was resumed after the War, Compton overcame a few early hiccups and proceeded to dazzle the world. Everything he touched turned to gold. He even brought his football skills into the Test matches, running Vijay Merchant at The Oval with a neat piece of footwork from the mid-on.
England did not fare well, walloped in Australia in 1946-47 and at home during Bradman’s last tour of 1948. Miller and Lindwall, with Bill Johnston and Ernie Toshack, terrorised the English batting while Bradman, Arthur Morris, Neil Harvey, Lindsay Hassett and Miller again piled on the runs. Compton, meanwhile, enjoyed the peak of his career. Two hundreds were struck at Adelaide, a feat of defiance during the dismal England tour.
As many as 3816 runs were amassed in 1947, his greatest year, when Compton and Edrich reached the stature of mythological Middlesex men in the middle. A whopping 753 of Compton’s runs came against South Africa in the five Tests, with four hundreds and an average of 94. Not once during the season did he sacrifice his adventurous approach for circumspection. The runs came in spite of all the risks that made the batting the exalted thrill for the delighted spectators.
He ended the season with 246 for Middlesex against The Rest at The Oval, but trouble was slowly getting conspicuous. That innings was played with his knee securely strapped.
When the Invincibles toured, Compton stood alone, in a brittle line up, stroking his way to 184 in a lost cause at Nottingham before falling on the wicket. And at Manchester, he played what was perhaps the greatest ever innings of his career.
After being struck on the arm off a Lindwall bumper, Compton attempted a big hit when the bowler bounced again. The ball flew off the edge of his bat and struck him on his forehead. Compton staggered and had to retired at 33, with several stitches administered over his eyebrow. He resumed at 119 for five and batted with immense composure. Lindwall tested him with extreme pace, and Compton stood there for five hours and twenty minutes, scoring 145.
Yet, these were innings played on a dodgy knee. He got plenty of runs when he toured South Africa, including a Test hundred and an astounding 300 in three hours against North-Eastern Transvaal. But, it was apparent that his movements were not what they used to be.
The years of pain
After his Cup final of 1950, he failed dismally in the Tests in Australia. The knee was painful and English batting tottered as it failed to bear the brunt of Compton’s footwork.
There were yet moments of greatness after the sequence of surgeries and operations got underway. Time and again, the world glimpsed the magical batting that had made him the toast of the nation. He scored a career-best 278 against Pakistan at Trent Bridge in 1954, an innings that brought all the memories of the Compton of 1947 rushing back in throes of nostalgia. A few more hundreds followed, in West Indies, and when South Africa visited England.
A heartening 492 runs were scored in the 1955 Tests against South Africa. That November the troublesome kneecap was finally removed. WE Tucker, the famous orthopaedic surgeon, kept it as a souvenir for a while, before donating it to MCC as part of the Lord’s archive. Tim Heald, Compton’s biographer, later wrote that it was like a medium-sized mushroom, honey-coloured and honey-combed.
And Compton came back without the knee cap, to score 94 against Australia at The Oval, helping England retain the Ashes. It was almost a painful fairy-tale story with a tear streaked happy ending. It was the closest he ever came to an Ashes century since the halcyon days of 1948.
He did tour South Africa in 1956-57, but did not do much and retired as a professional cricketer at the end of the 1957 season. However, he went on batting as a gay amateur and scored his 123rd and final First-Class hundred for the Cavaliers in Jamaica in 1964.
Till the summer of 1949, he had 3132 runs in 36 Tests at 60.23 with 13 hundreds — a genuine great at the crease. After the knee problems, his returns were sedate, 2675 runs in 42 Tests at 41.79 with just four centuries. The greatness was intact, but compromised by his knee. His final figures are perhaps not as exalted as they should have been if his career had not tripped on that old football injury. But the numbers do make for some memorable reading.
The man within
Compton moved on to the commentary box for BBC, and wrote on cricket for Sunday Express. His predictions were often as risky as his debonair strokeplay. Unfortunately he was not there at the wicket to bat for the players he wrote about, and his optimistic forecasts often failed to come true.
He remained immensely popular among old cronies, Edrich and Miller the chief among them. There was some controversy when Compton spoke for South Africa during the apartheid isolation, but it stemmed from his sympathy for the friends he had made during his tours to the country.
His whimsical forgetfulness, which had led to a lot of hilarity in his playing days, continued till his death. Peter Parfitt, a speaker at the celebration in London for Compton’s 70th birthday, remembers the legend being called to the telephone during the dinner. A voice rang out from the other end: “Denis it’s me, your mother. You’re not 70, you’re only 69.”
During his playing days, Compton had been the idol of spectators everywhere. The English had seldom seen a batsman of his aura since the Golden Age. His popularity had reigned supreme in Australia, South Africa, India and the West Indies long after his retirement. The team management had often been less than impressed by his legendary escapades with Keith Miller. Once they had been charmed to find Compton up and dressed early in the morning on the day of a Test match only to discover that he had not been to bed at all. The Compton-Miller medal is now awarded to the Player of the Ashes Series.
Beaming from the billboards, Compton was a trend setter ahead of his times. The story is told of his approaching journalist Reg Hayter during the tour of South Africa in 1948-49, with a suitcase full of unopened letters. Hayter went through them and found one from the News of the World offering £2,000 a year for a weekly column. In the same suitcase was another piece of communication, sent a few months down the line, annulling the offer because there had been no response. Perplexed, Hayter introduced Compton to Bagenal Harvey, who became Britain’s first sportsman’s agent and started representing the batsman. It was Harvey who sealed the famous contract with Brylcreem.
Appointed CBE in 1958, Compton was the president of Middlesex County Cricket Club for seven years before passing away in 1997. He continues to be remembered as the indomitable knight of English batting who, according to Cardus, often combined the ‘the Ironside breastplate as well as the Cavalier plume.’
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)