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Obituary: Denis Compton

Although I used to watch Denis Compton play cricket bewitchingly at Lord's in the early Fifties, I didn't meet him until 40 years later when I was commissioned to write his biography, writes Tim Heald. I can see him now, at the Savoy after lunch with the Saints and Sinners, heaving himself off the sofa (that game knee, those tiresome hips), holding out a hand and saying almost bashfully, "Hello. Denis Compton." This from possibly the most famous Englishman of his generation.

We spent a lot of time together over the next months, often over lunch. He was wonderful company, indefatigable, modest and touchingly brave. That kneecap of his which so blighted his career is preserved in a biscuit tin at Lord's, like a saint's relic - which in a sense it is - though Denis blanched at the mere mention of so gruesome a souvenir. Shortly after one of his gritty comeback innings a specialist was shown an X-ray of the Compton knee. "That man," he said, "will never walk again."

Wherever I went with him he was recognised to the point of adulation. I remember walking out of lunch at the Travellers' Club and a whole centre table of ex-ambassadors rising as a man as a mark of respect. Denis, though gratified, was incredulous. And I recall the naughty-boy grin when, at Brian Johnston's wake, he was asked if he'd like a drink ad replied, "It's all right, old boy. The Prime Minister's getting me one." Cue for John Major with a glass of red wine. Denis loved to give pleasure but I am not sure he ever understood quite how much he gave.

David Sheppard, best of all cricketer clerics, told me that as a schoolboy in Denis's miraculous summer of 1947 he batted and batted in the nets, hoping that, by constant practice, he might one day bat like Hutton, but knowing that, no matter what, "I could never bat like Compton".

At the end of every conversation Denis always signed off in exactly the same cheery way. "All right old boy? God bless!" It was typical of the man that he sounded as if he meant it.

The 1997 Championship season began yesterday with a minute's silence before the start of play on every first class ground, a token of the love and affection all cricket held for Compton, writes Derek Hodgson. His death, days before the arrival of the latest Australian team, is especially poignant for it was his performances against Australia, particularly against Bradman's 1948 Invincibles, that endeared him so much to an English audience still suffering a wartime hangover.

Four years ago, during the Texaco match against Australia at Lord's, the band of the Coldstream Guards on the field at the interval to play "Happy Birthday": the crowd rose and Denis, celebrating his 75th birthday on the balcony, raised his glass and beamed in reply - a rare distinction.

I once interviewed him about his wonderful 1947 summer. Every day, I suggested, it seemed to followers that there would be a Compton century - was it as easy as shelling peas?

The easy affability vanished. He came as near to bridling as perhaps was possible in such a good-natured man: "It may have seemed like that, reading the score cards. But it still had to be done: every 10 runs, every 25, every 50, and onwards. I did get very tired at times."

Denis Charles Scott Compton, cricketer: born Hendon, Middlesex 23 May 1918; Editor, Denis Compton's Annual 1950-57; cricket correspondent, Sunday Express 1950-97; cricket commentator, BBC Television 1958-97; CBE 1958; author of Playing for England 1948, Testing Time for England 1948, In Sun and Shadow 1952, End of an Innings 1958, Denis Compton's Test Diary 1964, Cricket and All That 1978; married 1941 (one son; marriage dissolved 1950), 1951 Valerie Platt (two sons; marriage dissolved 1968), 1975 Christine Tobias (two daughters); died Windsor, Berkshire 23 April 1997.